No Relief in Sight in Somalia

In the 3rd Millennium, How Can People Still Be Dying of Hunger?

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By Paul De Maeyer

ROME, AUG. 26, 2011 ( A month after Benedict XVI’s appeal to the international community to assist the Horn of Africa, the humanitarian disaster there continues.

And everything indicates that things will not change soon.

«Let’s not commit the error of thinking that the worst is over,» warned the spokesman of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva, Adrian Edwards. «The situation will not improve at least until January,» confirmed in turn the coordinator of the humanitarian interventions of the International Cooperation Foundation (COOPI) in Somalia, Gemma Sammartin.

The emergency extends also to the north of Somalia, in particular to Puntland, that is, the semi-autonomous region which forms the extreme point of East Africa. «The populations have lost 85% of the livestock because of the drought, and the percentage of acute malnutrition has reached 25% in the refugee camps of Bosaso, and 23.6% in the Karkaar region,» said Daniele Timarco of the Italy branch of Save the Children.

According to data of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), available on its Web site (Aug. 17), at least 12.4 million people affected by the drought in the four countries are in «immediate, urgent need of humanitarian help.» In fact, the estimates speak of 4.8 million people in the east of Ethiopia, 3.7 million in Somalia (of which 2.8 million are in the south of the country), and an additional 3.7 million in the northeast of Kenya and, finally, 165,000 in small Djibouti.

Again according to UNICEF, in Somalia alone 1.85 million children need help and more than 780,000 are malnourished, 640,000 of whom are in the southern areas. Of this last group, 310,000 children — that is, almost half — are suffering from acute malnutrition. In the whole of the Horn of Africa, 600,000 children are in immediate danger of death, as they are affected by serious malnutrition. «It is estimated,» according to the Situation Report of Caritas-Somalia, sent Aug. 20 to the Fides agency, «that every 11 weeks, 10% of the Somali population under the age of 5 dies.»

Meanwhile, the exodus of refugees continues. The data of the UNHCR, which last week launched a new Web page for the emergency in the Horn of Africa, is impressive. Suffice it to think of the situation of Dada, the dusty city in the northeast of Kenya, which at present has the largest complex of refugee camps. According to the UN agency estimates, the camps of Dada shelter close to 440,000 Somali refugees, a figure that surpassed the number of inhabitants of Italian cities such as Bari (320,000). Fleeing from famine, drought and violence in their country, at present more than 140,000 Somalis have arrived this year in Kenya, 70,000 in the months of June and July.

The constant stream of refugee puts an immense strain on the humanitarian organizations. The hygiene and health situation in the over populated camps is often at the limit, with all the consequences, as demonstrated by the appearance of sicknesses such as cholera, measles and whooping cough. In the Dollo Ado, Ethiopia, complex of camps, for example, according to the UNHCR, 166 suspect cases of measles have been recorded and 15 deaths linked to that illness.

To address this umpteenth emergency, the international agencies launched a series of programs of massive vaccination. In fact in the Kobe camp of the Dollo Ado complex, last week there was a first campaign of immunization against measles for all children aged 6 months to 15 years. A second campaign is under way in the Melkadida site, which with its 40,000 refugees is the largest in Ethiopia.

Another challenge for the humanitarian workers is the continual violence. On Friday, Aug. 5, shooting during the distribution of food in Badbado, the largest camp of refugees of the Somali capital, Mogadishu, resulted in 10 victims. According to some witnesses, violence broke out when government soldiers or conscripts close to the weak transition government attempted to steal part of the close to 300 tons of aid from the World Food Program (WFP). Somali Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohammed Ali, visited the place and said he was «profoundly sorry.»

Violence and abuses also affect Somali refugees, who after having walked whole days and nights, succeed in arriving in camps of Kenya or Ethiopia. A new Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, published this month under the title «You Don’t Know Who to Blame. War Crimes in Somalia,» denounces human rights abuses committed even by the AMISON troops (the mission of the African Union in Somalia) and the Kenyan police. There is no lack of news of Somali women raped in Dadaab and surroundings by Kenyan police.

A separate chapter are the combatants of the fundamentalist Islamic movement al-Shabab, who have left Mogadishu, allowing the governmental troops to extend their control over the whole capital, which, according to estimates, shelters close to 475,000 refugees, 100,000 of whom have arrived in recent months. «I wonder if Shabab’s is not a strategic withdrawal to have humanitarian aid amass in Mogadishu, to later return all of a sudden and take part of it, or perhaps their leaders have perceived the very strong international pressure (…) and have decided to leave the scene of the Somali capital temporarily,» Bishop Giorgio Bertin, bishop of Djibouti and apostolic administrator of Mogadishu, told Fides on Aug. 8.

The US NGO International Christian Concern (ICC), which denounces the persecution of Christians worldwide, accuses the conscripts of al-Shabab of deliberately denying Christians who live in the territories controlled by them access to aid or the possibility of fleeing to areas under governmental control, a movement that is part of a strategy to eradicate Christianity from Somalia. «Any Somali suspected of being Christian or the friend of a Christian, receives no humanitarian aid whatsoever,» said the head of an underground church. According to local sources, at least 18 Christians have died of starvation in the cities of Afgoye, Baidawa and Kismayo, after being excluded from humanitarian aid.

Meanwhile, the international Christian community, together with the other humanitarian agencies, keeps up its commitment to the affected populations. Whereas Caritas-Somalia is coordinating the aid from Caritas organizations worldwide, the Irish Catholic organization Trocaire is helping close to 220,000 people in the center-south of Somalia. For their part, the Catholic bishops of Kenya launched an emergency fund a few weeks ago — the Catholic Charity Emergency Fund — and have appealed for donations in favor of this initiative.

On behalf of Benedict XVI, the Pontifical Council Cor Unum sent aid to five dioceses of Kenya and six diocese of Ethiopia, which «are facing the humanitarian emergency with the few means they have at their disposal,» said the secretary of the dicastery, Monsignor Giampietro Dal Toso, in an Aug. 12 interview with Vatican Radio. «The presence of the international community is guaranteed, but I repeat, I think care must always be taken, because at present the financial crisis is what occupies the greater part of information. But in these countries, and in many others of the world, there are people dying of hunger, and this is inadmissible in the third millennium.»

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