Somali mothers mourn their lost children

Aid workers are calling it Africa’s biggest humanitarian crisis, but no one has to tell Fatima Usman how rapidly things have gone bad in Somalia.

The slender 23-year-old’s son Mohamed died of hunger.

So did her daughter Isha.

Cholera claimed Mowlid.

“I am praying to God that he will not take this baby yet,” she says, gently cradling the wizened face and prominent ribs of Muhiadeen, her four-month-old son, who is receiving emergency treatment at a clinic run by Médecins Sans Frontières. “But I do not have enough milk to give him.”

In the face of an increasingly brutal insurgency, she left her three toddlers buried in the violence-wracked capital of Mogadishu, and fled 30km east with her surviving children to Afgoye, once a sleepy fruit-growing town of 40 000 people. Two hundred thousand people have sought refuge here since June.
Half of them have arrived in the past three weeks.

Fighting between Islamic insurgents and the government and its Ethiopian allies has dramatically increased in Mogadishu the last three weeks, following the death and public mutilation of several Ethiopian soldiers by insurgents.

In all, one million Somalis have been displaced by the violence, many to Afgoye, the United Nations refugee agency said on Tuesday.

In Afgoye, fruit groves have been stripped of their branches as thousands of makeshift huts mushroomed overnight. Lucky families received plastic sheeting from an aid agency to use as a roof against the cold autumn rains. The rest use sodden lengths of fabric strung over twigs, huddling together for warmth in the mud. More are arriving everyday.

Most have stories like Hawo Abdi Baro, who arrived on Sunday pushing her three youngest children in a handcart. After a shell exploded on her house in Mogadishu while the family was sleeping last Friday, the 40-year-old only had time to scoop up her youngest three and run out into the street. In the panic, she lost sight of her oldest four sons, screaming their names above the explosions as she huddled in a doorway.

“I don’t know where they are. I don’t know if they are alive or dead. Please help me find them,” she cried at a departing journalist. “Their names are Abdi, Abdinasir, Isse and Mohamed.”

Like most, the family arrived with no food, no clothes and no shelter.

The harvest here is the worst it has been for 13 years. Acute malnutrition rates are nearing 20% among children under five, although the latest figures, released on Tuesday, show a slight improvement. That’s well above Darfur, which hovers a few points below the emergency threshold of 15%. Basic food staples have tripled in price.

“If it happened in Darfur, it would be a major outcry. Since it’s Somalia, nobody cares,” said Eric LaRoche, head of the United Nations aid efforts in Somalia.

The world may simply be tired of responding to trouble in Somalia, which has been in crisis since clan-based warlords toppled dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 and then turned on each other.

More than a decade ago, a massive UN relief operation was launched for thousands of civilians left starving because of fighting. In 1993, Somali clan militiamen shot down two Black Hawk helicopters and killed 18 US servicemen in fighting portrayed in the book and movie Black Hawk Down.

After that, former US president Bill Clinton ordered the withdrawal of US troops. The UN peacekeeping operation in Somalia was scaled back and eventually abandoned in 1995. LaRoche says the situation is now worse than when US troops first intervened. “We have never had as many people displaced ... and needing humanitarian aid,” he said.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon opposes deploying UN peacekeeping troops to Somalia again, instead suggesting a robust multinational force or a coalition of volunteer nations to help restore security. The UN authorised the African Union to send an 8 000-strong peacekeeping force to Somalia in February to calm the country, but only 1 800 troops from Uganda are on the ground.

And while some may say Somalia is being ignored in favour of Sudan’s Darfur, where movie stars jet in to call for peace and feed the hungry, international pledges to send peacekeepers for Darfur are foundering.

For weeks, the EU has struggled to muster the dozen or so helicopters needed for a planned European force to protect Darfur refugees and others in Chad and Central African Republic. In addition, problems have hit a planned United Nations-African Union force of 26 000 for Darfur itself.

The UN-AU force is supposed to take control of Darfur by the end of the year, but a top UN official said last week it would not be ready unless Sudan quickly accepted units from outside Africa, and contributing countries offered helicopters and other critical equipment.

Aid agencies have had trouble raising funds for Darfur as well as Somalia, and aid workers in both places have been targeted by fighters.

“Somalia has been a forgotten emergency for so many years,” LaRoche said. Fewer “people are affected than in Darfur, but the crisis is more severe.”

In Somalia, bands of predatory militias roam the country, kidnapping and killing aid workers and throwing up makeshift roadblocks. The price for a truck loaded with food relief to pass has shot up from $40 to $400 since the fighting intensified. Afgoye is full of lean men lounging under trees with automatic weapons, eyeing the new arrivals and estimating their worth.

Some work for the unpopular transitional government, widely perceived as corrupt, inefficient and ineffective. Its soldiers have not been paid this year, but the international community, and America’s ally Ethiopia, continue to support it as a front line on the war on terror against an Islamic insurgency.

Others may belong to the clan militias.

In the face of such anarchy, some Somali opposition figures are joining the insurgency. Most of the insurgency’s senior figures are Islamic radicals, some on the US State Department’s list of wanted terrorists. They seized power in Mogadishu and parts of southern Somalia last year for about six months, before being driven out by the Ethiopians in December. Now they receive support from Ethiopia’s arch-enemy Eritrea, turning Somalia into a battlefield for a proxy war.

Finding a solution will de difficult. But the decisions the politicians have to make are nothing compared to the ones facing Somali mothers in Afgoye. Baro must weigh whether to leave her youngest children with neighbours while she goes back into a war zone to search for her four eldest. Usman calculates each day how much food she must eat to produce milk for Muhiadeen, each mouthful one less for her other two children.—Sapa-AP

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