Tue, Dec 28, 2004 - Page 9 News List

NGOs square off against famine in Somalia

According to the World Food Program, 800 million people around the globe go to bed hungry every day and somewhere in the world a child dies from starvation every seven seconds. The charity Concern arrived in Somalia in the Horn of Africa 12 years ago -- its aim: to help tackle the famine that accompanied the civil war there

By Chris Elliott  /  THE GUARDIAN , London

ILLUSTRATION MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

Aragged group of men, women and children emerge from their aqals, the round temporary shelters made from a few bent branches, planted in the midst of scrub and acacia trees in sub-Saharan plains.

The Calvin Klein and Nike labels on the men's fake designer T-shirts mock their desperate circumstances. Only a few children have the energy to come forward and meet the visitors from the charity Concern.

This is Barwaqo village which houses around 250 families displaced by floods that have pushed the Shabelle river, south west of Mogadishu in Somalia, some 12km beyond its banks, engulfing hundreds of homes and tens of thousands of hectares.

The immediate cause is almost twice the seasonal fall of rain. However, these families are also the victims of a civil war that began in 1991, with the overthrow of the dictator Siad Barre -- a civil war of which the world has largely grown tired and forgotten.

It has been on hold for the last two years while the provisional federal government in Nairobi consider peace talks involving all the feuding clans.

This has led to an uneasy peace between the warlords who have carved up the country. But that doesn't help the people of Barwaqo.

In the absence of any government or infrastructure they look to Concern for aid through the provision of emergency kits, which includes items such as plastic sheeting to cover their shelters and cooking pots.

"The [Barre] government had a department which removed the silt from the river and ensured it had a capacity to carry the water," said Mohamed Mahamud Rirash, an agronomist working with Concern.

"Another problem is that farmers themselves sometimes deliberately cut the riverbank to get water for themselves and finally maybe farmers pay some gatekeepers, who control levels, to keep the gates shut to ensure they can have some water for their land. All this leaves things in a state that, when the really heavy rains come, they are caught out."

It is hard to overstate the devastation caused by the war: Famine in 1992, as well as the war, killed around 600,000 of Somalia's 9.8 million population. No one really knows exactly. Eighty percent of educated Somalis emigrated after the clan-based militias destroyed, dismantled or looted anything of value, removing every aspect of modern civilization, right down to the copper wiring beneath streets used for telephones.

For most of those years Concern stayed in Somalia. At first it was an emergency feeding program. Individual nurses ran feeding stations for 1,200 each. The conditions were extremely dangerous. A mother and her child were killed by a single stray bullet as she breastfed at one of the stations.

Concern also fell victim to the violence. In 1993 Valerie Place, a Dublin nurse, was shot through the heart in an ambush on the road to Baidoa. She was 23. In the mid-1990s, as the security situation grew gradually worse, Concern sought to help return those displaced by the war. But in 1995 when the UN military mission, Unsom, retreated leaving many dead, Concern was forced to suspend its activities. It returned to help in 1997 following the devastating El Nino floods when tens of thousands were displaced from their homes.

Gradually, the main focus of Concern's work has changed from emergency aid to development, providing an infrastructure of support in the absence of government.

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