issue 238 - December 1992
NEIL COOPER / PANOS
Earlier this year Tony Vaux witnessed the pain and chaos
of war-torn Somalia. Here is his report for Oxfam UK on a
devastating famine - and a brave struggle to overcome it.
In December 1990, with the collapse of Siad Barre's dictatorship in the wind, Oxfam closed its main office in Somalia. Within three weeks practically all expatriates had left Mogadishu in a massive evacuation. The victorious United Somali Congress (USC) almost immediately split apart after taking the capital. Its leader, Ali Mahdi, declared himself President and took over the formal government structures. But General Aidid, a powerful leader in the attack on Barre, rejected Mabdi and launched a new war. This soon degenerated into an internecine feud between two subgroups of the Hawiye clan. Fighting swept backwards and forwards over Mogadishu reducing the city's population of about one-and-a-quarter million by half and destroying all infrastructure not secured by powerful interests.
This chaos allowed Siad Barre to reassemble his forces and wage war over territories adjacent to his base in the far south. By early 1992 he had come within a few miles of Mogadishu. Then he sustained a crushing defeat at the hands of General Aidid.
Throughout this period there was appalling chaos in Mogadishu with armed bands endlessly roving the streets in search of loot and shells dropping indiscriminately across the battle-lines. But despite the well-publicized gangsterism in Mogadishu, the city was a relative safe haven compared with Barre's ravages of the countryside.
There villagers told us how they had been forced to dig out their food stocks under threat of death and even their smallest possessions had been systematically looted. Practically all their animals had been taken and killed for meat.
Already impoverished from the year before, whole villages were left in the dry season with no food at all. Those which had any resources protected them with guns. Throughout the war gunmen have protected the big plantations and the luxury houses of the capital. Villagers in Qorioli starved to death next to huge banana plantations. If they even gathered grass to eat they were likely to have their hands tied together and a bullet put through the palms. It was a vicious rich-man's war totally dominated by the power of guns and those who could afford to control them.
Word spread of the feeding centres and people were drawn to the capital like a magnet. Every bombed-out site or abandoned government building became a home for the destitute. The International Commission of the Red Cross (ICRC) organized kitchens to feed them, and Save the Children Fund set up supplementary and therapeutic feeding, as well as Mother and Child Health Centres. Today over half the city's population are being fed in this way, according to UNICEF. But many people still live in unstable, transitory settlements which are difficult to help effectively.
When Siad Barre's soldiers were finally driven from Somalia in May 1992, the awful truth was revealed. Hundreds of thousands had perished and whole villages were populated mostly by the dying. This outrage compares with the deliberate starvation of the Dinkas in 1988 or the Tigrayans in 1984. The Horn is no stranger to famine deliberately created by military power.
The ICRC is the agency best equipped to operate in a situation of open warfare. It has the international mandate to negotiate the welfare of civilians in times of war. And each ICRC vehicle is mounted with a heavy machine-gun and a bunch of armed men - a hallmark of the 'flexibility' and 'compromise' that enables the organization to operate in Somalia.
Current operations for bringing in food include five major land-routes from Kenya, two major ports (Mogadishu, Kismayo) and a score of landing points along the coast. The port of Mogadishu is a battleground from which food emerges only after the gunmen have extorted their share - either as payment for services or as loot. ICRC staff have been killed and their compounds attacked. Whole convoys are regularly looted, sometimes by their own guards.
While self-seeking armed men have shown the worst of human nature, the many Red Crescent volunteers which support ICRC have shown the very best. The current relief operation is, in reality, run entirely by Somalis. Expatriates may stick out in the streets of Mogadishu or in the feeding centres, but the ability of voluntary organizations to even operate can be credited to their experienced Somali staff.
The ever-present risk of looting has forced the ICRC to devise a system of dropping off small quantities of food to their volunteers, who immediately cook it into a porridge ration available for anyone who comes. Gunmen are far too proud to queue in soup kitchens and so the food generally reaches those who need it. Even former professional staff and senior government workers go to these kitchens, for until recently there was little to buy in the market. I think it is really one of the most remarkable feeding operations in history.
An American airlift is planned to flood Somalia with food. And the hope is that if food is freely available the bandits will stop looting it. But their greed is by now legendary. And there is also fear that such action might depress agriculture because people will have little incentive to produce for themselves.
Generally though, the food situation in Mogadishu is gradually improving. The priority must be to get food out to the interior famine areas to keep people in their own homes and begin a recovery programme.
It is impossible to overstate the extent of human misery and suffering in Somalia. People die in front of you and in every centre there are many who will be dead by the end of the week. Basic morality demands that Oxfam respond to the best of its ability - but the most difficult question of all is how to weigh up such lifesaving work against the lives and safety of our staff.
NANA REIMERS / STILL PICTURES
The complete breakdown of government control means no property is safe unless protected by a gun, backed up by alliances to bring in bigger guns if required. Individual gunmen loot from everyone, even women and children. And larger armed bands will loot a whole convoy. Despite their lifesaving work the agencies are in the same boat as everyone else. The UNICEF compound was recently surrounded by 'technicals' (pick-up trucks fitted with heavy weapons) and the the agency was warned that unless it employed more armed men they were at risk. On the same day staff from Concern were besieged in their compound by their own guards demanding more pay.
A saving grace is that an expatriate life has no intrinsic value to these armed men. There is no issue here of hostage-taking (as in Afghanistan), reprisals (Mozambique) or the desire to show power over territory (Ethiopia). The danger expatriates face arises mainly from being in an area of uncontrolled looting. Presumably no expatriate would resist handing over relief goods or personal belongings at gunpoint. These looters will never be 'caught', so they have no interest in killing witnesses.
All agency personnel travel (or even walk) with armed guards at all times. Armed escorts come with the vehicles and are there to guard the vehicles, not the expatriates' lives. Shooting is about property not people, so if people get out of the way they should be safe.
The exception is when expatriates are perceived to maltreat staff; the UNICEF house manager was nearly killed when he tried to fire some employees. And staff must be recruited with care.
Agency workers operate largely because of effective radio communication systems. All expatriates, and many Somalis, carry walkie-talkies which are constantly open to report if they need help. Any Oxfam operation will require expensive equipment of this kind, notably a satellite phone/fax link to the UK, mobile radios in the cars and walkie-talkies for Mogadishu.
Dealing with the transport of food is still the most dangerous activity of all and is best left to the UN, the US and ICRC. As security slowly improves the ICRC is beginning to distribute dry rations. We visited a village that received some bags a few weeks ago, but as soon as ICRC left the whole lot was looted. A second delivery was arranged. The villagers hired 15 guards, but on the day of distribution the gunmen demanded more 'protection' and a share of the benefits to go to their patrons. In the end half the food went to the gunmen and the villagers continued to starve.
I conclude that although dry rations are preferable because they allow people to get on with their normal lives, the switch will have to be slow. Oxfam should continue its policy of backing the ICRC in this area.
We have also launched a highly-acclaimed agricultural rehabilitation programme to be concentrated in the coastal areas around Merca (about 150 kilometres south of Mogadishu) and Kismayo (400 kilometres). Peter Crichton devised an imaginative scheme to work with UNICEF on rapid seed multiplication so that farmers would get good local seed as soon as possible for the main planting in March 1993. The first phase is to buy seeds from merchants and distribute them to a target 16,000 farmers by late September.
In my view we should also begin to address the problem of clothes (drawing on our experience of the comparable situation in Mozambique). In a village meeting near Qorioli we heard that many people, especially women, were too ashamed to come out of their houses for lack of clothes. This may even prevent them from doing work outside the house and can only undermine the rehabilitation programme. Reeling under the shock of starvation, loss of relatives, terror of gunmen, it is no trivial matter to feel too ashamed even to face the world. The villagers are close to despair. Clothes may help to overcome some of their suffering.
Also the hundreds of kitchens and feeding centres have an endless demand for water supplies. In Mogadishu donkey-carts or tankers delivering water to locally-made tanks have been one solution, but in the interior voluntary agencies like Concern have expressed a need for the support of an Oxfam water team equipped with prefabricated tanks and distribution systems. Our priority, after supporting voluntary agencies, would be to work on general water supplies in the camps for the displaced, and beyond that to support the rehabilitation of village water supplies.
We must brace ourselves for a big and disruptive relief programme. The value of what we have already set up will be increasingly apparent as time passes. None of this would be possible without the courage of Somali relief workers who risk their lives without the security of evacuation plans and walkie-talkies. While the white 'Angels of Mercy' steal the limelight, journalists portray Somalis as either victims or thugs.
The majority of Somali people however have risen far above helplessness and self-interest. Like the mothers who struggle, hungry and harassed between food queues with their children, or sit with emaciated infants in therapeutic centres, eating nothing themselves but watching food keep death from a precious child. It is so sad that this heroism is lost in media reporting that portrays only the horror and shame of the Somali people.
Tony Vaux is Emergencies Co-ordinator with Oxfam-UK.
COUNTRIES OF THE HORN: 1
POPULATION: 7.1 million.
HISTORY: The Somali people, formed out of a combination of African and Arab influences, were mostly farmers in the south and nomadic pastoralists in the north. In the colonial era the northern part of the country became a much-neglected British protectorate called Somaliland and the south fell under the control of the Italians.
There was armed resistance in the late nineteenth century by the religiously inspired Dervish movement. Independence and unification were finally achieved in 1960. At the end of the decade the army seized power with promises of egalitarian development. But General Siad Barre created one of the world's most brutal dictatorships.
ECONOMY: The Somali economy is based on agriculture. Meat and skins from the herds of nomadic pastoralists are exported to the Middle East. Low prices paid to producers, a lavish military budget, ambitious agro-industries and a bloated bureaucracy severely retarded agriculture even before the present civil war. Somalia went from food self-sufficiency in the early 1970s to become one of the most food-dependent countries in Africa by the mid-1980s.
POLITICS: With the military defeat of the Barre government in December 1990 Somalia collapsed into interclan warfare. The northern Issack clan led a movement for independence in the area roughly covered by the former British colony. In the south two factions of the United Somali Congress have been waging a ruthless battle over the capital Mogadishu. In the rural areas different clan-based armed groups (one including Siad Barre and his Darod clan) have been murdering, pillaging and generally terrorizing people in the countryside.
BASIC NEEDS: According to the Red Cross 'the children of central Somalia have the highest rate of malnutrition - 90 per cent malnourished, 60 per cent severely malnourished - in the world. The structure of most major centres has been completely destroyed. In one three-month period in late 1991 heavy fighting in Mogadishu killed or wounded 41,000 people. The situation in many rural areas is even worse.
HUMAN RIGHTS: During the 21-year rule of Siad Barre Somalia had one of the worst records for arbitrary imprisonment, summary execution and torture in all of Africa. Barres record also includes the wholesale massacre of opposing political and clan groups. In 1988-89 his forces killed 50,000 civilians, mostly Issaks in the north. Today the rule of the gun prevails and it is impossible to speak of human rights.
Help us produce more like this
Patreon is a platform that enables us to offer more to our readership. With a new podcast, eBooks, tote bags and magazine subscriptions on offer, as well as early access to video and articles, we’re very excited about our Patreon! If you’re not on board yet then check it out here.