Nordland: Somalia's Rent-a-Tree Disaster

How bad is it in Somalia?  Bad enough that people fleeing the capital have been reduced to renting trees for shelter. It's the sort of thing that happens when drug-addled warlords roam the countryside, imposing taxes of 50 percent on aid recipients. And the sort of thing to be expected of a government whose prime minister, Ali Mohamad Gedi, has publicly accused the United Nations agency feeding the country of spreading cholera along with food deliveries.  And that's the internationally recognized government, which enjoys U.S. support, although it is widely unpopular in southern Somalia and the capital, Mogadishu. That's not surprising, since the prime minister is from a clan that's hostile to the clan that dominates the capital, and the president, Abdulahi Yusuf, is from Puntland, in northern Somalia, a breakaway region that is best known as the homeland of Somalia's pirates, who once again are on the prowl, bedeviling aid shipments even further. "Is there actually any hope for the future in Somalia?" said the World Food Program's Somalia country director, Peter Goossens. "I don't know."

Sixteen years after the established government fell in Somalia, the East African nation just lurches from one disaster to another, some man-made, some natural, each one deepening the humanitarian crisis. Last year marked more than six years of a record-breaking drought, followed by renewed fighting as the Islamic Courts Union sought to oust feuding clan warlords, which they did, establishing a semblance of order in the unruly capital and most of the country for the first time in a decade and a half. Then the drought ended—only to be replaced by devastating floods, cutting off much of the population from aid deliveries. And by the end of 2006, warfare resumed, with Ethiopia, encouraged by the United States, invading Somalia to oust the Islamic Courts, which were a little too pro-Al Qaeda for U.S. tastes, and prop up the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), an amalgamation of former warlords with little popular support in Somalia, but recognized internationally.  Faced with Ethiopian tanks and warplanes, the ICU quickly collapsed and for the first time, the TFG took up office in the capital.

This year promises to be no better, and probably still worse. The Courts fought back, particularly in Mogadishu, and the Ethiopians cracked down, killing 2,000 people in the capital (population about 1 million), and sending 365,000 residents fleeing into the countryside; 190,000 of them fled in April alone.  It was the biggest exodus from the city in 16 years of conflict, and many thousands more were displaced within, unable to flee or get to their homes. For the first time, residents in Mogadishu had to turn to aid agencies for food aid—something previously only needed in the countryside.  There it's even worse, with renewed flooding in this year's rainy season; presently World Food Program food supplies are only reaching 40 to 50 percent of people, and a fifth of those who fled the capital are completely without aid, according to WFP Somalia Country Director Peter Goossens.

The TFG and its Ethiopian allies announced the insurgency was quelled two weeks ago, encouraging African Union (AU) countries to send troops to replace the Ethiopians, who are widely unpopular in Somalia even among those who didn't care for Islamist rule.  So far only Uganda has sent a vanguard of 1,500 troops, far less than the 30,000 Ethiopians that the AU intends to replace, but other African countries have balked, saying there's no peace for peacekeepers to keep.  While it's true that Mogadishu was quieter than it had been in months, the Islamists were still fighting back, this time using Iraq-style methods of roadside bombs, even suicide car bombings—tactics never before seen in Somalia. When John Holmes, the U.N.'s top emergency relief official, came to visit on May 12, three bombs were set along his route—the first went off and missed him by a few hundred yards, killing three Somalis. And when TFG president Yusuf met Uganda's president Yoweri Museveni on May 16 to thank him for his support, another roadside bomb went off in Mogadishu, killing four Ugandan soldiers and wounding five more.

"Next it will be a plague of locusts," one aid official said, knocking on wood.

Ethiopia has publicly declared that it wants to leave Somalia, but unless a large African Union contingent replaces them, the TFG will simply collapse; they were never any match for the Islamists.   "We have a mandate after 16 years of no government to try and return to sanity," said Paddy Ankunda, spokesman for the AU force. "We can’t chicken out. There is a lot of goodwill among the populace, and we have the support of the Somali people.”

The solution, everyone agrees, is a national reconciliation conference, in which the government and Somalia's powerful clans work out a political settlement that can quiet Mogadishu. That conference, however, has been postponed twice, with no clear date for its resumption. And diplomats worry that the TFG's stance that its opponents are all terrorists makes reconciliation impossible. Although the Islamic Courts did have extremist elements, there were also many moderate elements among them, particularly from the powerful Hawiye clan, which is dominant in Mogadishu.  "Before you can have a national conference you need to solve this problem in Mogadishu," said Mario Raffaelli, the Italian envoy for Somalia. "To stop blasts like this, you need to have support of the population."

TFG officials, however, seem to be in denial. The only problem, said government spokesman Hussein Mohammed, is that "Al Qaeda is hiding in the city," which otherwise is generally safe. He claims that bombs are being smuggled in from Iran with Farsi writing on them. "Most of the clans don't want to fight, they're too tired. The people linked to Al Qaeda want to kill all the time, they want to continue fighting," he says. The government has denied there was any mass flight from Mogadishu, saying there were only 40,000 who fled and many had returned—another point aid workers dispute. As for complaints from the aid community that authorities were blocking relief efforts, Mohammed called that a  "totally baseless claim."

Officials at the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs say their tallies of refugees from Mogadishu are based on long experience and a widespread network of aid agencies working in Somalia, and no one in the aid community disputes the estimates.  What's less clear is what percentage of those who fled is getting aid. Raffaelli said it's as low as 15-20 percent; the WFP puts the figure at 80 percent, although nationwide only 40-50 percent of Somalis are being reached now, particularly because of problems getting access to flooded areas. In any case, hundreds of thousands of Somalis are in a perilous condition, and even those refugees who have received food aid often don't have shelter or medical care.  In many areas warlords have reasserted their power, aligned to no particular side, taxing aid shipments and demanding half of the aid that individual recipients receive. To make matters worse, there's fear of another cholera epidemic, with 20,000 suspected cholera cases and 700 deaths so far this year in south and central Somalia. Incredibly, two weeks ago prime minister Gedi gave a radio interview in which he accused the World Food Programme of spreading cholera through its food shipments, on which most of the population of southern Somalia depends. Throughout Middle and Lower Shabele provinces, there are reports of refugees arriving in areas where there's already a severe crisis due to flooding and blocked aid deliveries, and being forced to take refuge under trees—and even being obliged to pay rent for those trees.  In the Dibiyada district just outside Mogadishu, NEWSWEEK’s Abukar Albadri found a group of people who fled Mogadishu huddled under a large acacia tree on a farmstead, plastic sheets tied to the trunk. "We are eight families living under this tree," said Hani Hussein, 27, a mother of three. "We're neighbors and we wanted to stay together. At night all the men sleep on one side, the children and women on the other." For that privilege, she said they paid the local farmer $3 a family for a month, in advance, $24 in all. Farmer Hundubow Ali Hared laughingly acknowledged it. "People are destroying the grass in our farms that we need to feed our animals," he said, and "they are using our fields as toilets." Under another tree not far away, a midwife, herself a displaced person, delivered a baby to another refugee, with no hot water or medical supplies. In all, an estimated 20,000 families are taking refuge in the Dibiyada district, local aid workers said.

The WFP has had growing difficulty getting food supplies into Somalia, as fewer and fewer shipping companies agree to carry grain shipments after a renewal of Somali piracy along the coast. Piracy had been stamped out during the Courts’ time, as the Islamists shut down their land bases.  Now pirates operating from Puntland in the north seem to do so with impunity. And with normal commercial ports in Mogadishu and Kismayo closed by fighting or instability, the WFP has been offloading supplies onto beaches—a laborious process.  "Somehow we still  manage to do it," said Goossens.

Lately even American officials have been critical of the TFG.  "I think it is very clear that the key to solving the situation in Somalia and stabilizing it is to have this inclusive dialogue," the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Africa, Jendayi Frazer, told Voice of America recently. "And so trying to get the Transitional Federal Government to reach out to the various clans and sub-clans is a large part of our diplomacy." If they don't, said Raffaelli, the danger is that more and more Somalis will want to see a return of the Islamic Courts, who at least provided peace and stability in Mogadishu when they were in power last year. "People are already saying, for six months we have tasted security. We need desperately to come back to this."

In aid-worker jargon, the Somalis seem to have developed "extreme coping mechanisms." Whatever nature and man throw at them, they seem for the most part to survive it—although a large part of the credit goes to a massive relief effort involving hundreds of NGOs and U.N. agencies.  Goossens worries however that this latest phase could prove the most dangerous. If the Islamists' campaign of roadside and suicide bombing reaches the widespread, indiscriminate level seen in Iraq, it could make it impossible for those agencies to function.  Those who fled Mogadishu went to areas where U.N. surveys already reported previous levels of malnutrition above the emergency threshold of 15 percent, and in some cases above 20 percent of the population. "You can't just send food to an area, you have to send people to make sure something useful happens to that food," he said. "And if bombing stops our people from going, I might as well dump that food into the water."  In other words, for all Somalia's travails, it could still get worse.

Join the Discussion