In So­ma­lia, Is­lamist rebels block the starv­ing from food de­liv­er­ies

Famine looms be­cause of se­vere drought and a rebel move­ment that at­tacks for­eign aid groups

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY MAX BEARAK IN REBEY, SO­MA­LIA max.bearak@wash­post.com

ear a dried-out reser­voir on the edge of this vil­lage is a di­lap­i­dated mud hut. The fam­ily that lived there un­til last month went so far as to strip off its straw roof and feed the ma­te­rial to their ema­ci­ated cat­tle. When the an­i­mals died any­way, the fam­ily dis­ap­peared.

Half of Rebey’s 80 fam­i­lies have aban­doned their homes, flee­ing a drought that has de­stroyed their live­stock and with­ered two years of har­vests.

But cruel weather is not the main rea­son that hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple in ru­ral So­ma­lia are on the brink of starv­ing to death. Rebels from the ex­trem­ist al-Shabab group are block­ing vi­tal aid from reach­ing vil­lages, com­pound­ing the ef­fects of the poor rains.

Mohamed Ibrahim Hasan, a tra­di­tional chief in Rebey, said the deadly com­bi­na­tion could spell the end for his life­long home.

“If the rain is bad again this sea­son, that’s it, this vil­lage is fin­ished,” he said. “Or, if al-Shabab comes here to fight, then we will not be able to get the aid from out­side that is keep­ing us alive.”

That aid agen­cies can still reach Rebey makes it an ex­ceed­ingly rare and lucky vil­lage. AlShabab, an Is­lamist group that pledges al­le­giance to al-Qaeda, holds sway over most ru­ral ar­eas in drought-rav­aged south­ern So­ma­lia and op­poses the pres­ence of in­ter­na­tional aid groups, ac­cus­ing them of col­lud­ing with its arch­en­emy, the So­mali gov­ern­ment.

With­out ac­cess to food, roughly 160,000 peo­ple from across the re­gion have walked, some­times for days, to dis­ease-rid­den camps in gov­ern­ment-con­trolled cities where aid is avail­able. Those who are too weak to make the jour­ney are left at home to teeter on death’s edge.

Just six years ago, a famine swept these parts, and more than a quar­ter of a mil­lion peo­ple died. It is no co­in­ci­dence that the worst-af­fected re­gions then, as well as now, are where al-Shabab has trig­gered mass dis­place­ment.

The mili­tia is weaker and frag­mented now, in part be­cause its ob­struc­tion­ism dur­ing the last famine cost the group what pop­u­lar sup­port it had. But it has still mus­tered re­cent at­tacks on U.N. aid agen­cies such as the World Food Pro­gram. Thir­teen aid work­ers were kid­napped by alShabab and other lo­cal mili­tias in April, the high­est monthly to­tal since 2011.

Since the pre­vi­ous famine, gov­ern­ment-al­lied mili­tias to­gether with African Union troops have re­gained con­trol over Baidoa, a city near the epi­cen­ter of the drought. U.N. agen­cies and African Union troops share a heav­ily for­ti­fied com­pound next to the city’s air­port.

Aid work­ers from pri­vate groups such as Save the Chil­dren and SOS Chil­dren’s Vil­lages travel with truck­loads of hired gun­men when they ven­ture into the camps of dis­placed peo­ple in Baidoa or visit hun­gry towns nearby. U.N. staff of­ten move in bul­let­proof ve­hi­cles with mil­i­tary es­corts. So­mali aid work­ers can travel with greater ease, but their as­so­ci­a­tion with aid groups makes them tar­gets for al-Shabab.

“If they caught me, they would kill me — it’s that sim­ple,” said a So­mali em­ployee of Save the Chil­dren, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause of se­cu­rity con­cerns.

Al-Shabab does not just tar­get aid groups, how­ever. The rebels of­ten re­tal­i­ate against peo­ple who flee to Baidoa’s camps, say­ing they may be di­vulging de­tails about the mil­i­tants’ where­abouts to au­thor­i­ties. Many vil­lagers, there­fore, are re­luc­tant to re­turn to their homes when con­di­tions im­prove. Aid work­ers worry that So­ma­lia’s dis­place­ment cri­sis may thus prove in­tractable.

“If they go back to their vil­lages, they would have to an­swer to al-Shabab,” said Ed­more Tondhlana, who co­or­di­nates the United Na­tions’ drought-re­lief op­er­a­tion in Baidoa. “[Al-Shabab] will ask: ‘Where were you? Who did you speak to?’ They think that you have be­come a gov­ern­ment in­for­mant. They can kill you.”

Baidoa is a refuge, for now. The dis­placed can check in at a gov­ern­ment hos­pi­tal, or fill up jer­rycans at a wa­ter tank, even if the scat­tered camps are crowded and makeshift, and per­fect breed­ing grounds for dis­eases such as cholera. Hu­man­i­tar­ian agen­cies pro­vide cash for peo­ple to buy food and ma­te­ri­als for shel­ter.

Aid work­ers are scram­bling to im­prove con­di­tions in the camps, but they of­ten must weigh their se­cu­rity against the needs of the dis­placed as they de­cide whether to travel out­side their guarded com­pounds.

“The U.N. is al-Shabab’s most valu­able po­lit­i­cal tar­get right now,” said Roberto Men­doza, a Hon­duran who is head of se­cu­rity at the U.N. com­pound in Baidoa. He reg­u­larly pro­hibits U.N. aid work­ers from leav­ing the com­pound be­cause of threats of at­tacks. Fre­quently, al-Shabab rebels creep close enough to Baidoa to en­gage the African Union troops sta­tioned there, re­sult­ing in aid mis­sions be­ing post­poned. In mid-May, al-Shabab took vil­lages just miles south of the city, forc­ing planes to al­ter their flight paths.

“We’re do­ing the best we can,” Men­doza said. “But al-Shabab’s big­gest strength is that they are un­der­es­ti­mated. We can’t al­low our­selves to have a false sense of safety.”

These fre­quent lock­downs mean that aid work­ers are de­layed in pro­vid­ing ser­vices such as pit la­trines, which could help prevent the spread of dis­ease. Still, chances of sur­vival in the camps are far higher than in the for­saken vil­lages.

With the holy month of Ra­madan be­gin­ning, fight­ing around Baidoa is ex­pected to in­ten­sify. Al-Shabab and other ex­trem­ist Is­lamist groups sub­scribe to a be­lief that God be­queaths mil­i­tary vic­to­ries upon his most fer­vent fol­low­ers and grants them dou­ble the re­wards in par­adise should they be “mar­tyred” dur­ing Ra­madan.

“Fight­ers we have cap­tured are telling us that their brothers will at­tack Baidoa, and even the camps, dur­ing Ra­madan,” said Has­san Hus­sein Mohamed, the head of the South­west Special Po­lice Force, the main unit of So­mali se­cu­rity forces fight­ing al-Shabab near Baidoa.

A day ear­lier, Mohamed said, nine of his men had been killed by an al-Shabab car bomb just out­side Baidoa.

“Nine, God bless them,” Mohamed said. “We are fight­ing with no lo­gis­ti­cal sup­port, no medicine, no pro­tec­tive gear and no salary.”

The war with al-Shabab has been grind­ing on for more than a decade. A U.S. cam­paign of drone strikes tar­get­ing the group has in­ten­si­fied in the past few months. The mil­i­tants have been pushed out of most of south­ern So­ma­lia’s ur­ban cen­ters, but they have sim­ply re­treated and re­grouped in the coun­try­side.

Hasan, the chief in Rebey, said that un­til now his vil­lage’s prox­im­ity to Baidoa gave him a sense of pro­tec­tion from al-Shabab. But he too fears the bat­tles that could oc­cur with the on­set of Ra­madan.

“If they start a big fight and prevent us from get­ting aid, then that is our fate,” Hasan said with a shrug. “But are we not all Mus­lim? Peo­ple here are al­ready starv­ing. Please, God, show us mercy.”

PHO­TOS BY AN­DREW RENNEISEN FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Sol­diers from the South­west Special Po­lice Force ride in a truck dur­ing a demon­stra­tion of fight­ing tac­tics about 10 miles from the front lines on the out­skirts of Baidoa, So­ma­lia. Aid agen­cies are en­coun­ter­ing re­sis­tance in their at­tempts to de­liver food.

A sol­dier from the South­west Special Po­lice Force stands for a por­trait dur­ing the demon­stra­tion of fight­ing tac­tics.

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