UNNOTICED by the world, 1.5 million civilians from the Isaak clan in northern Somalia are in imminent danger of starvation. The effects of a severe drought over the past year have been compounded dramatically by a man-made disaster: The government of Somalia has destroyed the rural economy and prevented the population from using traditional strategies for coping with drought. Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre, Somalia's dictator, has thus far managed to prevent international scrutiny of the looming disaster by limiting access to the north for journalists and international relief organizations.
Throughout his 21-year misrule of the East African nation, President Siad Barre has used the army and security agencies to destroy independent civilian institutions, to stifle dissent, and to maintain his hold on power. The complete absence of limits on presidential authority has benefited Siad Barre and the members of his clan, the Marehan, but it has been ruinous for the rest of the country. The Isaaks, the predominant clan in the north, have been treated particularly harshly.
Civil war broke out in 1988 between Siad Barre forces and the Somali National Movement (SNM), a largely Isaak insurgent group. In an effort to deprive the SNM of civilian support, the army bombed northern cities indiscriminately and killed as many as 55,000 civilians, most of whom were Isaaks. Over half a million Isaaks fled the country, becoming refugees in squalid camps in Ethiopia. Others sought shelter in Kenya and Djibouti, where they have been denied official refugee status. As many as 1 million more were displaced from their homes in northern towns and are living on the generosity of their nomadic kinsmen.
The destruction of northern Somalia in 1988 and 1989 set the stage for encroaching famine today. In the past, when the rains failed in northern Somalia, the nomadic Isaaks would travel to watering holes in major cities with their herds of animals. They sold their livestock at local markets, and their urban relatives would help them through the lean times with food, water and assistance.
Today, however, there is no food to be had. The urban dwellers who were once a source of support to the nomads are now themselves homeless and searching for sustenance, or they have left the country altogether. There are virtually no Isaak civilians remaining in the northern cities, which have been taken over by Somali soldiers or by Ethiopian refugees who fought with the army against the SNM insurgents. Moreover, the army has poisoned Isaak wells, destroyed water tanks, and killed livestock. Because the army controls the garrison towns and their wells, Isaak herdsmen do not dare to water their animals there.
The nomads are now slaughtering the herds they cannot feed, but the depopulation of the north has been so thorough that there is no market for hides and skins.
In northern Somalia food, shelter, water, medical supplies, and sanitation systems are grossly inadequate to meet the needs of a million homeless civilians. A team of Somali development experts recently found children dying from malnutrition and preventable diseases. Whole communities have been devastated by malaria, pneumonia, whooping cough, polio, and tuberculosis. Meanwhile, abuses by the Somali armed forces against Isaak civilians continue. Somali doctors and nurses attempt to aid civilians wounded by shrapnel or land mines, but they have no equipment, medicine, or plasma.
The Isaak population of northern Somalia is struggling to survive in the face of hunger, drought, and government terror. The United States and the international community must act now to save them. The first step is for the US and the United Nations to carry out a survey of the area to assess needs and to develop relief strategies. Second, the US and other governments should open negotiations with Ethiopia and Djibouti to facilitate cross-border feeding operations. Third, the world must call upon the Siad Barre government to permit humanitarian organizations to engage in their full range of relief activities in the region.
The nomadic peoples of northern Somalia know what to do in times of drought and hunger. But they have no defenses against drought combined with military occupation and gross violations of human rights. The world must take up their cause.