FOUR-year-old Muslima, one of the 3,000 children sitting in long lines on green plastic strips at an outdoor feeding center here, may yet survive if relief food continues to reach this central Somali town. For the emaciated, distraught people suffering from starvation in this country, the race to save lives will be a very close one, relief officials say.
Despite a sudden and growing world concern for Somalia - 19 months after its agony of anarchy and starvation began - relief supplies remain inadequate.
It takes months for newly pledged food aid from abroad to reach people here. Once it reaches the docks, a state of civil disorder bordering on anarchy makes it impossible to protect the food from theft.
A United Nations mission, including representatives from UNICEF, the World Health Organization, and other relief agencies, was expected to meet with leaders of armed groups yesterday in the southern port city of Kismayo to assess security requirements for mounting a massive relief effort throughout the country.
The UN mission also has held separate discussions in Mogadishu, the capital, with the country's rival leaders: acting President Mohamed ali Mahdi and United Somali Congress leader Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed. The UN already has agreed to send 500 armed troops to guard distribution of the supplies.
"The international community has finally woken up," Mohammed Sahnoun, special representative to Somalia of UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, said after a recent stopover here.
Tens of thousands of Somalis have died in fighting since rebels overthrew the 21-year dictatorship of Maj. Gen. Mohammed Siad Barre in January 1991. Thousands more have died - and more are dying daily - from starvation.
Armed rebels have stolen much of the relief food sent to Mogadishu, and ports have been badly damaged in fighting between rival groups. More than 300,000 Somalis have fled the country.
General Aideed, who controls most of the country, has been reluctant to allow in armed UN troops. He has charged they would legitimize Mr. Ali Mahdi's claim to be Somalia's interim president. But Aideed's aide for international relations, Mohamed Awale, says Aideed now agrees to accept some troops.
Special envoy Sahnoun says the UN will not mount any food-security operations until he has the full backing of the various Somali leaders. Officials here say food is power in Somalia. The challenge, they assert, is to distribute food through the leaders, not around them, so they feel confident their power is not threatened.
"The role of the cease-fire monitors and hopefully the [armed] guards will be very important in providing that confidence," says Mark Stirling, UNICEF director for Somalia.
"The real issue is security," says Jim Kunder, director of United States Foreign Disaster Assistance.
"Where the UN, NGOs [non-governmental organizations], and ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] have been given reasonable security conditions in which to work, the results have been phenomenal," he adds.
In this parched town northwest of Mogadishu, Harado Maalim Mohammed crouches by the freshly covered, shallow grave of her granddaughter, Medina.
"She died early this morning," the grandmother says. "She was very sick and hungry - very, very thin." Two other of her grandchildren also died recently.
An estimated 4,500 people have died in this town of 50,000 to 60,000 in the past four weeks, says Mouse Adeen, a UNICEF doctor and a native of the area.
Baidoa's feeding programs for 40,000 people act as a drawing card for desperately hungry Somalis in the region. The death rate remains high because so many people arrive here extremely weak.
In all of Somalia, some 1.5 million people need emergency food aid immediately to prevent starvation, while another 3 million will need help later this year, according to the UN and ICRC.
The amount of relief food coming into the country must be doubled quickly, says Gregoire Tavernier, an ICRC worker in Somalia.
"The situation is desperate," Mr. Tavernier says. An ICRC survey just completed found "up to 10 people dying a day" in villages in this region, he says.
Relief workers here are dismayed at how long it has taken the world to focus on the tragedy of Somalia.
"It's a pity it had to wait to get to this," says Anita Ennis, a nurse for the Irish charity Concern. Concern runs four feeding centers here for starving children and their mothers.
To limit food loss by looting, the ICRC gives half of its relief in the form of cooked meals, not bagged supplies which can be stolen. "Ninety-five percent of it is reaching the people," Tavernier says of the cooked meals program.
Nationally in Somalia, the ICRC operates kitchens, including 21 here, which provide cooked meals to about 500,000 Somalis every day. Another 500,000 people get bagged supplies.