A Journal of Somalia
Relief workers from many agencies and countries are struggling to contain the world's worst human disaster
ANDREW NATSIOS, assistant administrator for the Bureau for Food and Humanitarian Assistance at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), was appointed by President Bush to serve as special coordinator for Somali relief. The following notes are from his most recent visit to Somalia and neighboring Kenya. Sunday, Sept. 27, 1992 Northern Kenya
We have reports of starvation deaths among the Kenyan nomads in the worst drought-affected areas in the north. I am here to assess the extent of the damage. More than 70 percent of the animal herds have died; even the camels and goats that usually survive the worst conditions have perished, and with them the food supply for the nomads. PVO [private voluntary organization] workers report mile after mile of rotting animal carcasses. The provincial governor tells us they are having difficulty with the corn we are sending them because the nomads usually live primarily on cheese, milk and meat. Monday, Sept. 28, 1992 Baidoa, Somalia
Waiting for us at the rutted runway outside Baidoa where our planes land are a dozen "technicals," the Somalia term for jeeps or small trucks with a machine gun attached to the top. Packed into the rear is a swarm of teenage Somali gunmen hired by our hosts, the local PVO staff, to protect us from other gangs of teenage gunmen roving the city.
We ride down the town's main street, which is littered with wrecked military trucks and weapons. All males over the age of 15 appear to have guns. Guns continue to pour over the border from Ethiopia where the former soldiers of [former dictator] Mengistu's defeated army sell their weapons to buy food. One of my guards proudly sports a Rambo T-shirt; [Sylvester] Stallone is the most popular hero here. No one in Somalia with a gun goes hungry, which means those without guns do.
We arrive at a squalid camp outside the city where the remnants of farm families live who have migrated from the countryside in search of food. I ask the children where they come from and where the rest of their family is. One 7- or 8-year-old boy, in a voice so soft the translator can barely hear him, tells me his father was killed when the militias attacked his village, his mother died on the way to this camp, and his three other brothers and sisters died once they reached the camp. He is alone now, ea ting food provided by CARE from our relief supplies, living with whatever family will take him in for the night.
On every street in the city is sad evidence of the omnipresent famine. Corpses are wrapped in shrouds - those who died on the streets that day with no relatives to bury them, ready for pickup by the International Committee of the Red Cross death truck. The daily death rate when I was here a month ago was 175; today it is 225. What, I asked, was the reason the body count was increasing, given the increased amount of food available from the US airlift? The answer: the fall rains have begun and people are d ying from epidemics.
Food alone without water, sanitation, and medical care is not enough to save people. This trip is essential because it will bring more American PVO's into the villages to provide for these other needs. The medical conditions are reminiscent of the American Civil War: few drugs, no running water, the floor wet with the blood of the day's operations, and only sporadic electricity.
I refuse to see the governor of the city, an appointee of one of the warlords, General Aideed, unless the local clan elders also attend. The governor had not told them of my visit, since they are of a hostile clan. It takes two hours to summon them. The clan elders are our best hope to bring back civil order. They are older, respected men who carry no weapons and are devout Muslims. They influence by persuasion rather than violence. We are trying to increase their influence. At the meeting I tell the ass embled Somali leaders that we are tired of the violence, the looting and attacks on our relief efforts. They must assume some responsibility and try to control the younger men who are the cause of the problem. They thank us for our help but make no reply. Monday, Sept. 28, 1992 Mogadishu, Somalia
As we step off the plane we are confronted by the clan militia that "guards" the airport. They demand a $100 landing fee. The porters demand their own separate fee for protecting our luggage. They warn us that failure to pay would make it impossible for us to leave. The pilot pays the fee.
At the port, where a good deal of the 225,000 metric tons of US food and 200,000 metric tons of European and Canadian food will arrive over the next 11 months, we are confronted by the ever-present violence that marks life in the city. Bob Seiple of World Vision and Barnet Barron of Save the Children walk to the entrance of the port to ask about security procedures. In front of them, several Somalis yell at each other with guns in their hands, shots are fired and two men fall to the ground, one dead and the other slumped against a wall bleeding profusely. None of the Somalis are sure what the fight was over, nor do they seem to care. Each day several people are shot to death at the port.
We are taken around the SOS complex, an Austrian PVO associated with the Catholic Church, which includes a school and orphanage run by four Italian nuns who have been in Mogadishu for 16 years. The buildings and grounds are immaculately clean and orderly: an island of civilization. Last year the nuns and their staff of six female Somali doctors delivered 3,500 babies. I ask the nun who is our guide - a charming, strong-willed Sardinian woman with a ready smile - why the facility was not looted during the
worst of the chaos. She replies, "They know us." One of the relief workers later told me that when the looters arrived at the gates to begin their "dark work," hundreds of women from the area formed a human wall around the complex. The looters promptly retreated, never to return.
The nuns have converted most of the school buildings to feed and care for 2,500 sick and malnourished children of the neighborhood. I have never seen so many emaciated children in any famine anywhere in the world.
Nancy Aossey of the International Medical Corps, a US PVO which has been running Digfa hospital for the past year, must deal with a crisis: Their Somali doctors have gone on strike. They want their salaries paid in cash instead of rice, the hospital's method of payment for the past year, because carrying bags of rice around Mogadishu is a life-threatening undertaking.
We meet tonight with UN officials for three hours. Everything the UN tells us only underscores the palpable tension, enormous frustration, and deep pessimism everyone in the relief effort feels. How do you put a country back together again that no longer exists?
The relief workers we talk to are ambivalent about the UN troops. They all know what anarchy means, how many children are dying because of it and how each day their own lives are at risk from the roving bands of teenage thugs.
But they fear that the first Somali the Pakistani soldiers shoot, an inevitable prospect given their mission, may provoke other Somalis to train their guns on all outsiders: UN troops, relief workers, and Western reporters who they see as members of yet another clan, a clan of foreigners. What alternatives do we have? If we don't use force this random violence will continue unchecked. Tuesday, Sept. 29, 1992 Bardera, Somalia
I asked to see a town which had only recently been reached by the relief effort. Bardera, a city of 8,000 swelled by 10,000 villagers and nomads from the bush in search of food, sits on the banks of the Juba River in the south. It serves as an important center of Islamic meditation and teaching. I ask our hosts to set up meetings with the Imams at the Koranic schools so I can enlist their support for the relief effort and for peace. The expatriates and Somalis refuse because they are physically located o n the other side of the Juba River, which is controlled by General Morgan, another warlord and son-in-law of ousted dictator Siad Barre. He's an adversary of General Aideed, whose base of operations is in the town. Crossing the river is quite dangerous.
The whole countryside is sand, strewn with leafless shrubs and the ubiquitous camels. Most of the relief officers have been here no more than three weeks. We are all shocked at the conditions. Most of the children in the feeding centers won't survive; the deadly process of starvation is too far advanced now to be arrested. They can't hold down the food they are eating. I fear there are undiscovered towns like Bardera all across southern Somalia.
Forty-five people die each day in this small town from starvation and from dysentery caused by the polluted water from the Juba River. The wells are so low from the drought they have become saline. Roy Williams of the International Rescue Committee, which specializes in water and sanitation, and Bill Garvelink, director of the USAID team running the US government relief effort in Somalia, make plans to begin immediate construction of a simple sand filter system to clean the river water, and of latrines t o properly dispose of human waste.
Somalia is the worst humanitarian disaster in the world. The crisis is also complex and intractable: Civil society in even the most elemental sense has collapsed; anarchy prevails.
But there are signs of hope: The UN troops are arriving, crops are sporadically being planted, the deadly migrations have slowed, the PVOs are arriving in force, the UN is being energized, and the US-led airlift is getting food to remote areas.