REPORTING FROM NAIROBI -- Half a million victims of famine in southern Somalia, trapped inside territory controlled by the rebel militia, Al Shabab, may be largely beyond the help of Western agencies, Somalia expert Ken Menkhaus says in a paper for the Enough Project.
Access to the south, the region hardest hit by famine, remains difficult and dangerous for humanitarian agencies, with some banned from operating in the south, and myriad rules and bureaucratic requirements for those allowed access.
In September, Al Shabab ordered severely malnourished Somalis trying to flee the famine back to their homes to farm with the arrival of recent seasonal rains.
Menkhaus, associate professor of politics at Davidson College in North Carolina, describes the order as a “death march,” with cholera and waterborne disease certain to kill many people.
“Given the bizarre and extremist behavior of Al Shabab, it is not clear that the West and the United Nations can realistically do much to help the 500,000 famine victims trapped in territory under its control,” Menkhaus writes in a paper released last week. He said the best that could be hoped for was for Islamic nations to press Al Shabab to change its policies on the famine.
Menkhaus argues that the Somali transitional federal government (TFG), whose militias and officials are involved in the theft or diversion of food aid flowing through Mogadishu, should be pressed by the international community not on its political transition to elections, but on delivery of aid to the starving. Somalia, torn by war and clan rivalries, has been without a central government for two decades.
UNICEF says tens of thousands of children are now getting humanitarian aid in the south, though still a minority of those in need. The agency estimates that there are about 160,000 severely malnourished children on any one day. At present the agency is reaching about a third of them, according to a UNICEF official, and each month UNICEF aims to admit 16,000 new children to its programs.
Al Shabab’s handling of the famine amounts to crimes against humanity and hardline leaders responsible for the policies should be prosecuted, according to Matt Bryden, coordinator of the U.N. Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group.
“Over the past two years, Al Shabab has terrorized people into submission, confiscated their produce and taxed them into poverty in the name of jihad. As they now starve, Al Shabab denies them even the opportunity to migrate in search of food. In late September Al Shabab ordered camps in Baidoa [southern Somalia] forcibly broken up in order to put their inhabitants 'back to work' in their fields, conveniently ensuring that the scale of their dying will also be hidden from view,” Bryden wrote in the paper. (He noted the views were his own, not necessarily those of the U.N.)
He called on the International Criminal Court to investigate Somali figures — both from Al Shabab and the TFG — who block or steal aid for people facing starvation.
“The time has come for the ICC to become engaged in Somalia, or for a special international tribunal to be established, in order to dismantle Somalia’s deadly culture of impunity,” Bryden wrote.
The recent Kenyan military foray into southern Somalia complicated matters further when Kenya blocked the border to prevent Al Shabab terrorists from infiltrating Kenya, a measure which also trapped starving Somalis. The military action also raised tensions, making it even more difficult for aid agencies trying to work with Al Shabab to get food to the people.
Opinion in Somalia is divided on the Kenyan military operation, according to Somalian analysts. While some hope for Al Shabab's defeat, others are opposed to Kenyan forces in Somalia, fearing that Kenya is trying set up a self-governing autonomous region in the south as a buffer zone against Al Shabab.
Menkhaus said the Kenyan operation, named Linda Nchi, or "protect the nation," could succeed in providing access for humanitarian agencies, “but even if successful it will be a highly insecure and difficult operating environment for aid agencies.”
-- Robyn Dixon
Photo: A woman and child at a camp for the internally displaced in Mogadishu earlier this month. Credit: Tony Karumba / AFP/Getty Images