Somalia at the brink: Fighting, 400,000 refugees and failed crops
October 2, 2007
Every time I arrive in Somalia, it is a slightly surreal experience. This time I get off a small twin-engine United Nations plane onto the dirt airstrip and into the blinding equatorial sun. Among the welcoming committee are two "technicals" — open-topped jeeps mounted with heavy machine-guns and loaded beyond capacity with young men carrying AK-47s.
I ask a Somali colleague who also came in on the flight whether this is the local militia. He scrutinizes them for a minute and then replies, "No, I think they're the police."
In Somalia, the distinction between police and militia, good guys and bad, is a fine one. It often depends on the company you are keeping at that moment. As it turns out, these two technicals are our escorts for the day. The young men inside are friendly enough, and even let us film them, not always a given here.
Failed crops, ruins and guns
In a convoy of well-used SUVs, we head into the town of Jowhar. In one of the world's most unstable countries, Jowhar is, relatively speaking, one of the most stable towns. Its local warlord is powerful enough to hold back much of the violence that is ripping apart what's left of the capital, Mogadishu, 90 kilometres to the south. But like everywhere else in Somalia, Jowhar shows the scars of the country's 17 years of anarchy.
Most of the single-storey, whitewashed buildings are at best pockmarked with bullet or mortar holes, while many are reduced to a couple of walls. We drive past the charred remains of a massive sugar factory, once the main employer here.
Jowhar, sitting in a river valley, is today mostly an agricultural hub. But the worst rains in over a decade led to harvest failure. Stunted cornstalks rasp in the dry wind as we pass farm fields on the edge of town. One million people are now struggling to get even a single meal a day in this region.
In the early morning, usually a busy time in this part of Africa, all over there are men sitting idly, with little to do. Many carry guns. This is the nub of Somalia's problems.
400,000 fled Mogadishu fighting
While Jowhar has managed to keep most of Mogadishu's violence at bay, it hasn't been able to turn back the people fleeing it. Makeshift refugee camps are popping up everywhere. Some 400,000 people have fled the fighting in Mogadishu, which has been raging since January. That was when the Ethiopian military marched in, ousted the Islamist government and installed the one led by President Abdullahi Yusuf. (The month before, Ethiopian and Somali troops had taken Jowhar from the Islamists.)
The Islamists are now mounting a bloody Baghdad-style insurgency. The Ethiopian soldiers, still propping up the unpopular government, are accused of using indiscriminate violence to defeat the insurgents. The death toll in the city is conservatively put at 1,000 since January. It's hard to be sure. The government is barely functioning.
"I hate the Ethiopians," Binti Olo Ahmed tells me in Jowhar. "They are the reason for all the violence in Mogadishu."
Ahmed fled Mogadishu with her five children and three grandchildren two weeks ago. They made the dangerous journey on foot. Her newborn grandson screams in her arms as we talk. Despite all the chaos in the Somali capital since the military regime of Muhammad Siad Barre fell in 1991, she tells me this is the first time she has had to flee the city.
"We have never seen fighting as bad as it is now," she said. "I saw so many people killed right on my own street. People I know, people I don't know. It is horrible."
And so she and thousands of others have come to Jowhar.
Little help for the refugees
The refugees are getting little help. Their huts are made with whatever materials they can scrounge. Ahmed's is typical: a dome slightly more than a metre high and not much wider, made with sticks and bits of plastic bag. It barely holds out the hot sun; the rain, not at all. The huts are spaced centimetres apart from each other. There is no sanitation. The refugees are waiting for food from the UN World Food Program, one of the few agencies operating in chaotic Somalia.
Not far away, Peter Goosens stands in a large field that is ringed by armed security. As the director of the World Food Program operation in Somalia, he oversees the distribution of grain and oil to refugees and to locals who are suffering because of the failed harvests. The slight, light-haired Dutchman is used to conflict zones. His face shows the lines of a life lived in hard places. His last posting was Colombia. But he admits that the problems of Somalia are staggering by any standards.
"This is a population that is slowly inching towards this line beyond which it can't cope any more," he tells me, slowly shaking his head. "If it isn't floods, it's drought; if it isn't drought, it's war; if it isn't war, it's you name it, hyperinflation or whatever is the problem of the day."
Goosens is happy to see food getting out here. But he says lack of security means his agency is only reaching a quarter of those in need. Canada is WFP's second biggest donor in Somalia, giving $8 million in 2007. But even with this help, WFP's job is beyond difficult.
Goosens tells me they have given up on Mogadishu for the time being. The last time they tried to do a distribution there, a shooting match broke out between two rival militias trying to steal the food. People were killed. The mayor of Mogadishu was there, representing the Ethiopian-backed government. He was meant to guarantee security. There are no such guarantees to be made in that city right now.
Somalia at the brink
And it could get worse. The president, backed by militias from his northeastern Puntland region, is on the verge of going to war with his prime minister, Ali Mohamed Gedi. Gedi is from the powerful Hawiye clan of Mogadishu. Ethiopia's foreign minister is trying to broker a deal, but the rift is said to be serious. Gedi clearly feels he has the upper hand in a power struggle that is playing out on his home turf.
"If those two turn on each other, there will be no government any more," said one Somali journalist who is with me on the trip. "The Ethiopians will have nothing left to prop up."
Arguably they aren't propping up much now anyway. At the food distribution centre is Hussein Hassan Mahmoud, the acting governor of the lower and middle Shabelle region. Jowhar is one of the few places in Somalia where the government has any presence. But when pressed on what exactly the government is doing here, Mahmoud can't offer up much beyond the police force, those same young men so easily mistaken for a militia.
"The government can survive," Mahmoud insisted. "We don't need to work with the Islamists. Somalis just need to do as we say." So far, that kind of "my way or the highway" attitude simply hasn't worked.
"I would love to see a light at the end of the tunnel," Goosens told me, "but I'm not seeing it."
Nor are many Somalis. Sitting in her tiny hut, her screaming grandson on her lap, Ahmed looks 20 years older than her age, 40. "There is security here at least," she said, "but we aren't getting enough to eat."
And in Somalia now, that's about as bright as the future gets.