Emergency aid trickles out to famine-hit Somalis
MOGADISHU: In the days before Somalia descended into decades of war, people would queue outside Cinema Hodan for the latest screening at the elegant open air film house and theatre beloved by youth.
Today, snaking lines of desperate women fleeing famine and drought line up at the same place – now bullet scarred and with gaping holes smashed in walls by artillery rounds – queueing for the emergency aid being handed out inside.
Those lucky enough to make it past the heavily armed militiamen guarding the door crouch down in the ruined outside auditorium to receive a basic ration – a 25 kilogramme sack of rice, as well as sugar, cooking oil and dates.
“This is the first food I have been given since I came to Mogadishu two months ago,” said mother-of-five Isnino Ibrahim, cradling her tiny son Mohamed, who was born in the makeshift tent camp in a ruined building nearby last week.
“It will help because we have nothing, and my children are sick,” she added softly, holding up another child’s filthy shirt, his legs wet with diarrhoea.
With overcrowded camps and the most basic of facilities in war-torn Mogadishu, the UN has warned that a cholera epidemic could spread swiftly.
Over 100,000 people have fled into the famine-hit city in the past two months in search of food, water and medicine.
The United Nations has officially declared famine in Somalia for the first time this century, including in Mogadishu and four southern regions.
It is the worst crisis in Somalia since 1991-1992, according to the UN, when the nation spiralled into still ongoing conflict after then president Siad Barre was overthrown.
“We are doing what we can with what we have to help the people,” said Arafat Abdullahi Abdi, from the Zamzam Foundation, a local aid agency distributing food given by a Kuwaiti Islamic charity.
“As much as we have we give out, but there are so many people in need.” Conflict-wracked Somalia is the country hardest hit by the extreme drought affecting 12 million people across the Horn of Africa.
A massive international relief effort airlifts tonnes of aid everyday, but the demand is enormous.
But AFP also saw grain from the UN World Food Programme being illegally sold for profit in a market near Mogadishu’s K4 roundabout. The UN is investigating the possible theft of food.
Food is available in local markets, but too expensive for those who need it, since the livestock they depended on to sell for cash died in the drought.
“The people are desperate, and we want to give them the food to help them in this most difficult time,” said Nassir Jasim, from the International Islamic Charitable Organisation, which airlifted the food from Kuwait.
“This food has come by aeroplane, but more is coming by sea in a few days,” Jasim added.
At the cinema food distribution, pro-government militiamen carrying machine guns and draped in belts of bullets stand guard trying to control a rapidly growing crowd.
“This is the second time I have been given aid, but it does not last long,” said Batula Moalim, who trekked for several days from the famine-stricken Lower Shabelle into the dangerous capital.
“The food here will last about 10 days, perhaps 12, if we really make servings small,” she said, adding that the bag of grain must feed 12 family members.
When the food runs out and people begin to leave, there is panic, as people fear the risk of being robbed as they return back to the camp in the lawless city.
Women carrying heavy bundles on their back and their babies strapped to their chest struggle to break out through the surging crowd.
A crackle of gunfire breaks out in buildings on one side, followed by return fire from the other.
Despite a withdrawal earlier this month from key positions in the city by the al Qaeda-affiliated Shebab rebels, government forces backed by African Union troops continue to struggle to secure one of the world’s most dangerous capitals.
Down at Mogadishu’s port, the warehouses are busy with workers storing tonnes of emergency relief delivered by air, as trucks load up the aid for onward delivery into even harder hit regions outside the capital.
Larger, cheaper but far slower aid shipments are still travelling by sea.
“The port is ready for all the aid to come,” said Ahmed Ali Karie, deputy manager of Mogadishu port. “The ships are on their way.”