Four years of civil war and drought leave Somalis starving


War, drought and famine are here. Somalia lacks but one horseman more to make the apocalypse complete.

Pestilence has yet to arrive. War, drought and famine are here.

"There is nothing here; there is nothing left," says Muhammed, a Somalian accountant. "It is the punishment of God. No one can help the Somalis."

There is no government, no bureaucracy; there are no politics beyond the gun.

"If somebody steals your watch and you catch him, who do you turn him over to?" asks the Egyptian ambassador, Fathi Hassan, the lone foreign diplomat holding out in Mogadishu.

There are no police.

Nobody makes anything. People grow no gardens, plant no seeds. You can't telephone anywhere, send or receive a letter. No electricity runs through the lines above the streets. The underground cables have been dug up, the copper sold off.

There is no drinkable water; the city's pipes have also been excavated and sold. There are no ambulances. Nobody puts out fires or repairs the roads. The only occupation is looting.

Trash smolders in the streets or rots; some of it is hauled to the beach and burned by an agency of the United Nations using donkeys and carts. Hulks of burned cars, bombed tanks, the carcasses of dead animals, donkeys and camels here and there, block the streets.

Children are not in school and haven't been for two years. They are lounging about with assault rifles as big as they are slung over their shoulders, robbing anybody who is unarmed and might have something worth having.

The people who work for the relief agencies live in guarded compounds, French, Australians, Irish, Canadians, Swedes, Austrians and other nationalities. They hire their own gunmen, who accompany them in vehicles or when walking a block or two, even in daylight.

At night come the buzzings of malarial mosquitoes and the coughing sound, above the houses, of machine guns talking to each other.

It is always necessary to have firepower in Mogadishu. It is even more necessary to display it.

Some 4.5 million people are affected to some degree by the drought and famine. The war touches everybody. If food relief does not grow substantially, and quickly, says one aid worker, 1.5 million people could starve.

"I've never seen malnutrition or hunger like here," says James Newton of World Vision International. "Not even in Ethiopia in 1984."

Most of the people have no shelter. Half of them -- more than 3 million -- have little food, or none. The youngest and weakest die slowly; they slip away. Those who survive are hardly fit for life in such a hard place.

Amputees from the civil war are everywhere in the streets. The only food and medical care are provided by such voluntary organizations as the Red Cross, Save the Children, the United Nations Children's Fund, Medecins Sans Frontieres and other organizations from those countries that long ago saw the apocalypse coming to this arid, pastoral land in the Horn of Africa and came to confront it.

People live in shacks, sprawl on the streets, die in the alleys, of hunger, infection or bullets.

How many? There is no way of knowing. The current guess is about 1,500 a day in Mogadishu alone. Everyone agrees things are much worse in the countryside, from both the famine and the effects of the war.

On Aug. 12 fighting broke out in Medina, in the south of the city. Digfer Hospital was full of blood: 50 casualties were brought in that day, among them four women and three children.

One was an 18-month-old baby girl named Rumi Osman. Her stomach was shot out by a stray bullet during an altercation between two young boys in the city's market. The same bullet killed her mother, Seyna, who was only 16. Rumi's father was slain five months ago.

No one knows how many never made it to Digfer on that day, or to the hospital in Medina.

A cease-fire is supposed to be in place, a truce between the two factions at war here. It was signed last March. Fifty U.N. observers were sent to monitor it. They do the best they can, which is to remonstrate with both sides when the truce breaks down, as it frequently does.

One of these warlords is Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed. His forces control the southern part of Mogadishu and a larger portion of the country. The other is Ali Mahdi Muhammed, who calls himself the president of Somalia. He controls the northern portion of the city and about 500 miles of territory up the coast and a few spots elsewhere, where his clans predominate.

Is it getting better, or worse?

One relief worker said anyone with an optimistic interpretation of events in Somalia "is batty."

Dr. Said Issa, who runs one of the Red Cross' 95 food kitchens in Mogadishu, said that in early July those kitchens were feeding 150,000 people a day. By Aug. 13 they were feeding 200,000.

He expects more as people stagger in from the countryside.

Food as currency

The national currency of Somalia is food. It is what the warlords pay their troops for their loyalty. People kill each other over it, every day. Those who get it live; those who don't die.

The struggle begins at the port, a very dangerous place. Here the relief ships tie up with wheat, milk, pasta, beans and various other foodstuffs collected by agencies such as the World Food Service. It is sent to alleviate the starving unarmed, the women and children too young or weak to acquire their own weapons to get their own food.

The food is unloaded onto trucks, and these are formed up into convoys, which are defended by armed men in the trucks and by other men in "technical vehicles."

This is a peculiar Somali invention -- usually an anti-aircraft gun or automatic rifle mounted on the back of a truck. They rattle through the streets, stirring up dust, belligerent machines looking for trouble.

The obsession with weaponry is remarkable. Even when not fighting, Somalis are always firing off rounds into the air, just for the fun of it. One such bullet fell on an infant at her mother's breast. It lodged in her bowel. It was removed in the Digfer Hospital by a Somali surgeon who had no pain killer. The bullet glistened in the tray.

"It entered cold," says Margaret O'Mahoney, the attending nurse from Irish Concern, another relief agency. How could she tell?

"It would have come out the other side," she says, fingering the slug. "I think I'll give it to her mother. She has precious little else."

Some boys try to pilfer a bag of rice at the port just unloaded from a French ship. One of the guards, a soldier in the army of General Aideed, which is protecting the port and probably looting it, fires over their heads as they run away. They drop the bag, but the sound causes a great commotion. Other "guards" begin arguing. It is often difficult to tell the guards from the pilferers when there is a food ship in port, and gunfights erupt regularly between them.

Between the port and the distribution centers, about 5 percent of the relief food is stolen, hijacked or pilfered. After that, in the distribution to the local neighborhoods, about 30 percent to 40 percent is stolen. It winds up in places such as the Bukharah Market, for sale at high prices.

The market gives an impression of normality. It teems, like all African bazaars. It's muddy, jammed, noisy, malodorous. There are goods there in addition to the stolen rice and flour: razor blades, soaps, bread, nails, various plastic items, almost all from Kenay. Clothing is sold there, and even some machinery. And books. Books with an ironic touch considering the circumstances, arrogant old volumes by the U.S. mandarins of the "new frontier," McGeorge Bundy and Walt Rostow, instructing the new countries of the Third World in the strategies of economic development.

But the normality in the market is false. The hunger has even reached here. A young gunman, annoyed by a 10-year-old boy carrying a tray of sweets, kicks the tray out of his hands. The sweets scatter into the mud, immediately followed by a half-dozen starving children struggling for the muddy candy.

The scene is cruel, but the frantic alacrity of the children is slightly funny; at least people laugh. But it is the obscene humor of devils.

Cold War pawn

Why Somalia? What brought this country to this stage of utter disintegration? There are various opinions on that. Somalis seem afflicted by forces both near and far removed from them. Mainly, they are victims of themselves.

But their particular national tragedy carries the added pain that comes from their belief they have been abandoned.

"The world has been acting as if this problem has just arisen," says Rakiya Omar, a Somali and the executive director of Africa Watch, a human rights agency. "But this is entirely a man-made famine. It is a famine with a history. The world knew it was #F coming for 18 months. It has been allowed to happen."

There is great indifference in the world, she said: "Who the hell cares for Somalia? The world has just walked away, now that the Cold War has ended. But this is where the Cold War was fought -- not in Europe, but in places like Somalia, Ethiopia, Afghanistan."

If not actually victims of the Cold War, the Somalians were at least its pawns. Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre, who seized power in 1969, allied the country to the Soviet Union, which handed over military and humanitarian assistance. He planted a socialist People's Republic in this Muslim land of nomads and marginal farmers, and it withered, as that strain did everywhere else in the world.

In 1977, the Soviets found Ethiopia more interesting and went there. Into Somalia came the Americans, with more weapons and humanitarian assistance in exchange for deals on strategic naval facilities at Berbera looking on the Red Sea.

General Barre enjoyed the largess of the West for about 13 more years before he was overthrown in 1991 after about three years of civil war that literally wrecked the country. The current strife is just a continuation of that war.

Somali society is constituted of clans and sub-clans, but there is no understanding this situation by reference to the clans. The two principal antagonists, for instance, are from the same Hawiye clan. The struggle is for power, nothing more, and the clans are pushed, pulled and divided by it.

Probably there was no alternative to war against General Barre. All peaceable avenues of opposition had been closed. During the 21 years he held power in Somalia, General Barre imposed a ferocious despotism on Somalis. He tortured and killed them. He burned their crops, poisoned their wells, killed their animals, destroyed their fragile infrastructure, the human ecology.

He undid the country's political institutions, such as the councils of clan elders, who for generations had guided Somali leaders at all levels of society and kept the peace among the clans, more or less.

For the United States, General Barre was the most embarrassing of allies. For the Somalis, he was the outrider of the apocalypse.

Today, Somalia is something not seen in the world for years. It is not a country as that term is understood in the modern world; it is just a space on the map.

Before it was declared an independent country, Britain and Italy held most of Somalia, with Italy having the lion's share. France held a colony around Djibouti.

Nuruddin Farah, a Somali novelist of some fame, sees the Barre period, and the aftermath, as almost the inevitable consequence of the colonial experience and a weak sense of Somali nationalism.

"Somalia never fought for its independence. We were given it on a dinner plate. We were told to put on our ties one day, we shook hands with some Italians and United Nations people, and there it was," he says.

Nor does Mr. Farah blame the superpowers.

"Somalians are to blame for what is happening to them," he says, "but if the world had a conscience -- which it does not -- the famine, the disaster and death would make it move. But the world is indifferent to Somalia."

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