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Somalia's Horrors

[Guest post by Isaac Chotiner]

No one seems to know what can or should be done about the absolutely awful situation in Somalia, but some of the remarkable journalism that western publications have produced from the country deserves to be recognized. At the very least, it can serve to make people more aware of the humanitarian nightmare that is unfolding, and the aid groups who are still active in the country.

Amid the worst famine in six decades, the country is currently experiencing brutal fighting between the Shahab, an Islamist militia who claims allegiance to Al Qaeda, and a very shaky Transitional Federal Government (TFG). With the support of western countries and the African Union, the TFG has worked to extend its control of the country outside of Mogadishu (the Shahab controls some territory in the south). The TFG is having trouble enforcing the law and its mandate, and it is riddled with corruption, and incompetence, and accusations of committing atrocities. (Be sure and read Esther Breger's excellent TNR story about the former prime minister of the country here).

The Shahab, however, can quite easily be deemed much worse than the TFG. As The New York Times reported yesterday:

People told me the Shabab were trying to prevent anyone from leaving and that Shabab fighters had even set up special camps where thousands of exhausted, hungry and sick people were corralled at gunpoint, an ideal breeding ground for disease, especially because the Shabab have also banned immunizations. It’s the perfect storm to kill countless children. Measles, typhoid and cholera are already beginning to sweep through the camps. Epidemiologists predict that the fatalities will shoot up and thousands of people will perish when the heavy rains come in November and December, spreading waterborne diseases.

Meanwhile, Kenya, which had tired of violence spilling over its borders (and which might also have murkier motives) invaded the country to wipe out the Shahab. And on Wednesday The New York Times and others reported that Eritrea (the longtime enemy of Ethiopia, which has also taken an active role in Somalia) may be funneling weapons to the Shahab. As has happened in other African civil wars, neighboring countries have played the role of exacerbating and fueling violence.

Much of the best reporting on the country has come from Jeffrey Gettleman, the NYT's East Africa Correspondent, and the author of many of the above links. (His piece for TNR on the country's pirate problem is well worth reading). His story two days ago, which appeared in a special "Giving" section of the newspaper, concerns the efforts of aid groups to provide relief for Somali citizens despite the Shahab's attempts to ban western aid (not to mention, as Gettleman writes, "Western music, Western dress, soccer, [and] bras"). Gettleman notes that even in government controlled areas, the drought and the bloodshed is leading to terrible suffering, but his piece is also helpful because he explains how some Islamic and even western charities are circumventing this insanity.

Inside Somalia, many aid groups are embracing the approach of cash transfers by cellphone as a way to get around the Shabab and deliver aid directly — and discreetly — to poor people. It is early days yet, but it seems to be working. Muslim charities, like Islamic Relief and several Turkish aid agencies, are playing an increasingly large role in this crisis, because the Shabab continue to allow them much more access to drought zones than the Western groups. Somali organizations, like Saacid, are also helping feed people, though the local charities are often undermanned and underfinanced.

Still, the charities listed in Gettleman's article could use many more western donations than they are currently receiving. Anyone who doubts the severity of the crisis should also read this excellent report, from Ghaith Abdul-Ahad in The London Review of Books, which describes the aid crisis in real detail.

A number of the articles about Somalia have claimed that the reason the United States has not engaged in a larger debate on the country is that people are still scarred by the Black Hawk Down episode of two decades ago. Maybe. But Africa has never loomed large in western consciousness, at least not since the end of the colonial era (with the exception of the struggle to end apartheid). The only thing westerners can do now is read the reports emanating from the country, and contribute money to aid agencies, which despite hurdles remain one of the few hopes for Somalia's people.