First UN Food Relief Reaches Somali Dock
Ethnic fighting produced hunger crisis
MOGADISHU, SOMALIA — AS a crane on the rusty, old Romanian ship lowered the first burlap bags of wheat onto the dock here Sunday, Somali workers broke into smiles.
"This is good," one worker said. "Nice, nice," said another.
Nearly six months after fierce clan fighting broke out in this now-starving east African capital, this is the first relief ship to reach the port. Battles, including shelling in the port area, had foiled earlier attempts to land food.
Watching the unloading process, David Bassiouni, United Nations coordinator for humanitarian assistance for Somalia, said he hopes more relief ships will follow. This load contained only 5,000 metric tons of wheat, well below the amount needed to offset the widespread hunger here.
"I would say this is a test distribution," Mr. Bassiouni said. "With the success we hope to achieve, other ships can come in quickly."
The UN plans to deliver 15,000 metric tons of food relief per month to Mogadishu, twice the estimated minimal requirement for the 600,000 to 800,000 people living here. The balance will be distributed to other parts of the country, UN sources say.
In January 1991, rebels overthrew former Somali dictator Mohammed Siad Barre. Since then, ethnic fighting between rival clans has led to massive destruction and widespread starvation in the country.
A United Nations-brokered cease-fire for Mogadishu went into effect in early March and has been fairly well observed. Until then, random shelling between the two forces of this divided city had killed thousands.
Relief officials estimate as many as 14,000 people may have died in Mogadishu since November due to the fighting, disease, and lack of food.
But battles between rival groups continue throughout Somalia, according to several Somali political leaders of various factions.
A crisis of hunger grips the country.
One Western relief worker says bluntly: "People are starving in Mogadishu." And severe malnutrition is on the increase in some other parts of the country as well, the relief worker says.
Among the worst affected are the thousands of Ethiopian refugees who fled here to escape fighting in their own country.
"[Ethiopians] are one of the most vulnerable groups because they don't have clans here," says a UNICEF official working in Mogadishu. Clans are ethnic groups. Somalis turn to members of their families and clans in emergencies, the official says, but Ethiopians here can turn only to themselves.
Abukar Oman Abdulai, who lives in a courtyard jammed with stick huts covered with burlap and plastic here, points to a weak, thin-limbed child. "This baby can't live much longer," he says. "We are hungry. We are suffering. Help us as soon as possible."
The UN, which has been strongly criticized by Somalis and private relief agencies operating here for not intervening sooner, engineered the cease-fire agreement between the two warring factions in Mogadishu to open the way for food distribution.
Under the UN plan, the food will be delivered under heavily armed guard to 85 centers, from where Somali neighborhood leaders and armed rebels will divide it among the people.
Some of the food will be given to the rebels for their own use, Bassiouni says, reflecting UN policy for Somalia that recognizes the need to cooperate with the rebels.
Part of Mogadishu is under the control of Ali Mahdi, named interim president of Somalia at a conference of Somali factions in neighboring Djibouti last year. The larger part of the city is controlled by Gen. Mohammed Farah Aidid, chairman of the United Somali Congress, the rebel group that defeated President Barre last year. Both Mr. Mahdi and General Aidid are members of the same clan, but are of different sub-clans.
Last month, Barre made an attempt to regain power, advancing with several thousand soldiers toward Mogadishu from his home area in the southern part of the country. He was met and defeated by Aidid's forces, who chased him into Kenya, where he currently is in exile.