UN Workers Hope to Reach Starving Somalia Hinterland

AFTER months of bitter fighting, rival factions in Mogadishu have begun cooperating to distribute food relief to several hundred thousand famished residents of this beleaguered East African capital.

Now United Nations officials, who negotiated a cease-fire here in March and a food distribution plan in April, hope to win similar breakthroughs with warring groups in other parts of the country.

Within a few weeks, a special representative of UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali will "embark on a peace initiative, talking to various factions to bring them to speak to each other," says UNICEF official David Bassiouni. The special representative "intends to reach all parts of the country," Mr. Bassiouni says.

"We are using the humanitarian assistance as a sort of leverage to bring about some accommodation between these factions," he adds.

It will not be easy. "The divisions [between rival Somali clans and sub-clans] are so deep it's probably premature" to attempt genuine peace negotiations, as compared to temporary settlements to bring in food relief, a Western diplomat says.

Conflict and hunger increasingly have gripped Somalia since January 1991, when rebels overthrew 21-year dictator Maj. Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre. The Washington-based Population Crisis Committee, which monitors living standards and political freedom worldwide, Sunday listed Somalia as the second worst of 141 countries for human suffering.

Although a UN-brokered cease-fire is holding in Mogadishu, where fighting erupted last November between rival factions vying for control of the capital, the pact "has to be viewed as fragile [because] none of the underlying differences among the factions have been resolved," the Western diplomat adds.

Politically, except for the northeast and Mogadishu, Somalia "is getting worse in terms of the number of areas where there is fighting and the number of factions and depth of divisions between them," the diplomat says. "The country is far more fragmented than it was a year ago."

Market prices of food have soared due to scarcity. Some of the most famished in Mogadishu were reduced to eating leather. This desperate need appears to have been the key behind the cooperation among rival clans in Mogadishu.

"People are dying of hunger and lack of medicines," says Mohamed Farah, a diplomat on the side of Gen. Mohamed Farah Aidid, leader of one of the two main factions in Mogadishu. "So everybody has to accept the distribution of the food."

The first UN relief ship to be allowed by Somali rebels in Mogadishu docked May 2 carrying about 5,500 tons of food.

"Everyone has been surprised at how smoothly and efficiently this [the distribution] has gone," a UNICEF official says.

But in many other parts of Somalia, the situation is bleak.

In Beled Weyne, in central Somalia, malnutrition is "as high as 40 percent among residents," and "up to 80 to 90 percent" among those who fled to the area in order to escape fighting elsewhere in the country, says Willy Jansen, a relief official with the International Committee of the Red Cross.

In the north, factional fighting in the port of Berbera and the city of Hargeysa has caused acute food shortages. "People are starving," says Fawzia Yusuf Adam, a Somali aid and development worker.

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