MOGADISHU, SOMALIA — FOR those aid workers who have braved the security risks and worked in Somalia almost non-stop since dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown in January 1991, criticism of the United Nations is a familiar story.
After pledging a further $200,000 for food distribution in mid-August, a spokesman for the British charity Oxfam-UK voiced the concerns of many relief agencies when he said the UN response to the crisis was "too little, too late."
UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali alerted the world to Somalia's disaster in July, observing that while the world focused on the former Yugoslavia, little aid was getting to the more lethal "poor man's war" in Somalia.
But he also admitted to some UN responsibility by saying in early August, "If only we had intervened last November.... Now we are paying the price."
Even UN officials in Mogadishu complain about the lack of support they have received from their headquarters. "I don't understand this lack of support from New York," said Mohammed Sahnoun, the UN's special representative to Somalia, on Aug. 24. "Always we get promises but nothing concrete."
Little food reached Somalia until May, prompting the country's strongest warlord, Gen. Mohammed Farah Aidid, to complain that he only signed a UN-brokered cease-fire in March so that the UN could bring in food. "The UN actions or inactions are nothing less than a cruel hoax played on the disaster-stricken people of Somalia," he said, "and the Somali people are deeply disappointed with and angry at the United Nations."
Now that the relief food has been promised, the UN must still play a political game. At issue are the 3,500 armed troops that the UN wants to protect relief convoys and distribution centers.
The so-called interim president, Ali Mahdi Mohamed, who as the rival of General Aidid controls only a small portion of Mogadishu, says Somalia needs 15,000 armed UN troops in order to control the looting by gunmen of relief food at ports and feeding centers. But Mr. Ali Mahdi has no other army and UN troops could protect his weak "interim president" status.
For Aidid, armed UN troops might disturb his control over all of southern Somalia and most of the capital. He has agreed to allow 500 UN troops, but vows not to permit 3,000 more. Yet his armed supporters have already proved that they can't distribute food without stealing it, and they often describe the unwanted UN presence as "targets wearing blue helmets."