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Feeding Somalia

In an on-scene report, the official who is in charge of America's relief effort describes `the most desperate human suffering I have ever seen'

By Andrew Natsios, Andrew Natsios, assistant administrator for the Bureau for Food and Humanitarian Assistance at the US Agency for International Development, was appointed by President Bush as special coordinator for Somali relief Aug. 16. He returned from a trip to Kenya and Somalia Aug. 31. / September 11, 1992



SEVERAL weeks ago, 600 people lived in a village near Belet Weyne, in western Somalia. By last week, the population had swelled to 7,000. Why? Because of rumors that food would soon be in that area.

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Two years ago, you could buy a kilo bag of rice in Belet Weyne's market for 35,000 Somali shillings ($5). Last summer, as drought and fighting among the Somali clans restricted food supplies, the price of rice skyrocketed to more than 300,000 shillings per bag, then dropped to 120,000 shillings last month. The day before the United States Department of Defense started its airlift of American food, the price of rice plummeted to 80,000 shillings (about $11) - still too high.

Recently some armed teenage hoodlums moved into the area and began raping women and looting food. Local clan leaders, attempting to end their violent rampage, designated the most respected clan elder to meet with the young men. The teenagers blew his head off.

These three stories illustrate the kind of environment in which the US Agency for International Development, the Department of Defense, the United Nations, and a host of private voluntary organizations have been trying to provide food and medical assistance to the people of Somalia.

Despite horrendous obstacles, much has been accomplished. In the more than 18 months that the US has been involved in humanitarian relief activities in Somalia, we have committed more than $85 million; more than 80,000 tons of American food either have arrived or will be in Somalia within the next few months. The US alone has donated 57 percent of the food that has moved into Somalia during the past year.

Since President Bush announced new initiatives to assist Somalia, the US government has airlifted food into northern Kenya for Somali refugees who crossed the border and for Kenyans stricken by the drought. The US military also has begun airlift operations to Belet Weyne, and we will soon begin distribution to other locations within Somalia.

Our relief strategy in this ravaged country consists of six key elements: 1) selling food to Somali merchants to drive down prices; 2) providing free food through feeding stations or soup kitchens, primarily targeted at displaced populations in urban areas; 3) providing free dry food in bulk quantities to those with no resources in remote villages; 4) enhancing security, relying upon UN peacekeeping troops; 5) decentralizing food distribution sites away from urban areas; and 6) making more stable areas, such as northeast Somalia, self-sufficient once again by providing seeds and tools, rehabilitating animal herds, reconstructing wells, and starting up hospitals using the money we obtain from the sale of food.

This strategy has been carefully designed to deal with the problems we encounter daily in Somalia. We are shifting the sites where people can get food to locations away from the cities, to end a deadly migration for survival. (According to recent reports, half of the people traveling to Belet Weyne from remote villages are dying along the way.)

We are using several simultaneous approaches to move food into Somalia. About half of the 145,000 tons of the food that the president pledged for the next fiscal year will be given to the destitute. The remainder will be sold in commercial markets.

It is imperative that those markets begin operating again. As more food becomes available in Somalia, both free and for sale, prices drop dramatically. We must break the vicious cycle in Somalia in which food equals money, a commodity so valuable it is being obtained at gunpoint.

Our airlift is avoiding the capital city of Mogadishu, where food relief workers have been killed and UN guards shot. Instead, we will concentrate rehabilitation efforts on areas that are relatively more stable and secure. We are making it clear to the clan leaders that as long as they continue to allow violence in their areas, they are preventing their own people from receiving sustenance.

Over the last several years, as a foreign-disaster official for the administration, I have witnessed and led the US response to most of the major famines in the world. But a few days ago in southern Somalia, I saw the most desperate human suffering I have ever seen.

The preceding day, the International Committee of the Red Cross had collected 176 bodies of people who had died in Baidoa in the previous 24 hours (these were just the children and adults who had no relatives left to bury them). When I visited a center that was feeding more than 4,000 displaced people a day, two elderly women lay dead at the building's entrance. As I walked out, a teenage boy who had just died on the street corner was being removed in a wheel barrow.

I saw a five-year-old girl at the center whose parents were dead. Only her 11-year-old sister remained to look after her. That morning, the little girl died, leaving the older sister alone in the world, a world that for her holds some small glimmer of hope only because of what the US government, American and European voluntary relief workers, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the UN are doing to help. I can only hope that through these heroic efforts, the horrors of Somalia will be overco me.