Some Somalis Begin Trek Home

Better access to food relief begins to draw displaced people away from urban centers. FAMINE WATCH

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

WHEN civil war came to this village last year, most of the people ran away. Many starved on their way to urban feeding centers, where those who got through managed to get enough food to stay alive.

Now, although some Somalis are still arriving in urban areas seeking food, the human tide may be shifting, as food relief reaches more villages such as this one.

"We have seen a positive change: People are going back [to their villages]," says Fiona Terry, deputy team leader for the charity CARE in Baidoa, a town 60 miles northeast of here. An estimated 80,000 Somalis are seeking relief in Baidoa, where relief officials say the situation has been improving, with the death rate dropping to about 70 a day from a high of 350 a day.

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With the prospect of relief food luring many villagers home again, food must be made available, or the returnees will be worse off than they were in the jammed feeding centers, relief workers say. Rural distribution must be widespread to combat a phenomenon that can be called "cultural starvation" - the reluctance of one ethnic group to share limited supplies with "outsiders" from another ethnic group.

Some villagers living at home, such as Yaro Sheikh Abdullahi, have been able to plant sorghum this season, though seeds are still in short supply. And except where war has destroyed their homes, Somalis often find better shelter in their own village than in the overcrowded urban centers.

But, Ms. Terry says, "there are a lot of areas not touched" by relief shipments.

Food is getting through to many villages, such as Durey, but there are still no medicines. Some people are still dying as a result.

"There's still a lot to be done," says Gregoire Tavernier, of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Expanding relief

The ICRC, CARE, and now Catholic Relief Services (CRS) are delivering food to many villages in this area by truck. The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), which is expanding its aid to Somalia, has been airdropping supplies to some rural areas.

Here in Durey, some children are laughing and running around, even though many of them are still quite thin. Near some huts of sticks and straw matting, an old man using a small hand tool is carving a wooden food bowl. Another man uses a stone to sharpen hoes for weeding fields.

But in the thorn bush-enclosed compounds of huts, some villagers are very sick. Abdullai Aden Issac is so emaciated he can barely shuffle along. Guray Osman lies on a mat in her hut, lacking the strength to get up.

"We are very, very hungry," she says through an interpreter.

Relief officials say people so sick need special feeding programs, but so far, there are none here nor in most other villages.

The difficulties of fair distribution of food are evident here. When 260 bags of US sorghum were delivered by CRS during this reporter's visit, each local family was supposed to get one 50 kilogram (110 lb.) bag to last the two weeks until the next delivery. One sub-chief unloaded numerous bags in his own house.

But outsiders, such as Maalim Hussein Abi Abduraman, mother of four, got only a few kilos. She comes from a different sub-clan (as ethnic groups are called in Somalia) than the people of Durey, though she lives less than two miles from this village. No relief shipments have been delivered to her village.

"We need food," she says, clutching a small straw container with her meager sorghum ration. "I was absent the last time" food was distributed in Durey.

"There's only enough for the Emit," the sub-clan to which the people of Durey belong, says Mohammed Haji Mohammed, one of the village sub-chiefs here. Feeding outsiders is "not compulsory," he says. Tribal diversions

"Tribalism is a problem," says Ali Wardere, a Somali worker with CRS, which began sending sorghum to Durey in late September. CRS hopes to even out such ethnic imbalances in distribution through a registration system monitored periodically by its own Somali and United States staff.

About 35 miles from Durey, in the larger village of Meser, the plump, red-bearded chief, Haj Ahmed Sid Ibrahim, sat cross-legged on a cushioned lawn chair. He told CRS staffer Stephen Jackson that when people fled fighting last year in Baidoa, people in his village "even killed some animals to feed the refugees."

But at the edge of the village, Ibrahim Yirow, nearly starved, sat sweating profusely in the mid-day sun. Belonging to a different sub-clan, he arrived from another village looking for food. Beside him was a leather bowl of cooked but now hardened sorghum. Without milk to mix with it, he could not eat it. And no one had offered any milk for two days.

Perhaps shamed by the presence of visitors, someone in a crowd finally offered him some milk, which he gulped down. Mr. Wardere arranged transportation for the man back to his own village, where, in the meantime, a feeding program has started.

Food deliveries to many villages could be cut off if the recent takeover of the town of Bardera by forces loyal to deposed dictator Mohamed Siad Barre leads to fighting in surrounding rural areas. And the prospect of more fighting could drive some villagers from their homes once again.

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