A NEW outbreak of bitter clan fighting is turning the troubled East African nation of Somalia into the worst humanitarian crisis facing the world today.
Since late November, two rival factions have been battling for control of the capital city of Mogadishu, sending tens of thousands of refugees streaming into a countryside already afflicted with severe malnutrition.
"It is not a good situation at all," says Andrew Natsios, director of the US Department of State's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance. "It's reminiscent of the 1984 Ethiopian famine."
The violence has slowed the flow of relief supplies to a fraction of what is needed. Many relief organizations have been hesitant to send workers into a chaotic situation that recently claimed the lives of an International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) staff member and a doctor working for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).
"Food is already scarce, and without emergency relief food distributions, the number of hunger-related deaths is likely to escalate dramatically," says a recent United States Agency for International Development (AID) report.
Somalia has been in the grip of civil war since 1988. Although the nation's longtime strongman, President Mohammed Siad Barre, was overthrown in January 1991, the assorted rebel groups that ousted him have been unable to rally around a new government and have fallen to fighting among themselves. The latest outbreak of shooting dates from Nov.17 and involves two clans within the United Somali Congress, the rebel organization that controls Mogadishu. They have done relatively little damage to each other wh ile exacting a heavy civilian toll.
With thousands of Mogadishu residents killed or wounded already in the crossfire, people are fleeing into the countryside. But without transportation they can't flee to villages or neighboring countries. With little food, water, or sanitation, they are deteriorating quickly.
Even before this latest movement of people began, the civil war had plunged Somalia into chaos and famine. The UN estimates some 4.5 million of the country's 8 million population have been affected in one way or another. Earlier this summer, an ICRC survey found that 40 to 60 percent of children in central and southern Somalia were suffering from severe malnutrition, with 20 to 30 percent more experiencing moderate malnutrition.
As in a number of other troubled African nations, young men with automatic weapons are the scourge of refugees. In some instances relief agencies have been asked to supply not food, but seeds, which are treated to be inedible themselves. Andrew Natsios explains that if the civilians "are caught with food, then the gangs may kill them. They prefer just getting the seeds so they can plant them."
The 1992 harvest won't alleviate the situation. Only about 5 percent of Somalia's usual crops were planted last year.
Last month the White House approved a $40 million increase in emergency aid for Somalia. And in recent weeks the Belgian military has completed an airlift aimed at landing 270 tons of food and medicine in Mogadishu, paid for jointly by the UN and the European Community. A ship with 800 tons of Red Cross supplies has been unable to dock at Mogadishu because of continued shelling of the port.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has been the main organization working to distribute relief supplies through Somalia. However, due to the danger, only a handful of foreign relief workers are still in the country, including among others representatives of the French group Medicins sans Frontiers and Save the Children Fund/UK.
American officials insist that, to stave off catastrophe, the UN and private relief groups must get into the country. US government relief agencies do little distribution themselves, dispensing most of their budgets as grants to these private groups. In the end, a long-term solution is out of the hands of foreigners.
"I don't see things improving in Somalia unless the Somalis take things into their own hands," says Natsios.