SO far this year more than 140,000 tons of food has been sent to Somalia, but not all of it has fed the starving.
Frustrated relief workers describe how, since a cease-fire was signed by warring factions in March, the relative peace has also sparked systematic and well-organized looting of relief food. Theft has always accompanied famine relief here, but the crisis has now given rise to "famine profiteers" - merchants operating under the protection of some of the country's warlords.
The chaotic scene at Kismayu port in late August suggests the disorder that allows the organized looting to succeed: A group of gunmen - hired to protect relief food - take a suspected thief behind some containers and menace him with guns; sacks of food split from rope harnesses as they are unloaded, spilling to the ground; loose grains disappear into the hands of anyone on the dock.
It is here that the ship from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), with 3,000 tons of sorghum, has been looted at least twice, relief workers say. These workers and their organizations can't say how much food has been taken, but sorghum has flooded the market in Somalia, bringing the price for one sack from 100,000 Somali shillings to 4,000 in just two weeks. Freelance gunmen
"The ICRC organized convoys [to take food to distribution centers], but they never got to their destination," said one United Nations official working in Kismayu. "It is too dangerous for them to monitor the distribution, so the lorries are diverted along the way." The ICRC is forced to hire freelance gunmen to protect the food, but they are widely accused of looting the food themselves. These boy-mercenaries are easily bought off by merchants or warlords seeking the food.
The situation is the same in the capital Mogadishu. CARE International, which handles food delivery for the UN World Food Programme, also cannot monitor every convoy it sends into the city. "You can follow the distribution map by charting the casualties as they come into the hospital," says a Western relief worker, requesting anonymity, who says he can tell by the increased gunfire that a food convoy is passing nearby.
"In the last few months the petty, random looting that we had before has given way to a more systematic, organized operation run by a few people," he said. "This local mafia releases it onto the market piecemeal, and tries to control the prices."
Looted sorghum from the ICRC ship at Kismayu will travel no further than a secret warehouse and the Kismayu market, because its bulk and cost make transport to Mogadishu markets unprofitable. But stolen rice, corn, beans, and sugar are transported in trucks to the capital, where demand is higher.
"This food is making its way up to the Mogadishu market," says a UN official. "It is clearly a commercial venture."
Other observers in Kismayu say that two of Somalia's most powerful warlords - Mohammed Farah Aidid of the United Somali Congress, who heads a coalition that controls all of southern Somalia, and Omar Jess, a southern leader who controls much of Kismayu and surrounding areas - are at least allowing looting to continue and may be profiting themselves.
At one USC warehouse near the now-destroyed United States Embassy in Mogadishu, trucks packed with sacks of food line up to unload - especially on days when a ship is in port. Food in Somalia only comes from relief agencies, and relief workers say that the sudden appearance of food trucks at the USC warehouse and other sites indicates that food is being stolen and redistributed by businessmen closely allied with the warlords.
The ICRC has spent one-third of its worldwide budget to bring 100,000 tons of food to Somalia this year, but can't track exactly where the food has gone, suggesting the scale of the looting that affects agencies working here.
The 500 kitchens run by the ICRC feed about 1,000 people each. Those half a million Somalis are given 30 pounds of food per month. Including some general distribution, the total food officially consumed is 65,000-70,000 tons, less than three-quarters the amount of food shipped to Somalia.
To protect food convoys from looting, at least in Mogadishu, the UN Security Council has authorized the use of 3,500 armed UN troops. They have yet to join 50 unarmed UN cease-fire monitors who arrived in the capital a month ago. Despite their precautions, two of the UN observers - one from Egypt and another from Czechoslovakia - were injured in a direct attack on them by gunmen at the port on Aug. 28. UN troops expected
The first 500 armed troops, from Pakistan, whose mandate will be to protect convoys full of relief food, are expected to arrive early this month. Canada said Aug. 31 it would also provide 750 troops for the UN force.
The Pakistani commander of UN operations in Somalia, Brig. Imtiaz Shaheen said in an interview that "we will have to come up with ways to determine who is interfering with the convoys. We have the commitment of all sides that they don't do it, so those who do will fall into the criminal category as bandits. They can be taken on in self-defence."
But most of the the problem lies not with the warlords or interim president at the top, who agree that relief food should be protected, but with the mercenaries and gunmen who inflict their will whenever they can.
The representative of the UN Secretary-General in Somalia, Ambassador Mohammed Sahnoun, says that factionalism makes his peacemaking role much more difficult. "We are discovering more and more of these renegade factions, and we see that there is a limit to the power of the strongest warlords. It means we have to speak to so many people to get anything done," he says.
"The most crucifying thing afflicting Somalia is these people with guns who dictate their agenda to us. They are involved in food distribution and every possible institution. They must be controlled, or there will be no progress."
Says one relief worker with long experience in developing countries: "The safest place for food is in people's stomach."