Small Signs of Renewal in Somalia

In the region that was once the nation's breadbasket, some farmers are trying to plant new crops. But seeds, farming tools, and spare parts are needed to sustain the recovery. Most Somalis are not farmers, but herdsman. In normal times, about 80 percent of the population depends on livestock. At least a third of the camels and up to half of the goats either starved or were killed for food or stolen.

HUSSEIN SENE AHMED stands calf-deep in muddy water with two other men, repairing irrigation dikes on a small farm. Beneath their feet small green stalks have begun breaking through the soil. Dried corn husks from the previous crop lie scattered about.

"We planted this area," Mr. Ahmed says. "The biggest problem was seeds. I don't have enough corn seeds. We cleared the corn stocks to make a small dike." He says he has enough food to feed his family but needs more seeds to finish planting before the expected annual rains come in a few weeks.

Signs of revival are appearing throughout this coastal region. South of Mogadishu, the capital, and less than 120 miles from where the famine has hit hardest, this area was once Somalia's breadbasket.

Acres of ripened bananas and corn await harvesting. Miles of irrigation canals, though heavily silted, are still in use. Occasionally a farmer passes by on a tractor, usually accompanied by one or two guards with machine guns to ward off armed looters.

In the nearby town of Afgoi, scene of many battles in Somalia's civil war, and the coastal town of Merca, the streets are full of people. Many shops are open.

But if these stirrings are to bloom into a true recovery, large quantities of seeds, farming tools, and spare parts will be needed, along with much more relief food, Somali and foreign experts say.

Farmers "need fuel and [replacements] for looted machinery, water pumps, and spare parts," says Yusuf Moman, a Somali agricultural expert in Afgoi. Fertile farmland

Somalia's most fertile farming area, which includes this coastal region, lies roughly between the Juba and Schebele rivers. Ironically it also includes much of the area hardest-hit by famine.

Many farmers fled the area due to fighting against Maj. Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre, the dictator who was toppled in January 1991. Others fled inter-clan fighting since then. Many farmers who stayed on their land were repeatedly robbed of crops, tools, and other property.

"These chaps [Somali farmers] never give up," says Erwin Koenig, an ICRC official here. They keep trying to farm as long as they have strength and the area is relatively peaceful, he says.

Just three or four months ago, conditions were "very, very bad," says Renaud Gerber of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Merca. But looting of food relief is now minimized by the presence of the ICRC and locally hired guards, he says.

This is not to say the effects of famine have passed from this region. While some farmers struggle to plant new crops, others struggle to stay alive.

In a house-turned-hospital in Merca, little Abudllahi lies on a mat on the dirty floor. He is skinny; his legs are folded up.

"They come too late," says nurse Jacqueline Merne of Goal, an Irish charity. "We think there's more in the bush we can't reach."

Somali agricultural expert Hussein Iman agrees. He says "some family members are lying in their houses so weak they can't go out." He estimates that, due to the fighting, looting, and drought, farmers lost 80 percent of their crops this year.

Closer to Baidoa, the epicenter of the famine - about 120 miles inland and where fighting continued well into this year - the harvest was "practically nothing," adds Mr. Koenig of the ICRC.

Koenig says another dimension of the problem is that most Somalis are not farmers, but herdsman. In normal times, about 80 percent of the population depends on livestock. At least a third of the camels and up to half of the goats either starved, were killed for food, or were stolen.

Rebuilding herds will take a long time and is not practical in areas where clashes between clans are still taking place, Koenig says. Toward self-sufficiency

Meanwhile, United Nations officials and private relief groups say the first step is getting farmers back on their feet. The ICRC has delivered nearly 900 tons of corn, sorghum, and cow-pea seeds to Somalia. Save the Children, Care, Oxfam, and UNICEF are also supplying seeds.

Philip Johnston, president of Care, visited Somalia to explore ways to employ hundreds, if not thousands, of Somalis on a "food for work" program to repair a network of canals connected to the Juba and Schebele rivers. Dr. Johnston estimates it will take Somalia 10 to 20 years to rebuild the country's infrastructure.

Oxfam's Alec Wilson says the aim of the Oxfam/UNICEF program is to help "rehabilitate physically and economically the rural areas of southern Somalia." The joint project will provide free seeds and hand tools to farmers in this region.

Oxfam also hopes to help pay for the costs of cleaning silt out of larger irrigation canals.

One of the seed suppliers to Oxfam and UNICEF is Hassan Noor Bilal, who has a 250-acre farm near this village. Unlike many smaller farmers, he was able to hire guards to protect the corn crop he recently harvested.

In the turmoil of the civil war, Mr. Bilal offered sanctuary to a dozen Ethiopian refugees who now work for him, producing corn seeds for Oxfam/UNICEF program.

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