The food convoy of battered trucks and exhausted gunmen had crawled for days across the scrubland of southern Somalia. Part of a new system of distributing aid, they may help prevent a repetition of the benchmark famine of 1992, which left an estimated 300,000 Somalis dead.
Some trucks carried "Somalia" license plates - a useless decoration in a country without a central government, much less working traffic police.
But the most surprising thing about this food convoy was that it made it here at all. Because for nearly all this decade, the word "Somalia" has been synonymous with images of predatory gunmen and militia warlords, who freely looted relief food to feed their armies.
The United Nations is once again sounding alarm bells about the likelihood of a major Somalia famine. But for the first time it seems to have found a novel way to get food into the hands of those who need it: by making Somali businessmen responsible for every sack of food.
The idea could be applied in other conflict-ridden famine zones, where the risks of delivering aid can be far greater than the value of the food.
"The US took 25,000 troops to secure food routes to prevent looting [in 1992], but today this system is actually working," says Steve Gluning, a UN security officer for Somalia.
"The traders provide their own security. And yes, sometimes they have to fight their way through," he says. UN World Food Program (WFP) officials admit that they must "pay a premium for that," and that it sometimes doubles the cost of delivery.
For this convoy, the Somali traders laid down a bond of as much as $500,000 for the value of the 620 metric tons of maize. (A metric ton is 1.1 tons.) They shipped it from the Kenya port of Mombasa to a port north of the Somali capital of Mogadishu. Then - protected by more than 132 hired gunmen riding on 11 heavily armed vehicles, for just 30 trucks of food - they set off across the parched wasteland.
If any food is stolen en route, the trader must replace it by purchases in local markets or forfeit part of the bond. Transport is trickiest when crossing from one clan fiefdom to another, and sometimes gunmen are exchanged, providing "income" to each local militia to make sure the food gets through.
It is too dangerous for any foreign UN staffer to be based permanently in southern Somalia to personally hand out food. But an internal WFP report found that out of 10,000 tons of food delivered since November - some 200,000 bags - only two bags failed arrive.
For aid workers who remember Somalia's "bad old days," when as much as 80 percent of the aid was stolen by gunmen, such tiny losses are incredible.
This makes convoy chiefs among the most powerful men in the region. "Anyone who is looting, you should kill them," says Daahir Abdulle Ali, who heads this convoy.
'God belongs to us'
Attacks are "common," Mr. Ali says, "but God belongs to us, because we deliver food to the needy."
For years, disputes over food often led to shootings, kidnappings, and steady death threats against relief workers, forcing most agencies out. Somalis have since been left to themselves.
But relief officials say that the risk of famine has been high. A series of poor harvests in south and central Somalia - the country's traditional breadbasket - have been caused by drought, heavy flooding last year, and widespread insecurity. Rains have begun and have so far been good in south Somalia.
"To launch a serious relief operation in Somalia now is impossible," says Michel Dufour, head of the Somalia program of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which devoted half its worldwide resources to the 1992 famine ."There are too many people in the way - militiamen, businessmen - and so the real needy people are at the end of the chain."
Since ICRC staff members were taken hostage a year ago and then finally released in Mogadishu, ICRC staff have made few overnight trips back. Few other agencies even try.
Still, in northeast Somalia's Puntland region, the ICRC has been trucking water to 70,000 nomads whose wells have dried up. The WFP now estimates that 700,000 to 1 million people in the
southern Bay and Bakool regions are short of food, with some 300,000 of these "most at risk."
Last year, the WFP says it fed 1.6 million Somalis with 25,000 tons of food. The UN figure of a "food gap" of 5,000 tons a month is one of many "alarming signals," Mr. Dufour says. "But where does the food go? We don't know. We're not sure if this dumping of food will destabilize the situation."
That is a question that has faced the aid community for years, but it has gained importance as cases like Sudan, Somalia, Rwanda, and Zaire (now Congo) have shown that misplaced aid can do more harm than good.
When food fueled fighting
In Somalia, militiamen in 1992 took a significant cut of relief supplies and then "profiteered from lucrative jobs as security for these [relief] agencies as well, although they frequently colluded to loot the aid they were paid to protect," notes a 1998 UN report.
"The result was that famine continued to rage ... and the food relief inadvertently fueled the fighting that was causing the crisis," the report said.
Aware of this risk, WFP officials say that current food distributions are carefully targeted. They put food into the hands of those who are hungry - though not yet malnourished - in an attempt to prevent the possible recurrence of starvation scenes.
Around the southern town of Bardera, thousands of people have already left their villages and set up camps nearer the Juba River, where there is water and easier access to food.
Aid delivery uncertainties didn't factor into the decision by Habiibo Salaad and her family of 11 to leave her distant village. Drought was the reason, and she has bad memories of the 1992 hunger, which then drove her to Kenya.
In a crowd of displaced Somalis, she waits patiently for a man with maize dust on his hands to scoop 20 tins of corn into a white sack. She tries to get by, selling wood or river water in town, but "all people are doing these jobs," she says, so the return is small. "We expect Allah to give us rain," she says.
"The popular misconception is that aid makes people dependent, but we will not do that," says Alexander von Braunmuhl, a WFP impact assessment officer in Bardera.
"We will not keep them here. [After the drought] WFP will fine-tune the distribution at places where they come from, to pull them back home."