BAIDOA, Somalia -- The famine in Somalia could have been mitigated if the United Nations had dispatched relief experts months ago instead of relying on a small crew of junior staff members in the country, a senior U.N. official has said.
"It's so bad because we've let things simmer without paying proper attention," said Trevor Page, the newly appointed head of the World Food Program, in Somalia. "We've had inexperienced people who don't know what they are seeing, who don't know what the implications are and didn't blow the whistle."
Mr. Page, who has worked for the U.N. food agency for 30 years and directed all emergency programs in the 1980s, said he had not seen such human suffering since the Biafra famine of the late 1960s and the Bangladesh crisis of 1971.
"But in those places, we were much better organized," he said.
The World Food Program made its first airlift to Baidoa yesterday on a transport packed with 17 tons of high-protein biscuits for the more than 8,000 seriously malnourished children being fed at four centers.
More than 20,000 hungry adults are served one meal a day in Baidoa at outdoor kitchens by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The U.N. plane, with Mr. Page on board, was met by Anita Ennis, one of two nurses who runs the feeding centers on behalf of Irish Concern, a relief agency based in Ireland.
"The biscuits are really important; we had a limited supply," Miss Ennis said.
Mr. Page said the U.N. airlift would continue until arrangements could be made to protect truck convoys from the war-torn Somali capital, Mogadishu, to Baidoa. The trucks have come under fire from heavily armed looters.
The town has attracted tens of thousands of hungry people from the bush, many left bereft by gangs who stole their animals in the anarchy that has enveloped Somalia since a civil war intensified in November.
In addition to the war, the nation on the Horn of Africa has suffered the effects of a long drought.
Its population, estimated at between 4.5 million and 6 million, is made up largely of nomadic peoples.
Relief workers say children are dying daily in the feeding centers and bodies are still seen strewn on the roads leading into Baidoa, even though food deliveries by the Red Cross started here last month.
Mr. Page said the World Food Program planned to airlift 5,000 tons of food to centers in most need. The country needed 400,000 tons of food this year, he said. So far, just over 100,000 tons has been delivered.
"Because of the disorganization in the United Nations, less than a third of the food that is needed has been delivered," he said.