Four years of civil war and drought leave Somalis starving

August 23, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Staff Writer

MOGADISHU, SOMALIA — War, drought and famine are here. Somalia lacks but one horseman more to make the apocalypse complete.

Pestilence has yet to arrive. War, drought and famine are here.

"There is nothing here; there is nothing left," says Muhammed, a Somalian accountant. "It is the punishment of God. No one can help the Somalis."

There is no government, no bureaucracy; there are no politics beyond the gun.

"If somebody steals your watch and you catch him, who do you turn him over to?" asks the Egyptian ambassador, Fathi Hassan, the lone foreign diplomat holding out in Mogadishu.

There are no police.

Nobody makes anything. People grow no gardens, plant no seeds. You can't telephone anywhere, send or receive a letter. No electricity runs through the lines above the streets. The underground cables have been dug up, the copper sold off.

There is no drinkable water; the city's pipes have also been excavated and sold. There are no ambulances. Nobody puts out fires or repairs the roads. The only occupation is looting.

Trash smolders in the streets or rots; some of it is hauled to the beach and burned by an agency of the United Nations using donkeys and carts. Hulks of burned cars, bombed tanks, the carcasses of dead animals, donkeys and camels here and there, block the streets.

Children are not in school and haven't been for two years. They are lounging about with assault rifles as big as they are slung over their shoulders, robbing anybody who is unarmed and might have something worth having.

The people who work for the relief agencies live in guarded compounds, French, Australians, Irish, Canadians, Swedes, Austrians and other nationalities. They hire their own gunmen, who accompany them in vehicles or when walking a block or two, even in daylight.

At night come the buzzings of malarial mosquitoes and the coughing sound, above the houses, of machine guns talking to each other.

It is always necessary to have firepower in Mogadishu. It is even more necessary to display it.

Some 4.5 million people are affected to some degree by the drought and famine. The war touches everybody. If food relief does not grow substantially, and quickly, says one aid worker, 1.5 million people could starve.

"I've never seen malnutrition or hunger like here," says James Newton of World Vision International. "Not even in Ethiopia in 1984."

Most of the people have no shelter. Half of them -- more than 3 million -- have little food, or none. The youngest and weakest die slowly; they slip away. Those who survive are hardly fit for life in such a hard place.

Amputees from the civil war are everywhere in the streets. The only food and medical care are provided by such voluntary organizations as the Red Cross, Save the Children, the United Nations Children's Fund, Medecins Sans Frontieres and other organizations from those countries that long ago saw the apocalypse coming to this arid, pastoral land in the Horn of Africa and came to confront it.

People live in shacks, sprawl on the streets, die in the alleys, of hunger, infection or bullets.

How many? There is no way of knowing. The current guess is about 1,500 a day in Mogadishu alone. Everyone agrees things are much worse in the countryside, from both the famine and the effects of the war.

On Aug. 12 fighting broke out in Medina, in the south of the city. Digfer Hospital was full of blood: 50 casualties were brought in that day, among them four women and three children.

One was an 18-month-old baby girl named Rumi Osman. Her stomach was shot out by a stray bullet during an altercation between two young boys in the city's market. The same bullet killed her mother, Seyna, who was only 16. Rumi's father was slain five months ago.

No one knows how many never made it to Digfer on that day, or to the hospital in Medina.

A cease-fire is supposed to be in place, a truce between the two factions at war here. It was signed last March. Fifty U.N. observers were sent to monitor it. They do the best they can, which is to remonstrate with both sides when the truce breaks down, as it frequently does.

One of these warlords is Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed. His forces control the southern part of Mogadishu and a larger portion of the country. The other is Ali Mahdi Muhammed, who calls himself the president of Somalia. He controls the northern portion of the city and about 500 miles of territory up the coast and a few spots elsewhere, where his clans predominate.

Is it getting better, or worse?

One relief worker said anyone with an optimistic interpretation of events in Somalia "is batty."

Dr. Said Issa, who runs one of the Red Cross' 95 food kitchens in Mogadishu, said that in early July those kitchens were feeding 150,000 people a day. By Aug. 13 they were feeding 200,000.

He expects more as people stagger in from the countryside.

Food as currency

The national currency of Somalia is food. It is what the warlords pay their troops for their loyalty. People kill each other over it, every day. Those who get it live; those who don't die.

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