Charity has hope for Somalians

August 28, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Staff Writer

There are no more half-dead skeletons wandering the streets of Baidoa, in Somalia; the green sorghum stands 8-feet-high in the countryside where a year ago there was nothing but dust.

As reports of a deteriorating security situation for allied troops continue to come out of the country, the Rev. William P. Joy, acting head of the Catholic Relief Service, has brought back evidence that the primary purpose of the United Nations expedition to Somalia at least has been served, evidence that the great famine is over and communal life in some regions outside Mogadishu is returning to normal.

"Talking to people there, they have told me that the first substantial harvest in two to three years is coming in," he said in his Fayette Street office in Baltimore, just back from a tour of the CRS operations in Somalia.

"In several villages people have come back. They are re-digging wells. Planting things other than sorghum [the Somalian staple]. I saw camels, a lot more than I saw eight months ago. There were even some cattle."

Trying to emphasize the positive in Somalia, he said, "I think it is a matter of perception. People have seen the situation in Mogadishu, and their overall impression [of Somalia] is one of chaos and failure. But away from Mogadishu there have been successes, especially in Baidoa."

During the worst days of the famine in Somalia, last summer and fall, planting was impossible, owing to widespread banditry and the drought. Livestock was rarely seen; most of it had been consumed or taken across the border to Kenya.

Catholic Relief and other charities are in what Stefania Slabyj described as the "rehabilitation phase" of the relief operation.

"Now there is an agreement of many NGOs [charities, or nongovernmental organizations] to stop the general distribution of food," said Ms. Slabyj, CRS' assistant desk officer for Africa.

Somalis, at least around the Baidoa area where CRS operates, have enough food, and the charities have determined that free food might undercut the developing market now that Somalian farmers have food to sell.

In fact, according to Ms. Slabyj, CRS has been receiving seeds from Somalian farmers. "We gave seeds and hoes to some 20,000 families, and they are already paying the seed back," she said.

Catholic Relief has been operating in Somalia since October. The agency has distributed 16,000 metric tons of food, and at one time was feeding 225,000 of Somalia's 5 million people.

A year ago, Baidoa, some 100 miles west of Mogadishu and one of the larger interior towns, was a virtual charnel house, a city of the dead and dying, a destination for thousands of starving farmers and their families.

Randall Robinson, executive director of TransAfrica, a Washington think tank that specializes in African issues, urged the Clinton administration on Thursday to stay in Somalia.

To leave, he predicted, would "revisit a disaster of similar dimension" to that of 1992 when between 300,000 to 500,000 Somalis died.

The mandate for U.S. participation in the U.N. operations in Somalia expires in October.

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