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In the Heart of Somalia

Shortly before the United States military forces intervened in Somalia, I spent several weeks visiting feeding centers where thousands of Somali children are surviving on porridge from the West, while thousands more have been dying. Like so many others, I wonder how aware the US is of what it may be getting into. Are we in effect establishing a protectorate in Somalia? If so, how long will it last? Are we glimpsing the start of a new scheme of things that might spread to other hungry and chaotic parts of Africa, and elsewhere in the world?


Within moments of my arrival at the compound of the German Caritas relief agency in Mogadishu one evening in late October, I heard the sound of automatic weapons. My hosts paid no attention, but I later learned that two doors down the road at another relief compound, two Somali guards had killed each other in a shoot-out. Next morning, I set out to see Mogadishu for myself. For $80 a day, Rasheed, a local businessman, arranged for me to be driven in a white Toyota with new blue upholstery and accompanied by four young men with Russian and American automatic rifles. My driver was named Mohammed; and my “interpreter,” a boy of about fifteen who sat next to me in the back seat, chewing the green leaves of qaat, the local drug of choice, called himself “Mussolini.”

I was not anxious to advertise that I was a writer, for Western journalists are not popular with Somali gunmen. Therefore I had come to Somalia as the guest of the US Catholic Relief Services. The CRS had no compound in Mogadishu, so I was lodged in the spacious white villa of its sister agency, German Caritas, the (very rich) relief arm of the German Catholic bishops working jointly in Somalia with the Lutheran World Federation.

In a mixture of English, Arabic, and Italian I told Mussolini that I wished to see the Medina Hospital and we drove swiftly through teeming streets. Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, a city of more than one million, has been described on American television as a heap of rubble but it is in fact largely intact. Many of its buildings, erected by the Italians earlier in this century, have bullet scars, and entire blocks are devastated from clan conflicts and civil wars, but the city does not resemble Berlin in 1945 or even Beirut in the 1970s. Amid the piles of uncollected garbage and the rows of shacks, most of the people looked adequately fed. The Somali shilling had stabilized against the dollar, prices had dropped, and food was available to anyone who could buy it.

Yet there is no government and no police force, and all the foreign embassies have fled. The streets roared with vans, trucks, and open jeeps mounted with machine guns and crammed with youths—eighteen, fifteen, twelve years old carrying Russian AK-47s, American M-16s, grenade launchers, and bazookas. Many, like Mussolini, were chewing qaat, a stimulant like benzedrine imported from Kenya, which makes them high. Some called themselves security guards but where they were rushing, down this street, up the next, no one seemed to know. Their bumper stickers say, in English, I ♥ SOMALIA. Many wear T-shirts with the message I AM THE BOSS.

At the Medina Hospital, nearly the entire medical staff, about fifteen people, all of them Somalis, crowded into the director’s office to meet me. I explained that I was only a guest of the CRS, but they implored me to intercede with the director of CRS in Nairobi to save their hospital. “We have only ten doctors,” the director said. “Six months ago we had forty, but they fled the country. We cannot pay our workers. We have no medicines.” The deputy director wrote out a list of supplies the hospital needed urgently: “Glucose, plasma, penicillin, ampicillin, morphine, insulin, syringes, iodine, soap, plastic gloves, catheters, colostomy bags, beds, mattresses, sheets, surgical lamps, stethoscopes…,” and on for several pages. He added, “Médecins Sans Frontières [Doctors Without Borders] used to help us, but now they refuse. Please help us.”

He took me through the crowded hospital—several low cement buildings with nearly five hundred patients. There were no sheets on the beds, and the mattresses were filthy; the rooms and corridors had not been swept for weeks, or months; excrement lay heaped in the toilets. Many of the patients had gunshot wounds: a woman’s stomach had been ripped open; an adolescent boy had lost a testicle. An Egyptian surgeon told me, “I can’t operate—no electricity.” The wards spilled out into the sunshine of an open yard, where beds were set up haphazardly in the dust. Hundreds of hungry squatters, refugees from the famished countryside, were camped on the hospital grounds in huts made of twigs and plastic.

I went at once to the compound of Médecins Sans Frontières to ask why they had refused further aid to Medina Hospital. An official told me, “During the war, we ran that hospital. We still give what help we can. They want us to reconstruct the entire place, and we can’t.” Whenever MSF sent medicines and supplies to the hospital, he told me, they rarely reached the patients: the staff stole them and sold them on the open market. Such accusations are common among the nongovernmental relief organizations (NGOs)—food and medicine intended for the starving are constantly intercepted by Somalis and sold for high profits.

Médecins Sans Frontières inhabits the former embassy of the United Arab Emirates—a vast palace with wide verandas, marble floors, and crystal chandeliers. Other NGOs are housed as comfortably in the armed compounds of abandoned embassies and the villas of the vanished rich. Mogadishu has no electricity, but each aid compound has its own generator and refrigerators, china, cutlery, and cooks; a visitor can expect cool drinks and a hearty meal. The SOS Kinderdorf hospital, run by Italian nuns of the Consolata, feeding and caring for hundreds of sick and hungry children a day, is even air-conditioned, and it is as clean and well-equipped as any hospital in Europe. Many of the relief workers, I noticed, smoke cigarettes constantly. The women—often young and pretty—imitate Somali women by covering their feet and the palms of their hands with elaborate floral patterns of henna dye. At night, the hard-working staffs of the aid organizations mingle at cocktail parties and dances with live orchestras, while outside in the streets the gunfire goes on.


At the beginning of December, before the arrival of the American forces, there were two sources of power in Somalia, two de facto governments—the gunmen and the foreign relief agencies.

ICRC, the International Committee of the Red Cross, each day feeds about 1.5 million of the hungry at nine hundred kitchens throughout Somalia, including several hundred in Mogadishu alone. Hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees have poured into Mogadishu, where the ICRC feeds them high-nutrient porridges of rice, wheat, beans, and oil. In a country of six million people, ICRC is now spending nearly a quarter of a billion dollars, or a third of its global budget, to reverse the Somali famine, one of the worst of the century, in which some 250,000 people are estimated to have died so far and as many as 1.5 million more are said by American experts to be threatened with death by starvation if aid does not reach them quickly.

In addition, dozens of smaller NGOs—among them CARE, Oxfam, Irish Concern, Irish Goal, World Vision, Save the Children UK, International Medical Corps, Action Internationale Contre la Faim, Catholic and Protestant church agencies—run supplementary feeding centers and medical and development projects throughout Somalia. Because of the enormous need, most of the smaller agencies tend to concentrate on feeding the starving young children and their mothers, leaving other adults to fend for themselves. Yet at one agency or another, many of the adults manage to obtain minimum amounts of grain and high-protein biscuits, which they share with their families in their squalid camps.

I visited many feeding centers, and watched the swarms of hungry children and their mothers waiting patiently at the compound gates and then rushing forward to get the plates of porridge and plastic cups of milk when at last the gates opened. Geraldine, an Englishwoman at Save the Children UK, told me:

At home, I used to work in the National Health, but my children are grown up, so I came to Somalia. It’s bad, yes, but you should have seen Mogadishu a few months ago. Our cases of starvation are way down. And look, we’re not all Europeans—we work with Somali doctors and nurses from the old Ministry of Health. To cure a case of malnutrition, the ICRC minimum is 2,000 calories a day. We feed our children 900 calories a day—beans, maize, and oil—in our supplementary program and therapeutic section. Milk for the sickest. Look at my little miracles: this child came to us eight months old, weighing three kilos, almost dead. Look at her! She’s healthy now.

The relief agencies meet regularly to coordinate their efforts, though Caritas officials told me that in practice such coordination is ineffective, causing duplication and waste of resources. Officials of smaller agencies criticize the ICRC for overspending, for paying such high salaries to Somali workers and guards that their own costs have soared. They criticize both CARE (which distributes much of the US government food) and the ICRC for sloppy methods of delivery. “In the interior,” I was told, “the ICRC and CARE have dumped food on the side of the road, leaving it there for hungry villagers, but the food is often stolen by gunmen.” These criticisms may be valid, but in view of the terrible conditions of security it seemed to me a marvel that the larger and smaller agencies have managed to function at all.

Somalia covers about 247,000 square miles, almost the size of Texas. The northern part—including about a third of the country up the coast of the Indian Ocean, then westward along the Gulf of Aden—is more stable, and prosperous, and better fed than the southern part, near the Kenyan border, though its resources are now strained by refugees from the south seeking food and survival. Northeastern Somalia, dominated by the Somali Salvation Democratic Front of the Majerteen clan, even has a working civil administration influenced by clan leaders. Northwestern Somalia, corresponding roughly to the former protectorate of British Somaliland, has benefited recently from good rains and the growth of livestock as well as food and veterinary assistance from the ICRC.

The famine, which is most severe in the center and south of Somalia, grew out of clan and civil wars, drought, the destruction of agriculture, livestock, infrastructure, and the death of the economy. The famine has created two million refugees, many still living inside Somalia but displaced from their villages, while hundreds of thousands of others have fled into Ethiopia, northern Kenya, and places beyond. Huge amounts of food and medical assistance are being sent to the most stricken regions in the center and south of Somalia, and to refugees just outside the country.

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