Thursday, February 18, 2010

Somalia: A Population on the Run

Special Report By Theresa Warzecha
Edited by Aisha Mohammed

Pirates who hijack and capture ships along the shore of the Horn of Africa is what usually comes to mind when thinking of Somalia. Although international media has delved into this issue, the story behind piracy somehow got lost.

For 19 years, Somalia has suffered from an ongoing civil war and yet there is no end in sight. Since 1991, there has been no stable government. Instead, daily fights and killings shake the country. “There is a whole generation of Somali children who haven't experienced a single day of peace in their whole life,” said Roberta Russo, spokeswoman for Somalia of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR, Nairobi). Particularly affected by the conflict are south and central Somalia. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC), 1.55 million people have been internally displaced in 2009 because of the ongoing fighting; more than half of the Somali population is in need of humanitarian aid. As for the new year, 63,000 people have been uprooted in just the first three weeks.

The conflict in Somalia is fueled by the adverse interests of several fractions. On one side, there is the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and its armed forces, supported by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Opposing them are armed groups, of which the two major ones are al-Shabaab and Hizbul-Islam. Yet more groups, like Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama, an Islamic group allied to the TFG, have joined the fighting, which has further obscured the situation. As for the current state, the armed opposition groups control the majority of territory in south and central Somalia and are very well equipped. “Armed groups get their weapons from the illicit arms trade that goes on between Eritrea and Somalia, between Yemen and Somalia,” said Benedicte Godriaux, a researcher for Amnesty International. “But they are also able to capture a substantial amount of weapons when they win battles against the TFG,” she further explained. That way, armed opposition groups are able to bypass the UN arms embargo, which was installed in 1992.

In the past three years, the situation has grown even more acute, precipitating great misery for the Somali population. In Mogadishu, Somalia's capital, “between 10 to 100 civilians get killed per week,” said Godrieaux. The constant fighting induced an enormous movement of the Somali population. People left their homes and property behind, desperate to escape the war zone. According to the UNHCR, 366,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) are currently living on the outskirts of Mogadishu in an area known as the Afgooye corridor, either hoping for the fighting to stop, or about to leave the country altogether. The majority heads toward neighboring countries. At present, there are about 309,000 Somali IDPs living in Kenya, while 162,000 fled to Yemen and 59,000 to Ethiopia. Smaller populations can also be found in Uganda, Djibouti, Eritrea or Tanzania.

The living conditions of IDPs who are still in Somalia are appalling. People suffer from malnutrition, water supply is insufficient, and medical facilities are almost not existent. In short, there is “a lack of access to any kind of livelihood,” said Russo. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that humanitarian aid does not reach those in need. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for humanitarian agencies to operate inside Somalia. In the past, staff members encountered massive threats; others were kidnapped or deliberately killed. The World Food Program, for example, ceased its work inside the country after three of its workers were murdered last year.

The conditions in the refugee camps in neighboring countries might be slightly better, but they are still alarming. The camps in Kenya are facing the greatest flood of refugees with new people arriving every day, and are overcrowded. According to the UN, they are now sheltering up to ten times the population they were originally designed to host. However, it is not only space that has become scarce: “Everything is either in short supply or not available,” describes an unnamed informant working for the UN. Poor sanitation conditions, together with a lack of medical care, are causing a public health emergency, warned Oxfam International in a report in 2009. Furthermore, although there are basic education facilities, the teacher-pupil-ratio hardly allows to adequately impart knowledge.

Along with displacement, other violations of human rights have also occurred. Nuur Mohamud Shekh, a country analyst on Somalia working for the International Displacement Monitoring Center, identifies one serious problem: “There has frequently been recruitment of IDP children by armed militia groups.” Most often, children are helplessly exposed to the violent militias. Women often become victims of sexual abuses; incidents of rape have been reported in both the refugee settlements inside Somalia and the camps in other countries. In utter despair, refugees pay exorbitant amounts of money for smugglers who promise to send them to other countries. For example, to get to Yemen, refugees have to cross the Gulf of Aden. Relying on smugglers as their only option, they set off in small, overloaded boats, often without any food or water. Many of them never reach the other shore. Meanwhile, criminal prosecution seems impossible because there is no proper rule of law in Somalia.

Attempts by the TFG to improve the situation have not been successful to date. The signing of the African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of IDPs in Africa last year and plans to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child are certainly worthwhile intentions. However, there is little hope that these commitments can be implemented. “It's a government in name, in reality they have almost no influence on the country,” says Godrieaux. Meanwhile, international attention is directed elsewhere.

This inattention might in part be caused by the hostile conditions, which make Somalia inaccessible for foreign observers, be they humanitarian workers or journalists. In fact, journalists in Somalia have to face extreme dangers. Hassan Osman Abdi, a journalist for Shabelle Media Network in Mogadishu, emphasizes that “local journalists work under very hard and risky conditions.” In the past, journalists have been directly targeted and killed by armed opposition groups. The last foreign journalists, Amanda Lindhout and Nigel Brennan finally left the country last year, after they were held hostage for 15 months, says Abdi. Despite these life-threatening conditions, he sees great necessity for covering the events in Somalia. Godrieaux is concerned that “the true level of suffering of the civilians is not truly known.” She believes as that people's attention needs to be called to the plight of Somali IDPs: “Otherwise, maybe you get a bit indifferent.”

Photos from ABC TV and

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