The United Nations has been calling for increased aid contributions to Somalia since the beginning of the summer, when the worst drought in 60 years began to signal an impending humanitarian crisis. But that aid may not be reaching thousands who are dying within Somalia, because of the actions of al-Shabaab, an Islamist militant group which controls large segments of the country. In 2009, al-Shabaab banned all foreign aid organizations from Somalia, saying that they did not want outside interference. But as conditions worsened, they seemed to soften, allowing organizations with no “political motivation” to enter the country.
Now, however, al-Shabaab is denying that they ever permitted foreign organizations back into the country. And to make matters worse, they are targeting the few places in Somalia where citizens can go to receive foreign aid. The capital, Mogadishu, is partially controlled by a weak African Union-backed government, which is working with the UN to get aid into the country. Famine conditions, however, are primarily concentrated in the south, which is controlled by al-Shabaab. Desperate Somalis have begun defying al-Shabaab and fleeing to the parts of Mogadishu where aid is available. But violence in the capital is getting in their way. Aid workers estimate that there are 2 million Somalis who are simply out of reach because of al-Shabaab’s presence in the south.
According to the New York Times, tens of thousands of Somalis have already died, and half a million children are on the edge of starvation. Refugees are fleeing to camps in neighboring Ethiopia and Kenya, but the camps are overcrowded and do not have sufficient supplies for the vast influx of people. Al-Shabaab is now being blamed for actively obstructing aid to thousands of dying people. In a bizarre and capricious move, the militants recently banned samosas, a common Somali snack, from being baked or consumed, because they are a “Christian symbol.”
“It is safe to say that many people are going to die as a result of little or no access,” said Eric James, an official with the American Refugee Committee.
Women are being raped and robbed as they flee to Somalia’s capital or its borders, and families are leaving malnourished children to die in the wilderness. It may be a matter of time before al-Shabaab itself is affected by the famine, but it’s unclear whether experiencing these terrible conditions will make them halt their offensive against civilians and aid workers.
According to CNN reporters, Somali citizens are clear on who’s at fault. ”Nature is always cruel but Al-Shabaab are the real killers,” said a man in a refugee camp.
In the meantime, it’s crucial to continue to support aid organizations as they attempt to bring assistance to Somalia and the refugee camps on its borders. Go to the UNHCR’s website to learn more about what you can do to help save more people from starvation.
Photo from Oxfam East Africa via flickr.