UN Rushes Relief To Somalia's Starving Refugees

After an initial delay, the UN has begun airlifting emergency food relief supplies into Somalia's capital, Mogadishu. Families fleeing hunger and conflict in other parts of the failed state continue to arrive there, seeking refuge and food. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports.

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SCOTT SIMON, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. This week, the United Nations World Food Programme began airlifting desperately needed food supplies into Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, even as fierce fighting erupted there between African Union forces and Somali militants. The main target of the aid, the malnourished children who are streaming into the city with their families to escape drought. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is monitoring the situation from Nairobi. Ofeibea, thanks very much for being with us.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: Greetings.

SIMON: And what can you tell about the current situation in Mogadishu?

QUIST-ARCTON: Well, as we say, there has been the first airlift into Mogadishu this week by the U.N. World Food Programme. There has also been fighting between the weak U.S.- and U.N.-backed interim government forces, backed up by African Union forces against al-Shabaab. Now, al-Shabaab is the Islamist militant group that is anti-Western, linked to al-Qaida and is opposed to the interim government. One asked why is it when there are thousands of Somalis streaming into Mogadishu that fighting has broken out. It seems that the interim government and the African Union has decided to use this opportunity to push back al-Shabaab from the parts of Mogadishu on the outskirts that it holds. And not only does it hold parts of the capital but also great swaths of the country.

SIMON: And it can be dangerous, obviously, in the capital right now and still thousands of Somalis are coming there. What does that say about what conditions are like in the rest of the country?

QUIST-ARCTON: That's it. They're fleeing drought, death and despair in other parts of the country. The fact that they are heading to Mogadishu, which is unstable and has been for many, many years now - we must remember that Somalia hasn't had a proper functioning government for 20 years. The fact that people feel that that is the only place that they will find shelter in bombed-out buildings shows how desperate they are. Now, the U.N. has said that the south two areas in the south lower Shabelle and Bakool are famine-hit, but it looks as if most of the south is now slipping into famine. And as you know, Somalis are also crossing the borders into neighboring Kenya and into Ethiopia, the two countries which are also suffering from drought. It's a great strip of the Horn of Africa that is suffering from droughts. So, the situation is pretty grim.

SIMON: Relief agencies, Ofeibea, say that they need $1.6 billion in order to help the donor agencies that are responding. Help us understand what kind of relief is going on there.

QUIST-ARCTON: There is help. There is assistance to the Somali refugees in northern Kenya and in Ethiopia, and as we see now an airlift into Somalia's capital, Mogadishu. But much, much more money is needed, and what the humanitarian agencies are saying - and this drought was predicted up to two years ago - is that it's much better to start with the money and the funds early, because when it reaches emergency level, when it reaches crisis level, it's much, much more costly to help save malnourished children, and I've seen them for myself. I've seen them in northern Kenya at the huge Dadaab camp - children who are matchstick thin or suffering from kwashiorkor with the extended bellies. Children in Somalia near the border with Ethiopia whose mothers and fathers have trekked for days - 10 days, 20 days, 30 days - to try and find food and to try and find refuge. So, the aid agencies are saying we need help now. Politics has to be kept out of it. The U.S. says it doesn't want any aid it sends to fall into the hands of al-Shabaab, the militant group. But the relief workers are saying think of people first, politics later.

SIMON: NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton speaking to us from Nairobi. Thanks so much.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure.

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