Exacerbated By Conflict, Somalia Famine Persists

Somalia has been hard hit by East Africa's worst drought in decades. The United Nations warns that 750,000 Somalis could soon starve to death. Jeffrey Gettleman of The New York Times provides an update on the famine and the ongoing conflict that has made Somalis even more vulnerable.

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NEAL CONAN, host: In The New York Times, East Africa bureau chief Jeffrey Gettleman wrote: A drought-induced famine is steadily creeping across Somalia, and tens of thousands of people have already died. The Islamist militant group the Shabab is blocking most aid agencies from accessing the regions it controls. And in the next few months, three quarters of a million people could run out of food. And Jeffrey Gettleman asked a question: Is the world about to watch 750,000 Somalis starve to death?

If you have family or friends in the region, what are you hearing from them? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Jeffrey Gettleman joins us now from his home in Nairobi. Nice to have you with us today.

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Glad to be here.

CONAN: And let me put your own question to you. Is the world going to intervene or watch?

GETTLEMAN: Well, we've seen a real reluctance to intervene in the way the world did in 1992, 1993, and that's what's interesting about this famine is that it's very similar to what happened in the early '90s, which provoked this massive response - tens of thousands of American troops, big U.N. peacekeeping mission, billions of dollars spent to break the grip of warlords who were blocking food aid at the time and allow food to be delivered to starving people.

It's a very similar situation right now. There is a drought across all of the Horn of Africa - Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti. But the only places that there is a famine where people are dying in great numbers are in the Shabab-controlled areas, where these Islamic militants will not allow Western groups to deliver food aid. So the question is what's the world going to do about that? But it seems like there's a lot of reluctance to go back in a big way. And therefore, you know, are these aid groups going to be able to get into these areas and deliver food? It's an open question.

CONAN: And as the situation worsens in those areas, you noted that most aid agencies are unable to be allowed into those regions controlled by the Shabab but not all.

GETTLEMAN: That's right. I mean, the Shabab is a very mercurial group. It's a hodgepodge of different Islamic leaders in Somalia. There are some foreign elements, people that have come from Afghanistan, the Arab world, even the United States to fight a holy war in Somalia. So you have a very pixilated picture of who's in control of the Shabab. And some Shabab leaders have let in a few aid groups. But the real big ones, like the World Food Programme, and let's say the American government, USAID, those ones are being prevented from accessing the drought areas. So while there are a few Western NGOs, like Save the Children, there's another one called CONCERN, they do work in these areas but in a very limited way. We're relying on local partners, and that's not going to be enough. Everybody agrees with that.

CONAN: Last week, the Ethiopian prime minister, Meles Zenawi, proposed to establish a humanitarian corridor so food aid could be delivered. Isn't that along the lines of Somalia 1992?

GETTLEMAN: That's exactly right. And that received a really cool reception. Most people did not think it was a good idea for a few reasons. One, Ethiopia is not a trusted partner in Somalia. They came in in 2006, stormed into the country, fought the Islamist forces at the time, and that just created a worse insurgency and really was a recruiting boost for the Shabab Islamic group.

And also, you know, this isn't 1992. It's a different world. The United States government is stretched very thin between, you know, the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and they don't have the manpower or the helicopters to mount another big peacekeeping or military intervention in Somalia.

And I think, you know, let's not forget what happened in Somalia. In 1993, the U.S. was engaged in street battles with warlords in Mogadishu, the capital, and 18 servicemen were killed, a couple of helicopters were shot down, and that created this shadow over Somalia that nobody has really wanted to lift again.

CONAN: Indeed, nobody even wants to answer the problems on land that lead to the widespread piracy from parts of Somalia.

GETTLEMAN: That's right. And, you know, it's really the same cause. It's the failure of the central government, and it explains both the famine and the pirates and the Islamic militancy. It's all the same root cause. Somalia is very unique in that regard, that it's been now 20 years and there's no central government. You know, different parts of world like Afghanistan or Iraq or Lebanon have slipped into stages of anarchy, but they've always emerged from them to have some type of government. Even if it wasn't, you know, 100 percent solid in every corner of the country, there was a functioning government to some degree. Somalia doesn't have that.

And the piracy thing, I've been writing about this in the last, you know, few weeks. The pirates recently launched an attack inside Kenya, where they came up in a speedboat to a fancy resort in northern Kenya and kidnapped a British woman after shooting her husband and spirited her back into Somalia. So the lesson here is that the failed - that the problems in failed states become everybody's problems. They can't be contained, and that's what we're seeing in Somalia.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation. We're talking with Jeffrey Gettleman, the East Africa bureau for The New York Times. 800-989-8255, email: talk@npr.org. Troy is calling from Iowa City.

TROY (Caller): Yes. My question is, is when will other members of U.N. step up, like, we'll just say China, the Soviet Union, South Africa, Chad maybe. When will they step up and take a role to fix these African problems?

CONAN: Soviet Union has not been a country for 20 years, but Russia.

TROY: OK...

CONAN: Yeah. Well, it's just not accurate. It's not whether I like it or not. Jeffrey Gettleman?

GETTLEMAN: It's a good - listen. It's a valid question. You know, the whole world shouldn't be totally relying on the U.S. to solve all these problems, you know, in the different parts of the globe. But what we've seen in Somalia is this - some Muslim countries, Turkey especially, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, are trying to supply food aid to starving people. And the Islamic militants in control of some of these drought areas are a little more receptive to their, you know, Muslim brethren, but the problem is they don't have the experience. You know, Saudi Arabia had never mounted a huge billion-dollar aid mission. Sudan, I mean Sudan gets a lot of aid.

TROY: But it's about time they do, isn't it?

GETTLEMAN: Is it about time that they do mount an operation? Maybe, but...

TROY: They have the money to do it, they should take the initiative to fix this problem.

GETTLEMAN: Listen, I think a lot of people would agree with you. They definitely have the money to do it, but they don't have the experience. So if this was a, you know, what I've seen in Somalia, it's not just about money and about food. It's about experience. There are, you know, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of children who are starving to death. They are too sick now to be fed. I've seen them myself in the hospitals and the refugee camps, you know, trudging along the roads with their families, and these kids need to be hospitalized. You can't feed them. So what you need are, you know, a team of doctors. You need field hospitals. You need experts, and there are just not many places that can provide that right now.

TROY: I think Saudi Arabia has doctors. I think people...

GETTLEMAN: Of course...

TROY: ...I think other countries have doctors and those resources. You're talking about military resources. We're talking humanitarian resources which all of these countries have. They should step up and do this job.

CONAN: Troy, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Tom, Tom with us from El Cerrito in California.

TOM (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.

TOM: Yeah. I'm just back. I live in Somalia for two and a half years in the late '60s with the Peace Corps and just back from Peace Corps reunion in Washington, D.C., where we specifically talked about Somalia, collected about $10,000 to send to relief organizations. And there are couples that go through the backdoor, as it were, to get relief into the various camps and to people who need it. One is called The Africa Future, and it's theafricanfuture.org. Another is the Amoud Foundation, A-M-O-U-D, www.amoudfoundation.com. There's also the Anglo-Somali Society. These seem to get money directly to starving and sick people who need it, and I would strongly urge people to contact them and send them...

CONAN: Are they going to be able to provide assistance on the scale that we're talking about?

TOM: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely, and...

GETTLEMAN: Do you believe that's accurate, Jeffrey Gettleman?

You know, I don't think so. I mean, everything I've been told is that, you know, there are millions of people who need food, and it is very complicated to bring food into Somalia. There's a million security issues. There's logistics. The World Food Programme can't even bring ships directly from the United States or Brazil or Asia that are carrying the food into Somalia because the port has been so dilapidated over the years that it doesn't have the capacity. So they have to offload the ships, which, you know, delays the whole operation, put the food on smaller ships that will fit in the Mogadishu port, and then try to distribute it in this landscape that's inhabited by warlords, militants, bandits, you name it. So that's just the food distribution.

And then there are these other issues like I was talking about, where children need to be hospitalized and diagnosed and, you know, treated very intensively to save their lives. So I don't think it's a simple aid operation. And everybody I've talked to says you need the big groups that have worked in Darfur, that have worked in Congo, that have worked in other crises that have the experience and the manpower and what they called the surge capacity to go into Somalia fast, because we're talking - you know, we're talking about millions of lives, you know, in, you know, hanging in the balance in the next few months. The U.N. says 750,000 people will starve to death, you know, very soon. So it's not a time to learn on the job. You need people that have done this before.

TOM: Well, these seem to be organizations that have done the job already or are in the process of doing the job and partly made up of Somali people who, you know, are very, very familiar with the situation, and has seemed to have been able to circumvent some of the very problems that you are addressing and, you know, to get people fed and cared very, very directly. Never enough, it's never enough, but it's always better than nothing and better than talk.

CONAN: Tom, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

TOM: Thank you.

CONAN: And briefly, Jeffrey Gettleman, Shabab pulled out of Mogadishu for the most part a little while ago. That situation seems, though, more chaotic than ever.

GETTLEMAN: Yeah, exactly. I mean, this gets to this government issue. The Shabab has left Mogadishu. They are struggling. They're losing fighters. They don't have a lot of resources, and they gave up their claims to Mogadishu for the first time in years, which handed the government, this transitional government in Mogadishu, an opportunity. But instead of seizing that opportunity, it looks like they're squandering it. Government forces had been looting food aid. They've killed starving people on riots over food aid. Parts of the city are very insecure, so it's not purely about the Shabad.

It's about this deeper issue of a lack of a functioning government and what that breeds, this kind of chaos and anarchy and war profiteering, and that's been the story in Somalia since the '90s, since the U.S. and the U.N. abruptly pulled out after the Black Hawk Down. The whole country just, you know, sank into this anarchy and it's still in many ways there in that same spot.

Jeffrey Gettleman, thanks for your time today.

Thank you.

CONAN: Jeffrey Gettleman, East Africa bureau chief for The New York Times, with us on the line from Nairobi in Kenya. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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