Doctors Without Borders To Pull Out Of Somalia

The international humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders has announced it will leave Somalia after 22 years on the ground in the troubled East African country. The group says both armed militias and civilian leadership are complicit in attacks on their workers. David Greene talks with the group's international president Unni Karunakara.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Somalia is a country that has long been plagued by horrific violence, where even humanitarian groups are targeted. Just a month ago, two workers from Doctors Without Borders were released after 21 months in captivity. The group has had 16 staff killed in their 22 years operating in Somalia. Well, now Doctors Without Borders says it has had enough. For just the second time in its history, the group is completely pulling out of a country because of safety concerns.

In 2012, the medical aid group delivered more than 700,000 medical treatments to Somalis, everything from vaccines to surgery, and now that will end completely. The government of Somalia says the result could be catastrophic. Officials insist they are willing to help the agency overcome challenges on the ground but Doctors Without Borders says it can no longer trust the Somali government, nor the fundamentalist groups like Al-Shabaab, to guarantee their safety.

For more, we reached Unni Karunakara, the international president of Doctors Without Borders, in Nairobi, Kenya. Welcome to the program.

UNNI KARUNAKARA: Thank you, and thank you for having me.

GREENE: Somalia has been an incredibly troubled, violent country for so many years now. And I guess I wonder why now? Why have you decided to pull your staff out at this point?

KARUNAKARA: Over the last 22 years, we have stayed in Somalia through some really difficult times, but it has also been difficult for us. We have had 16 of our staff members killed and we've had dozens of incidents against our staff members, attacks against our staff members, (unintelligible) ambulances, etc.

But the more troubling thing that led us to make this decision is the realization that the very authorities that, whether it was the government or whether it's the Al-Shabaab, or whether it's the traditional community leaders, who were supposed to give us safety assurances and who were supposed to recognize the value of humanitarian medical action, have at times actively supported or sometimes tacitly approved attacks, killing, and abductions of humanitarian workers in Somalia.

GREENE: You, both in our conversation right now and in some other places, have criticized the civilian government in Somalia, suggesting that they have condoned some of the targeting of your organization. You were always so careful to maintain neutrality when you're in a country. Do you worry that criticism like this could hurt your reputation going forward?

KARUNAKARA: Our criticism goes against all authorities, be it the government, be it the Al-Shabaab, be it the traditional leaders because, as you know, the government does not control all so Somalia. There are different authorities in central Somalia, in Puntland, in Somaliland, controlled by Al-Shabaab. So our criticism is, again, it's a widespread lack of respect for humanitarian action. And all of the authorities are implicated in our message and our appeal goes to all of these authorities.

GREENE: Did you have to do any convincing? I wonder if you had staff who wanted to stay and made that case to you?

KARUNAKARA: Of course. I mean, you know, a withdrawal like this is never easy after 22 years. I, myself, my first humanitarian mission was setting up a tuberculosis control program for Somali people. And, you know, we are all very attached to the programs that we set up and create and the people we work with. So it's never an easy decision. But we've made this decision.

And I would like to also say that we are absolutely willing to sit across the table from any of the authorities who want to discuss, meaningfully, about conditions that can lead us to perhaps one day go back and work in Somalia. You know, it's almost like a frog in boiling water. I think over the last 22 years we have accepted higher levels of risk and somehow absolved it and absolved it and we've just reached our limit.

And we've just reached a point where we can no longer continue to work the way we have been until now in Somalia.

GREENE: Well, thank you so much for talking to us about this. We appreciate the time.

KARUNAKARA: Thank you.

GREENE: Unni Karunakara is the international president of Doctors Without Borders. The organization has announced that it's pulling out of Somalia because of the situation on the ground there.

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GREENE: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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