Somalia Security Too Shaky for Aid Workers

Bombs and bullets keep delaying the work of reconciliation in Somalia. The security situation is tenuous at best and aid workers say they can't really do much to help people in a violence plagued country that hasn't had a real functioning government for 15 years.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And let's go next to the horn of Africa - a major focus of U.S. anti-terrorism efforts. One big goal is to keep Somalia from being so unstable that it would become a terrorist haven. But Somalia's weak transitional government has been trying to hold a reconciliation conference - bombs and bullets keep delaying the work. Earlier this year, the government moved into the capital Mogadishu with the help of Ethiopian troops, but the security situation is tenuous at best and aid workers say they can't really do much to help people.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: The U.N.'s top humanitarian official, John Holmes, describes Somalia's capital Mogadishu as one of the most dangerous places to work.

Mr. JOHN HOLMES (Under-Secretary-General, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs): There are checkpoints everywhere. People demanding money, people with guns everywhere. It's very hard to know who they are, where they're from, what they want. And yet there's a huge number of people out there needing help, people who fled Mogadishu when the fighting was at its height a couple of months ago and are still living on the trees in the middle of a rainy season and extremely vulnerable.

KELEMEN: Holmes had his own brush with danger when he visited Mogadishu in May, the highest level U.N. official to do so in 15 years.

Mr. HOLMES: I was greeted by a series of roadside bombs going off on the routes I was about to take, which meant that I had to change my routes and rather curtail the visit. I don't think the bombs were aimed at me, they were just aimed at demonstrating that this was not a safe city to anybody who's inclined to think it was.

KELEMEN: A driver for Doctors Without Borders was shot and killed recently when the car he was driving came close to the prime minister's convoy. Marina Well Redrig(ph) who's with the aid group came to Washington last week to talk to officials here about the dangers aid workers face.

Ms. MARINA WELL REDRIG (Aid Worker, Somalia): It has been hard. It has been the worst situation in Mogadishu in the last 15 years in March-April of this year in terms of casualties, in terms of bombings, in terms of distractions.

KELEMEN: There are few medical facilities in the city, she says, and some that were functioning were shelled during the latest conflict. She fears many Somalis just can't get medical attention these days. Doctors Without Borders can only send in teams periodically and otherwise relies on local staff.

Ms. REDRIG: We had a nursing school in Mogadishu for quite a while, and some of the doctors have been trained abroad. They came back the last two years, you know, hoping that the situation would get better. Some of them are still there and they are hanging on; they really want to stay. And the other ones have gone because of the security situation.

KELEMEN: For aid groups like Doctors Without Borders, Somalia's capital is a toxic mix of clan rivalries, warlords and Islamists. Executive director Nicolas de Torrente says he's been trying to get one simple message across: All people deserve healthcare and aid groups should have access to everyone.

Dr. NICOLAS DE TORRENTE (Executive Director, Doctors Without Borders): If we work in one particular area serving one particular group, it doesn't mean that we've taken sides for that group. And that's an important message, that we will be present where the needs are the greatest and we will talk to everyone. And we have to, especially in a situation as (unintelligible), as fragile as Mogadishu and as Somalia as a whole.

KELEMEN: But asked if Somalia is the most challenging operation for his aid group, de Torrente says there is one place more dangerous.

Dr. DE TORRENTE: South and central Iraq is still at the top of the list, in the sense that we cannot send international staff at all because of the level of general insecurity and violence and the targeting of medical professionals and of international aid personnel.

KELEMEN: Doctors Without Borders has had a small project in Jordan doing reconstructive surgery for Iraqis wounded in attacks. De Torrente says the aid group is now starting a project in Kurdistan in the north to do more life saving work and get a bit closer to the violence where the needs are the greatest.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News. Washington.

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