Promising Drought Relief In Somalia Threatened?

A drought in East Africa pushed millions toward starvation this year. The U.N. says relief efforts are paying off, with some areas of Somalia no longer seeing famine. But relief may be undermined by political instability and threats from the militant group al-Shabab. Guest host Tony Cox checks in with Jeffrey Gettleman of The New York Times.

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TONY COX, HOST:

I'm Tony Cox and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. In a moment, are you fretting over college applications? We'll have some advice for parents and students on how to navigate through those essays and financial aid options.

But first, tens of thousands of people have died after severe drought ravaged the Horn of Africa earlier this year. Millions more were on the verge of starvation, but a campaign that raised millions of dollars has apparently been working and has stalled one of the worst humanitarian crises in years. Or has it?

The United Nations announced last week that famine no longer exists in three of the worst affected areas in Somalia, including Bay, Bakool and Lower Shabelle. To learn more about this we have called on New York Times East Africa bureau chief Jeffrey Gettleman. He is with us on the phone now from Nairobi, Kenya. Jeffrey, nice to have you.

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Glad to help.

COX: You have been reporting on this situation since the beginning. How accurately does the U.N. announcement reflect the situation on the ground there?

GETTLEMAN: I think it's pretty accurate. There's a couple things. One, these areas of Somalia are incredibly inaccessible, so it's a bit of an information black hole. We don't quite know how bad the situation is because there's an Islamic group in the area, the Shabab, that has been blocking Western aid groups and journalists and just about everybody else from getting in there.

So the picture's a little blurry, but I think the outlines are clear and that is the situation is still very bleak, but it's better than it was a few months ago.

COX: There have been reports, Jeffrey, that this is just a political move by the U.N. to show that aid money is being well spent. Why would that be necessary, to begin with?

GETTLEMAN: Well, I don't know if that's true. The agencies that are monitoring the famine are slightly independent from the U.N. They're a bunch of scientists that get money from the U.S. government, the British government and others. So it's not purely a U.N. thing at this point.

But there have been complaints over the years, including this year, that some of the money from the U.N. for food aid was getting stolen by U.N. contractors and others, and there was a lot of people who were very upset that the famine victims who really needed this aid to survive weren't getting it and it was just getting sucked up by corrupt contractors and others.

COX: If you're just joining us, I'm Tony Cox and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking with New York Times East Africa bureau chief Jeffrey Gettleman about the ongoing famine in the Horn of Africa and a recent U.N. report citing improved conditions in the worst affected areas of Somalia.

Jeffrey, you recently visited Banadir Hospital in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu. You wrote a very compassionate story about a father who was there and you witnessed a number of - well, people dying, literally, before your eyes. Tell us what that was like being there and what you saw.

GETTLEMAN: Well, it was pretty depressing. You walk into this hospital and it's a total shell. It's basically a broken down hospital in a broken down country. There are no lights that work. The ceiling fans don't turn. The hallways smell like diesel fumes because that's all the hospital staff have to clean the floors, is diesel fuel. And there's this one room on the first floor of the hospital where the sickest children are brought every morning, and there were dozens of little kids, you know, a few heartbeats away from death, that were coming in with their families from the worst hit areas of Somalia.

And we saw one man, he waved to me. He was a nomad, you know, very thin, cloudy, cataract eyes, and he waved over to me frantically when he saw me because he thought I was a doctor or an aid worker. He didn't realize I was a journalist. And he was trying to tell me that his daughter was about to die, and then right in front of me he unhooked the I.V. that was connected to his three-year-old daughter, who was very thin, and he shut her eyes and he wrapped her up in cloth and walked out of the hospital.

And just to make a point that not everybody realizes, he walked out onto the streets of Mogadishu where the markets were teaming with food and fruit and oranges and bags of flour and peanuts and watermelon and bottled water and soda and everything you can imagine. And that's what so sad about these famine situations, is that it's just a question of money and economics. The food is in the country, but people like this man and his family didn't have the means to buy it because there had been a drought and it had wiped out his animals and his farm and it left him with nothing.

COX: Is al-Shabab to blame for people not being able to have access to the food that is there?

GETTLEMAN: Definitely, al-Shabab is a huge problem. This is a group that is so anti-Western, they've banned Western music, Western movies, soccer, even bras, saying that women shouldn't wear bras because that's a western artifact. They have banned Western aid groups from bringing food to famine areas, and yes, there have been a few Muslim charities, and the Red Cross and the Red Crescent have been able to get into some of these areas, but the biggest charities in the world and the biggest U.N. agencies have not been able to deliver food in Shabab areas.

COX: What is the standing of Shabab with these people who are suffering right now?

GETTLEMAN: They hate them. They hate them. The Shabab started two years ago as a response to an Ethiopian occupation of Somalia, and initially they were popular. They were seen as freedom fighters and nationalists, but as their policies got more and more draconian, the population has turned against them. They're just powerless to fight them because the Shabab are pretty well organized and very heavily armed.

COX: Well, now that Ethiopia has crossed into Somalia to fight the Shabab, and even though there has been this tense relationship between Somalia and Ethiopia in the past - you just made reference to it - how are the people seeing the Ethiopians coming in? Are they seeing them as saviors?

GETTLEMAN: Well, I think the anti-Shabab feelings are so intense that many people in Somalia, including the ones that I've spoken to recently, are willing to have anybody come into the country to get the Shabab out. And the Ethiopian army is quite powerful. Ethiopia is a very poor country. It's had drought and famine problems itself, but it has a very strong military, has a big air force, a lot of troops, tanks, you name it.

So I think people are hoping that the Ethiopians can dislodge the Shabab and that will pave the way for more assistance to flow in.

COX: Let me circle back to the beginning of how we began the conversation, talking about the reported fact by the United Nations that the drought is ending in some of the hardest hit areas of Somalia. If that is true or even if it is largely true, what do you think that portends for the next three, four, five years in Somalia?

GETTLEMAN: Well, we've had a lot of rain in East Africa this season. It's been pouring almost every day in Nairobi and in Somalia too. They have had a lot of rainfall, so that will help with the famine situation down the line. A few months from now, the pastures will be green, the farms will be producing crops and I don't think there's going to be a dire food shortage next year.

However, there's still a lot of conflict and instability in Somalia and that's going to make aid very complicated and that's going to really stymie development. So I think the situation next year won't be as bad, but it's not like Somalia's going to immediately bounce back.

COX: Jeffrey Gettleman is the East Africa bureau chief for the New York Times, joining us on the phone from Nairobi, Kenya. Jeffrey, thank you so much. Stay safe.

GETTLEMAN: Thank you.

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