Death is ever present in Somali capital

The Times of London
Mogadishu, Somalia

For years Mogadishu has been a byword for war and chaos.

But the withdrawal of Islamist militants and a massive influx of tired, hungry and traumatised people is turning the Somali capital into a city of beggars and shelters.

Yet there is one constant that threads through Mogadishu’s recent miserable past — death is ever present.

Over 100,000 people have come to Mogadishu in recent months, forced from their homes by war, drought and famine. They hope to find help, medical care and, most of all, food, amongst the ruins of this wrecked seaside city.

Most of those who reach Mogadishu make their new homes in camps that are springing up on patches of empty land and in the bombed-out interiors of buildings across the city.

More than 2,300 families live in Al-Adalla camp squeezed between crumbling, bullet-riddled buildings close to the airport. They live in tightly packed domes made of bent sticks covered with stitched pieces of material, blankets and cut-up old clothes.

The camp is one month old and already it is a teeming maze of filthy alleys and foetid water.

In the dirt-floored dome that she shares with her husband and five children, Danaba Baraka Dayib said what little support her family has received since coming to Mogadishu has been provided by local people and mosques.

“There’s no regular food distribution. We beg food from residents and some is distributed to us by the mosques, but there is nothing to eat from the aid agencies,” she said.

“I have never had to beg before,” added her husband, a once-proud farmer whose crops withered and cattle died in the drought.

Disease spreads quickly in these crowded, unsanitary camps and the World Health Organisation (WHO) is warning of a cholera epidemic.

It says cholera has killed 181 people admitted to Banadir Hospital in Mogadishu so far this year and predicts outbreaks will multiply as thousands of people make the long trek out of the southern famine zones to camps in Mogadishu and across the borders in Ethiopia and Kenya.

Banadir is one of Somalia’s few functioning hospitals. Inside, past the gunmen swaddled in bullet belts guarding the entrance, patients lie wherever they can find space: on tables, makeshift camp beds or just the floor of corridors and hallways. The wards are overflowing and dozes of new patients arrive everyday.

Like every other building in Mogadishu the hospital is crumbling, windows are missing glass, doors have fallen off their hinges, paint peels from the walls. It is an unsanitary and overcrowded place, buzzing with flies and filled with the clamour of moaning and weeping patients.

“This disaster is affecting so many people in Somalia,” said Abdi Karim, a medical student in his 20s, one of dozens of young men in white labcoats working to staunch the flow of misery. “Some of the injuries are from bullets but the very huge number now is from malnutrition.”

An entire wing of the hospital is given over to the treatment of diarrhoea, a condition that is an inconvenience in the West but deadly here. It weakens and dehydrates already malnourished bodies pushing them to the brink of survival and eroding their defence against disease.

“Children are dying from measles and malnutrition cases are increasing day by day,” said Abdullah Mohamed Yassin, a doctor. “We do what we can we don’t have enough medicines.” Beneath a threadbare mustard-coloured sheet six-year old Hawa lies shivering, an intravenous tube sticking out of her hand. Her eyes have rolled back into her head as she snatches at uneven rattling breaths. Like so many of the other children in the triage hall she is suffering from diarrhoea and measles.

Routine vaccinations are a rarity in Somalia and non-existent in the vast areas controlled by al-Shabaab, Islamist militants who banned immunisations saying they were part of a Western plot to kill Somali children.

But for most there was no choice but to move. Sitting by his daughter’s side Hawa’s father explained why his family left for Mogadishu: “At home there is no food, nothing. Even though here I am still hungry, there is some hope,” said Ibrahim Ali.

The United Nations has begun to airlift emergency food and supplies to the people crowding into Mogadishu but it is only scratching the surface of the crisis.

Last week the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) landed three cargo planes of blankets, sleeping mats, plastic sheeting, jerry cans, high-energy biscuits and cooking sets to be distributed to some of the 20 new camps in Mogadishu.

“It’s not enough,” conceded Bruno Geddo, UNHCR’s Somalia representative, “but, little by little, we are moving in.” Despite al-Shabaab’s withdrawal from Mogadishu earlier this month security fears remain a major hindrance to the international aid effort, and the militants have vowed to return.

At the weekend Baroness Valerie Amos, the UN top humanitarian official, became the most senior UN figure to travel to Mogadishu in years. She described as “heartbreaking” her visit to Banadir where she saw sick and starving children being tended to by distraught parents.

Lady Amos also emphasised the need for improved security if aid efforts are to increase.

“I am confident that with an improvement in the security situation we will be able to do more to help those people who desperately need it,” she said after meeting Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali.

Mr Ali subsequently announced the formation of a 300-member ‘Special Forces’ unit to protect aid convoys and food distribution in Mogadishu where aid is often targeted for theft by clan-based militias.

At least 10 people were killed this month when attempts to distribute food led to deadly shoot-outs and the looting of supplies.

‘Extremist gunmen are stopping hungry people from fleeing famine’
Gunmen from Somalia’s al-Shabaab extremist group are blocking people from escaping the country’s famine zones, refugees and doctors in Mogadishu have told The Times.

Mwalim Hassan Abdul, who fled his rural home outside the Shabaab stronghold of Baidoa in southern Somalia, said he was detained and beaten by militants as he tried to make his way to Mogadishu, the capital city.

“There were three trucks. We were leaving our homes because there is no food, but Shabaab stopped us at a roadblock outside Mogadishu,” he said. “They used telephones to warn that we were coming.”

The lorries were stopped and the passengers taken out, beaten and arrested.

“They would not permit us to go to where they said Islamic rule is not respected,” said Mr Abdul. He was held for two nights before managing to escape, he said.

Others from the same area told of sneaking out of Shabaab territory at night.

Adan Ali Abdirahman, an elder, said: “When we reached Baidoa from the countryside, al-Shabaab refused to let us pass to Mogadishu; some of us were beaten for trying to move to government areas, they told us we would have to stay until we die or they give us something. We moved from Baidoa in the night time.”

A doctor at Mogadishu’s Banadir Hospital, where many recent arrivals are treated for malnutrition and disease, confirmed the reports.

Yusuf Omar said: “The ones who live where al-Shabaab are governing are the most hungry and they are not permitted to come here. Many are coming, but many more are blocked.”

He said that al-Shabaab had established a camp some miles outside Mogadishu where people are interned after being intercepted at roadblocks manned by militants.

Those who had escaped said that life had become impossible under the rule of al-Shabaab. Collective reading of the Koran and prayer beads were banned as militant commanders insisted that such things were not in keeping with their austere interpretation of Islam.

Islamic taxes, known as “zakat” were levied on local farmers and herders who were forced to hand over portions of their harvests and cattle, making survival impossible as the drought and famine hit.