Somali refugees caught between famine and civil war appealed to international aid organizations to ramp up the distribution of emergency relief supplies that has been jeopardized by heavy fighting in the capital Mogadishu.
Hundreds of drought-hit Somalis are streaming into squalid camps in and around the rubble-strewn city every day, defying the orders of Islamist militants who control much of the worst-hit areas to stay put, only to walk into a war zone.
The start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan two days ago coincided with a jump in suicide attack threats made by the al Qaeda-affiliated Al Shabaab rebel movement, which has waged a four-year insurgency against a government it sees as a puppet of the West.
UN staff in Mogadishu said they had for the moment been restricted from moving outside the heavily guarded airport perimeter and so have had to rely on local staff to deliver urgently needed food and shelter.
“Local doctors came to us this morning and said two of my children are malnourished and anemic. We were given a few days worth of food but we have no shelter, not even plastic sheets,” said mother-of-seven Hawa Omar within sight of the airport.
Omar spoke to Reuters in a makeshift settlement now home to an estimated 4,000 newly arrived refugees, about 10 km (6 miles) from the front lines where government forces engage the rebels in daily gun battles.
Omar, originally from southern Somalia’s Lower Shabelle region, epicenter of the famine, was among several in the camp who said they had not received any help from international agencies, only local residents.
Heavy rains in the past few days have also lashed the city, compounding the misery of hunger-weakened refugees.
About 400,000 Somali refugees – almost 5 percent of the country’s entire population – are camped out in Mogadishu and its outlying areas. Up to 100,000 refugees arrived in June and July alone, the United Nations says.
The U.N’s refugee agency, UNHCR, said it was able to distribute relief through local networks but acknowledged its work assessing the needs of new arrivals had been slowed.
“The plan was to start the assessments in about 10 other settlements in the coming days but all the movement’s been restricted since the offensive started,” Andy Needham, spokesman for UNHCR Somalia, told Reuters in Nairobi.
Worst drought in decades
Drought, conflict and a lack of food aid have left 3.6 million people at risk of starvation in southern Somalia. The drought, the worst in decades, has affected about 12 million people across the Horn of Africa.
The United Nations’ World Food Program (WFP) welcomed Washington’s move on Tuesday to relax rules imposed on charities operating in Al Shabaab-controlled regions of Somalia, aimed at boosting the amount of relief reaching those areas.
After Washington placed Al Shabaab on its list of known terrorist outfits, aid groups whose operations accidentally benefited the militants risked prosecution.
“Certain organizations will be more relaxed. It should enable humanitarian aid to get closer to those who need it most,” said WFP spokesman David Orr, whose organization was among several banned from southern Somalia in early 2010.
Al Shabaab has given conflicting signals about whether aid programs would be allowed to resume and there are fears food aid in particular could end up in rebel hands.
“It (the U.S. move) doesn’t remove what would be our concerns about how aid is used and how it’s distributed. We would want to be in a position where we could monitor and assess the distribution of aid to make sure (of) where it is going,” Orr said from Mogadishu.
In the past week, WFP has airlifted therapeutic food to feed malnourished children in Mogadishu and Gedo, but says aid agencies are unable to reach more than 2 million Somalis facing starvation in rebel-held territories.