Worse Even Than Darfur
It is nearly seventeen years since, in early 1991, the Somali dictator Siad Barre surrendered and fled his country. The period which followed was chaotic. Mogadishu sank into violence as warlords with private armies, supported by ever-changing alliances of clans fought their battles in the city.
In the end, almost all the aid organisations working in Somalia were forced to leave the country. The last United Nations mission ended shortly after the US army withdrew in 1994. But according to the UN coordinator for humanitarian affairs, John Holmes, who has just been travelling through the country, however anarchic the conditions were in those days, the situation has never been as bad as it has been in the last year. "The international reaction to the suffering has been entirely inadequate," he says.
Civil war in Mogadishu
In December 2006, troops of the transitional Somali government marched into the country side by side with troops of the Ethiopian army. They expelled the Somalia Islamic Courts Council which had ruled for six months, a period which many people nowadays refer to as a "golden age".
Since then, the country has been suffering from a war between units loyal to the government, which are seen by many as an occupation force, and insurgents.
"We're standing between all the fronts," says Mohammed (not his real name), who works for a Somali aid organisation. "The troops of the transitional government and the militias of the old ruling warlords plunder and kill everyone they don't like: intellectuals, journalists, Muslim officials."
The Ethiopian army which, according to unconfirmed reports has 55,000 soldiers in Somalia, is no better. "Most of the Ethiopian soldiers who are serving here are very young," says Mohammed. "When they're attacked, they shoot at everything that moves."
On the other side is an alliance of discontented militias (many of them from the Hawiye clan, the largest in Mogadishu) and supporters of the Islamists, who spread terror with remote controlled bombs and suicide attacks.
There is less and less information coming out of Somalia. Most of the journalists, who always lived dangerously here, have fled. So far this year eight reporters have been murdered in cold blood, either by insurgents or by government supporters. Of the ten independent radio stations in Mogadishu, the three most important have been closed for weeks because their reports were too critical.
According to the latest estimates by the Elman Centre for Peace and Human Rights, fighting in 2007 caused almost 6,000 civilian deaths. Almost 8,000 civilians were injured; more than 715,000 have fled Mogadishu.
Camp of the helpless
Those who have fled are now living in places like Afgooye, which just a year ago was little more than a checkpoint on the road to the airport. Today Afgooye is a large town of makeshift huts, covered with plastic sheeting marked with the logos of the various aid organisations.
But there are not enough huts either: many families sleep under trees, even now, after the rainy season has begun. There are scarcely any sanitary facilities, and the United Nations is warning about the possible outbreak cholera epidemics.
"Almost all the babies and the older people are undernourished," says Mohammed, who distributes sacks of flour supplied by the German protestant church emergency aid programme. "There are more people coming every day." People queue for hours to get water and food. Very few of the families have been able to bring anything with them from their homes.
Somalia's government under pressure
"The suffering of the refugees is the direct consequence of the serous war crimes which have taken place," says Steve Crawshaw of Human Rights Watch. "In November Ethiopian soldiers carried out many mass executions, and alleged opposition supporters are always disappearing without trace."
UN coordinator John Holmes accuses government troops of preventing supplies from reaching the refugees. "There are roadblocks everywhere," he says. "Aid workers are always being stopped and have to pay lots of money before they're allowed to travel further."
Pressure is growing on the Somali president Abdullahi Yusuf to give up his hard-line position. The newly elected Somali prime minister, Hussein Hassan Nur, known as Nur Adde, has offered talks to the Islamists for the first time. For many people in Somalia, Nur Adde, who is seventy, is seen as a figure of hope because he was not involved in the fighting after the fall of Siad Barre. He also gained a good reputation as director of the Somali Red Crescent.
So far the Islamists, who have mainly withdrawn to the Eritrean capital Asmara, have not reacted to the move. In fact Nur Adde's offer is probably to be seen as mainly symbolic: the Eritrea-based leaders of the Islamists have repeatedly rejected negotiations, as long as the Ethiopian troops do not leave the country.
But that is not going to happen, as even the Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi now admits. Nur Adde is also facing political problems at home: some of the clans refuse to support his policies, and ex-warlords feel under-represented.
Left on their own
Some of the blame for this situation can certainly also be put on the fact that, instead of the 8,000 troops in the African Union protection force which were planned, so far only 1,600 Ugandan troops are stationed in Mogadishu. Countries which promised soldiers, like Burundi, have repeatedly put off their deployment.
Nobody believes now that there will ever be a real AU presence on the ground in Somalia. Many Somalis are now asking instead for a UN mission with a robust mandate.
But the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon himself rules out any discussion of that option, even though his experts are in favour of such a mission. The UN's special representative in Somalia, Ahmedou Ould Abdallah, describes the situation in Somalia as the worst in all of Africa – "much worse than Darfur."
The humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, Eric Laroche, sees things similarly: "If we had a situation like this elsewhere," he says, "there would be an uproar. But Somalia has for too long been a forgotten catastrophe."
© Qantara.de 2007
Translated from the German by Michael Lawton