Death beyond understanding




“People are dying like flies…One-fifth of the population could die within the six months”

Mark Huband in Golweyn, Somalia

The Guardian, 6 August 1992

The orphans of Golweyn watched in silence as the boy was taken out of their smoke-blackened room. He had lain for six hours under a soiled sheet, among the motionless bodies of the living. Then they found he was dead. Nobody knew where he had come from, where his family was, what he was called.

Three men gently carried him out, wrapped in the straw mat on which he had died. They cut off his stained clothes with a knife and laid him on the bare springs of a bedstead. Water ran across the fire-scarred floor as they washed the bones that were all that was left of the boy after his long starvation.

He was wrapped in a white sheet, bound with strips of rag. For a few minutes, three old men   prayed over the body. Then the boy was buried outside the camp among 1,200 unmarked graves dug in the past two months. As we walked to the cemetery the men carrying the body were told that they would have to dig graves for three more people who had died in the past hour. That morning’s death toll was nine. By the evening it would be more.

At least 1.5 million people are close to starvation in Somalia.

“We are already at the stage where people are dying like flies,” said Patrick Vial, the co-ordinator for the French medical aid organisation Médecins Sans Frontières in the capital Mogadishu. “One-fifth of the population could die within six months. One-tenth of the children at our feeding centres have died. It’s worse than Ethiopia in 1985.”

Up to 15 people a day are dying at Golweyn camp, a fly­ blown, deathly home to 3,970 people. MSF nurses there say they have enough medicine to treat at most 40 people with malaria or diarrhoea. Pneumonia, tuberculosis and measles are epidemic, and little can be done to contain thorn. In two nearby towns 15 people died of starvation or disease at MSF feeding centres that  morning, Sandol Abdullai, MSF’s supervisor  in the district, said.

“It’s common to die,” he went on. “There are so many orphans. Nobody is taking care of them. They are alone. No house. No clothes. And it’s getting worse, because the newcomers are in a more serious state than the people who came originally. Everybody is suffering. This is something unimaginable. Something mysterious. It’s beyond our comprehension.”

There is food only for the under-fives at the MSF feeding centres. Of the 606 children at Golweyn, 570 suffer from malnutrition. In the past week 20 children have died in the orphanage. All were too old to receive the three daily meals provided by MSF. Of the 200 children who have lived there in the past four months, only 30 are still alive, eating only one meal a day of rice and lentils provided by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Lying silently in a tent, Habiba Gedi Hussein has watched her family perish. Three of her children died on consecutive days in the past week. Two more are begging in the town. “I accept what fate brings,” she murmurs, despairingly. “But I need help because I am sick. The food they are giving us is not enough. I need help. I am a mother, buy I almost have no children left. I know I’ll meet them again in heaven.”

Worsening hunger in Golweyn and the surrounding towns stems from a week-long conflict in the main town of Merka, where the ICRC, which provides food and tents for the MSF-run camps, has centred its local food operation.

Two rival clans are vying for control of food distribution and the protection rackets in the town. They have prevented food and foreign aid officials leaving the town until the conflict was resolved. The dispute is of a kind that lies at the heart of the food distribution crisis facing the entire country.

Armed gunmen of the United Somali Congress of General Mohamed Farah Aidid provide security in Merka. But the town is in the territory of clans loyal to the South Somali National movement of Apdi Warsame. The SSNM does not have the firepower to assure the security of the food, so it has allowed the USC to take the security contract. In return for providing security, the USC is demanding a bigger share of food supplies stolen from ships as they are unloaded into barges off the coast at Merka.

The closure of the town, and the halt to food distribution to surrounding towns, meant that at least 150 people have died of starvation in the past four days, a measure of how total is Somalia’s reliance on food aid. The unnamed orphan boy at the camp in Golweyn was just one of the gunmen’s victims.

Resentment among local people of outsiders flocking to the camps is great. irrigation along the nearby Shabelle river means that that district has the best farmland in Somalia. The fields around  Golweyn camp, and in nearby Qorioley, bulge with maize and rice crops. But child beggars fill the streets.

In Qorioley, local people step over the naked body of a boy who was too weak to get up from where he had lain down to sleep and die in the mud of the main street. Beggars and refugees caught stealing from the abundant fields have their hands tied together and are dragged behind a fast-moving tractor as punishment.

Imported food aid has become the economic basis of the USC-controlled areas, and has led to the largest scale theft of emergency aid experienced by donors anywhere in the world in recent years. Last Friday, 400 tonnes of food was loaded at gunpoint on to 40 trucks at an ICRC depot in the town of Baidoa and disappeared. The food will find its way on to the market in Mogadishu or go north to Ethiopia or Djibouti.

“I can think of no other country where an entire population is reliant on food aid,” said David Shearer, head of the Save the Children fund operation in Mogadishu. “But even though the food is not going to where we want it to go, because of the security problems, we must not stop it being brought.”


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