Hunger flows from the barrels of Somali guns



Mark Huband in Mogadishu

The Guardian, 3 August 1992

Survivors of the Somali civil war live and die side by side. The wind from the Indian Ocean cools the hot sun which brightens the whitewashed walls of Mogadishu’s ransacked villas. Smoke from ever-burning fires billows along the walled streets.

The freshwater tanker cannot get to the Wadajiir feeding centre, where 1,400 malnourished children queue in cross-legged lines beneath canopies, waiting for food from the Save the Children Fund. The driver is frightened to go there because the surrounding streets controlled by clans who will steal the lorry.

The children never break rank, says Geraldine Maclaine, nurse from Redbridge; east London. They eat in the shadow of cannons and anti-tank guns which sit mounted on the Toyota Land Cruisers, ubiquitous vehicles without which Africa’s wars could not be fought.

A boy, his skin hanging from his bones, sits in the stench of his own diarrhoea, drained of the strength even to speak, his head sinking deeper into his writhing neck. He is lifted, washed, given rehydration salts, without saying a word.

His mother binds a motionless baby in a thin shawl on her back. The baby is covered in ulcers. Its head lolls from side to side. Its eyes open and close as it is bound in the cloth.

Outside, more children arrive, fleeing from the hunger in the countryside. But even in the capital, where aid agencies are most active, the 13 feeding centres run by SCF are seeing child deaths from malnutrition and diarrhoea every day.

Many of these people from the rural areas never saw Mogadishu before it was looted and bombarded by clan factions with the artillery provided by Moscow and Washington, alliesin turn of the 22-year Siad Barre dictatorship. They have seen it only as a ghostly wreck patrolled by the teenage inheritors of the superpowers’ arms.

A tank sits parked on a small hill, one of the few left since Siad Barre blasted his way out of the presidential residence, the Villa Somalia, in January 1991 in an armed convoy, deliberately blowing up as much of the city as possible before fleeing to the south.

A Leyland truck speeds past the gutted American embassy, a youth clutching a bazooka as he peers into the dust.

A packed minibus, an armed guard perched on the front bumper, hoots at the guards of a checkpoint in the central market. The boys at the checkpoint stare without expression as the driver waits for the lamppost barrier slung between two oil drums to be swung aside.

An unarmed policeman, blowing loudly through a silver whistle, effortlessly redirects the traffic from chaos to chaos.

Customers thronging the market on each side of the road adjust the rifles on their backs. Hundreds of the stalls sell door locks: smart brass locks, old ornate keys, locks torn from looted homes – the property of Mogadishu has changed hands more than once in the past year.

Food, stolen at the docks by the armed youths employed to unload it from the few aid ships that have ventured in, is as much a currency as the weaponry on sale at the gun market – from which westerners are barred.

The aid agencies pay their small armies £600 a day to protect the convoys travelling to and from the airstrip at Kilometre Fifty, the only one not controlled by clans prone to stealing the entire loads of the incoming transports.

The relief flights to Kilometre Fifty are slotted between the Qat flights. Qat, a narcotic drug chewed by Somalis, is bartered on the runway at 8 o’clock every morning. The light aircraft bringing it from Nairobi are unmolested.

The warriors chew it and it keeps them awake. But they grow tired and irritable, so they let off rounds into the air. These random fusillades are responsible for 60 per cent of gunshot deaths in Mogadishu.


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