Only the fittest are fed as Somali relief flights deliver too little too late


Mark Huband witnesses the violence and misery of a food riot when the long-awaited sacks of maize meal run out in Bardera

The Guardian, 18 September 1992


EVERYBODY knew there was not going to be enough food, as they watched the sacks being piled up. The 2,226 displaced people living in Bardera had sat under the thorn trees for an hour in the midday sun. They had watched the sacks being counted. Old men, young men, women with children, starving children, orphaned children.

The first sacks were opened. Maize meal was scooped out into tin cans, the folds of dresses, straw bags. People edged closer to the piles. Nomads with faces cracked by the sun, children coated in dust, their hair falling through malnutrition.

Sacks began to disappear, taken by young men who rushed off down the road before they could be stopped. Families took sacks saying they would distribute them among their clans. They tore through the crowd knocking over the weak and helpless.

Children fell screaming to the ground as they were trampled, the tracks of their tears coursing across dust-caked cheeks. Long sheath knives were drawn as desperate thieves old women pleading for their share.

Half the amount of food needed to feed the displaced had arrived. The American relief organisation Care International, which has been arranging food distribution in the town since September 2, had expected four airlift flights from Nairobi. Only two had come.

“We need 50 tonnes per day, and we are only getting 30 tonnes; 1,500 sacks of meal are needed to make a general distribution among the 75,000 people in the town and the surrounding villages,” said Care’s co-ordinator in Bardera, Raja Gopala Krishnan.

“We have 18,000 people in the town itself, and all of them are reliant on relief food. We had told the displaced, who have come from the surrounding villages and some from as far as Baidoa, 270 kilometres away, that we would distribute today. I don’t know why the planes didn’t come.”

Agencies operating in Somalia have learned from the appalling experience in Baidoa. There 60,000 starving people have converged on the town from the surrounding area, straining food, water and hospital resources.

Care is determined to discourage people from coming to Bardera, by distributing food directly to the surrounding villages. Even so, hundreds are arriving and 20 people a day are dying in Bardera’s only hospital from diarrhoea and malnutrition, according to Dr Ayub Sheikh Yerun of the United Nations Children’s Fund.

The need to encourage people to stay in the villages was demonstrated by Tuesday’s distribution among the displaced. It ended in fighting, and theft by anyone who still had the strength to carry a 100lb sack.

Mohamed Sahnoun, the UN’s special envoy to Somalia, happened to be driving past the food riot in Bardera with the leader of the country’s main warring faction, General Mohamed Farah Aideed.

“This is proof that if anybody thought there was enough food coming here, then they were wrong,” said Mr Sahnoun.

The reputedly all-powerful Gen Aideed, waving his silver-tipped cane, walked among the starving people and told them to sit down. But they completely ignored him. Most did not even appear to recognise the man who started the war which has led to their long, slow deaths.

After a few minutes, the general, the ambassador and their guests sped off to an army base in the sand and bush on the edge of Bardera. Ten per cent of all the incoming relief food is being creamed off by the general’s soldiers.

Gen Aideed represents one extreme of Somalia’s tragedy: a powerful man unable to feed the people in whose name he fought, an articulate man who has seen the collapse of his society.

Burnt-out army trucks, a military ambulance, and an old Land Rover lie on the road to Doblay, a village 15 miles from Bardera where Care is delivering food. On the edge of the village, two gravediggers claw at the hard earth with hoes until they reach grey rock. The graves are shallow and short. There are more than 40. Children’s graves.

Care is delivering 150 sacks for Doblay and surrounding villages. The people slowly emerge from their huts. They queue for a while, then grow anxious as the pile of sacks shrinks. Fights start. Panic spreads. The maize is finished but only two-thirds of the people have any. The young men have food. The old women wander back to their huts in despair. They have nothing.

“Nana, Nana. Come. Nana, Nana,” a young man says to a women lying in the scant shade beneath a thorn tree. He leans over her and repeats the words. The food has arrived, he tells her. He pulls back the shawl, sees she is dead and goes to receive his ration.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited