Somali town lies down to die as famine proves the great leveller

Mark Huband in Baidoa, southern Somalia    

The Guardian, 7 September 1992

FROM every dark, paneless window, from every doorway, down every street in the town, the skeletal, rag-draped people stare as they wander starving among the rubble. In the space of a month, Baidoa has gone from a recognisable town hit by famine, to being a camp where dead bodies are as much a part of the rubble as the homes destroyed by civil war.

The streets are silent. Children whose age and sex are impossible to identify, drift around, too weak to beg or talk or react to anything. Upon the fire-charred bricks of a ruined building the dead body of a young man lies spreadeagled. On the main road to the hospital an old man lies dead clutching a walking stick. Beside him lies another old man. He is dead, too.

A hand reaches out from beneath a colourful shawl, just a hand held out for whatever might be placed in it by whoever is passing. But the people who are passing are dying, too.

A few weeks ago there were some healthy looking people in Baidoa, which lies 140 miles north-east of Mogadishu. The contrast then between the living and the dying was stark, and showed the awful injustice of a famine which allowed some children to play in the street with toy guns made of wood or metal, while beside them refugees from the villages lay in the sand dying.

But now the children have stopped their games. Few faces are without marks of hunger and exhaustion. The faces of people too weak to continue stare from every direction as you pass.

In the shadow of a wall at the Bi Projects camp, a baby lies curled up peacefully on a sheet. Its mother is preparing to bury it. Flies hover round a 30-year-old man lying nearby, dead less than an hour. In this camp 70 a day are dying. In Baidoa, its normal population of 30,000 swelled to at least 60,000 by displaced people from surrounding villages, there are about 500 deaths a day.

“The situation is worse than anything I have ever seen,” said Phoebe Fraser, administrator in the town for a United States relief organisation, Care International. “Once the rains come in the next week or two, it will be worse. The shelter in the town is appalling, and the displaced people are in an appalling condition.”

The two US air force transports which began an emergency airlift of food into Baidoa at the weekend were greeted at the town’s airfield by local politicians, their accompanying gunmen and a handful of demonstrators carrying signs in English and Arabic saying, “Foreign Army No, Food Yes.”

Abdi Warsarme Isak, whose Somali National Movement is aligned with one of the country’s main warlords, General Mohamed Farrah Aidid, welcomed the US airlift but said that his fighters should be left to arrange security for relief food, not the 3,000 United Nations troops proposed to protect the aid shipments. “It will be too much having thousands of foreign troops,” Mr Warsame said. “In Baidoa, the security is improving, it is getting better.”

Just before the US planes landed, carrying 19 tonnes of maize flour, a gun battle in the town had left one man dead. Soon after, an argument at the airfield’s entrance saw two teenage gunmen pointing AK-47 rifles at each other.

Under its $10 million emergency operation in Somalia, the US has so far airlifted 300 tonnes of food into the country and sent 1,600 tonnes to Somali refugees in northern Kenya. Since August 28, there have been 31 US relief flights into Somalia. Another 145,000 tonnes of US food is to be sent only after the beginning of the US financial year in October.

The US hands over its food to the relief agencies operating in Baidoa – considered the most insecure town so far reached by the airlift operation – and relies on gunmen hired by the agencies to ensure that the food is not stolen and sold.

While more food has arrived in Baidoa in the past month than in any previous month, due mainly to airlifts by the United Nations’ Children’s Fund, the delivery of extra food has coincided with the arrival of hundreds more refugees in the town.

The UN special envoy to Somalia, Mohamed Sahnoun, said last week that the Somali crisis was “much worse than we had previously thought”. As relief agencies visit more villages, they are finding people who have died in their houses or are waiting to die, too weak to travel to where food is now being delivered.

Every time the scale of the crisis is assessed and more food arrives, the need becomes greater and the desperation grows worse. “People think this is just another African famine,” said Phoebe Fraser, “but it’s not”.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited