Somali town waits to die as warlords feud


Mulid camp, near Bardera, has 11,000 people and they are all starving. Food is just another weapon in a local power struggle, Mark Huband reports

The Guardian, 29 October 1992


Ali lies alone under the hot sun as the sweating men hack at the hard ground that will become his grave.

All morning they have been digging the loose earth on the top of the dyke beside the river bed. They chase away sightseers who peer at Ali’s body as it lies alone under the hot sun.

“This is the death people. Come and see. This is the death people,” says Hassan Mahmud Mohammed, chairman of Bardera’s relief committee. He was appointed to the job when fighters of the Somali National Front faction seized Bardera two weeks ago.

Before the town fell, aid agencies had reduced the daily death rate from starvation to 50. The fighting led to relief flights being suspended and the withdrawal of all relief workers. Now there are 258 bodies waiting to be buried. That was the death toll from the previous night. Sometimes the daily rate is as high as 400.

Ali’s hole on the dyke is flanked by graves which stretch out of the town and into the scrub. The seasonal rains have started and the dyke will become sodden. The earth will slip away and the sightseers will be back to see the corpses exposed.

“We are tired of digging. We think only of digging. We bury them on the top of the mound because the ground is softer on the top. We dig quickly. One day we buried 323 people,” said Abdukader Yassin, the only doctor in Bardera – a doctor with no medicine and few means of treating the people whose illnesses he diagnoses.

Bardera is trapped between a minefield to the west and the front line of fighting to the east. The Somali National Front, which holds the town, is led by General Mohammed Sayeed Hersi Morgan, son-in-law of the country’s deposed dictator, Mohammed Siad Barre.

SNF forces camped for four months in the hills west of Bardera waiting for the leader of the faction then controlling the own, General Mohammed Farah Aideed, to leave Bardera on a visit to Mogadishu. Then they marched in.

GenAideed has declared his aim of recapturing Bardera, and his troops are only 30 miles away.

When he lost the town, Gen Aideed told the United Nations that all the civilians had fled. This was a lie intended to discourage the UN from sending food aid. The UN believed him for a few days, and the people of Bardera started to die. Then the UN realised they had been tricked. They had not expected Somali leaders to be that callous.

The minefield, which was laid by the SNF when they were planning their siege of Bardera, has also stopped relief agencies arriving by road from Kenya. There are up to 60,000 people in Bardera and the surrounding area who are eating rapidly depleting relief food left behind when the aid agencies departed. The only activity in Bardera is grave-digging.

Beside the river bed a woman lies sprawled on the hot ground waiting to be buried.

Without saying anything the grave-digger explains how she died. He just uses his hands to point to his empty throat and empty belly. He points to the woman, then he points to the grave.

Children lick cornmeal from where it has spilt in the sand at Mulid camp, a mile outside Bardera. A man in a camouflage jacket chases them away with a stick. There are 11,000 people in the camp and they are all starving.

Maymouna Mahamed lies in a dome-shaped hovel made of thorn bushes. Her movements are so slow it is as if she is floating. “I need some sugar. I can eat sugar. And milk. I can’t digest what the people bring me,” she murmurs. Everybody has left her village of Jaware, 20 miles from Bardera. A month ago the people there were receiving a steady supply of food, sent out from Bardera on trucks by the US-based relief organisation, Care International.

“Everybody is dead in the village. There’s nobody left. I came here walking. Now I can’t walk. Please bring me to the hospital. They have food,” she says.

In hut after hut, baking under the scorching sun, drenched when the rains pour, people lie waiting to die or to bury the dead.

Mulid is a death camp for people in danger of being forgotten. Bardera is a town waiting to be rescued.

The last food to arrive was brought in by a German military aircraft on October 24 as part of the multinational airlift.

The SNF, responsible for organising the composition of the relief committee, had omitted one of the 25 local sub-clans, thereby depriving members of that sub-clan of their cut of the food automatically looted by the warlords.

During unloading cooking oil and high protein Unimix, an aggrieved member of the excluded sub-clan fired a missile over the plane which exploded beside the runway. The plane immediately took off and further relief were suspended.

Now the UN, which on Tuesday made the extremely ambitious commitment to resume relief operations in Bardera, is attempting to avert further security problems by reconstituting the relief committee without excluding any of the three main clans in the area.

“We are starting almost from scratch,” said Bob Allen, Somalia country director for the Australian branch of Care, during a visit to Bardera this week.

Before the siege of Bardera, Care had succeeded in distributing food to outlying villages in a bid to prevent an exodus to the town. The strategy is in tatters.

“We can’t stop people coming from the villages if it’s a matter of life and death. And now a lot of the displaced belong to no village. They have lost everything because of the war,” he said.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited