The Collateral Crisis in Somalia

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Dominic Nahr / Magnum for TIME

Makeshift home A mother and her child, along with other refugees, take shelter in an old Italian cathedral in Mogadishu

By late June and early July, when their goats were all gone and the last of their cows had sunk to their knees and died, the men told their families it was time to leave. In Daynunay, Haji Hassan and his children packed up what they had — a few rags, plastic bottles, some old cooking pots — and set out for Mogadishu, 250 km to the east. At every village they passed, their small group grew, first to a column of hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands, as millions across southern Somalia abandoned their homes. With little water and only leaves to eat, the young and the old quickly perished: one of Hassan's grandsons was buried where he dropped. Bagey Ali, 50, who walked 300 km from Qansax Dheere, says he saw seven people "just sit down and die." When his children would start fading on the 500-km trek from Baoli, Bishar Abdi Shaith, 60, carried them on his shoulders. "When I realized they were dead, I would lift them off and bury them there, on the way." He lost two boys and three girls that way.

A mass exodus, an emptying of half a country, is an unprecedented, biblical event. What triggered it? The immediate cause was drought. Rains failed last October in East Africa, then again in April, and by early August the U.N. was putting the number of people at risk from hunger in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Somalia and Uganda at 12.4 million.

Southern Somalia was in famine. A full 2.8 million people, 63% of the region's population, were either starving or at risk of it. The number of Somali children with severe acute malnutrition — near death — was 170,000; 29,000 had already died. Even those cataclysmic figures were probably underestimates. Iffthikar Mohamed, country director for Islamic Relief (which has staff inside the famine area, unlike the U.N.), said his teams found mortality and malnutrition rates at least twice as high. Senior relief managers tell TIME there is no chance of preventing 100,000 Somalis, perhaps more, from dying in the next few weeks.

How did this happen? Could it have been stopped? And how is it that millions of Somalis were so sure that no help was coming that they took their families on a death march across the desert? The answers reveal how a war between Islamic militants and the U.S. and its allies led directly to human catastrophe.

When I ask Bagey Ali when the last rain fell in Qansax Dheere, he laughs at the idea, then struggles to remember. "Two years," he says. "Maybe four." Southern Somalia is part of the Sahel, the band of dry land that runs across Africa below the Sahara. Half a century ago, rainfall was sparse, but droughts occurred only once a decade. Today they come every two years, and in areas where El Niño and La Niña disrupt the seasons, there haven't been good rains for 10 years. This is climate change now — severe and lethal. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization says this year's drought is the worst since 1950-51, and the compound effect of successive rain failures means an area the size of France has become desert in 50 years.

But drought just sets the conditions for famine; only man ensures it. The southern U.S. is in drought, but Americans aren't starving. Why? Because Americans have enough government and wealth. Likewise, one reason we are not seeing a repeat of the 1984 Ethiopian famine, in which a million people died, is that much of East Africa has progressed since then. Also, aid workers are now better at saving lives. An early-warning system first predicted East African food shortages 11 months ago, food aid has become more sophisticated and includes medicines and high-protein nut pastes, and improved disaster mitigation is matched by better prevention. Schemes like the U.S.'s $3.5 billion three-year program Feed the Future push ever more money into projects such as irrigation and food warehouses that raise people's ability to feed themselves. "It's really important we understand the progress even in the face of this tragedy," says Nancy Lindborg, who is leading USAID's famine response.

Such progress only throws the disaster in Somalia into sharper relief, however. Because if it is humans who produce or prevent famine, who made Somalia's?

The big difference between Somalia and the rest of East Africa is war. Somalis have been fighting one another and have lived without a central government for 20 years. Perhaps a million people have died. One symptom of this lawlessness is piracy. Another is the rise of Islamists. What began as a fight between clan warlords became, in its second decade, a struggle between warlords and militants demanding the imposition of strict Shari'a. The more extreme Islamists then formed al-Shabab, or "the Youth." For four years, al-Shabab has battled the official Transitional Federal Government (TFG).

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