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

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Despite that clarification, restrictions still apply: Wharton says there are "risk-mitigation procedures, risk-based assessments and special conditions for our agreements ... to avoid the diversion of humanitarian funds to al-Shabab." Tony Burns, operations director for the Somali aid group Saacid, says that on the ground, those conditions are resulting in a continuation of the aid block. By mid-August, WFP staff confirmed that the agency had no access to al-Shabab areas — and that even if that were ever allowed, food distribution would take weeks to organize.

Some aid workers openly accuse the U.S. of causing the famine. "The famine is proof of U.S. success," says Burns. Washington's allies in the TFG aren't shy, either, about hailing the strategic advantage the disaster gives them. The famine "is an opportunity to expand our reach," TFG Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali tells TIME. "The more weak [al-Shabab is], the more we reach." A TFG military adviser confirmed that the TFG wanted no aid reaching southern Somalia until after it had defeated al-Shabab. Underlining the point, TFG commander General Yusuf Mohammed Siad, better known as Inda'ade, says, "We cannot take food to where they are. They have nothing, they cannot fight, and what we need to do now is clear them out. After that, we will take food there."

Help Out of Reach
Slowly, hundreds of thousands of starving Somalis are realizing they may have trekked to Mogadishu only to die there instead. If there's little aid in the famine areas, there's also not enough outside them. Afraid for their safety, most Western aid agencies hole up in a fortified base next to the airport. Three weeks after the U.N. declared a famine and despite several aid flights arriving daily, food had yet to make it out of the airport to a camp just 100 m away. The WFP was distributing 85,000 hot meals a day through local groups, a small fraction of what Mogadishu's 500,000 refugees needed. It tried a bulk food distribution at Badbaado, a camp of 30,000 people that sprang up in days on the edge of the city in July, but managed instead to spark a riot in which seven people died, nixing any similar efforts by other agencies. Meanwhile, looted WFP grain sacks are appearing in Mogadishu's markets. At Banadir Hospital, Islamic Relief's Mohamed is supplying medicine and staff and building a cholera isolation ward even though that was meant to be a job for the World Health Organization and UNICEF. "Where are they?" he asks.

Many in the aid world struggle to explain their poor performance. They should have been prepared. The U.N. has for years described Somalia as the world's worst humanitarian crisis, and there were drought forecasts a year ago. "We are still trying to work out how we ended up here, what we missed, what we did wrong," says Peter Hailey, senior nutrition manager at UNICEF. In a speech in Washington on Aug. 11, Shenggen Fan, director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute, said the aid world had overlooked just three things: a plan, action and political will. For the U.N. not to call an emergency appeal until July 20, by which time Europe and the U.S. were consumed with their debt crises, seems a particular mistake — and a reason the U.N. had by Aug. 24 only 58% of the $2.48 billion it says it needs. The funds raised are "dangerously inadequate," said U.K. International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell after visiting Mogadishu on Aug. 17.

That hasn't stopped some aid groups from claiming a heroic success. The WFP broadcast a fundraising Twitter message on Aug. 9 proclaiming, "Airlifts launched to bring enough high-energy biscuits to Horn of Africa to feed 1.6 million people." An accompanying press release clarified that the biscuits would feed 1.6 million people for a day and that the airlifts were from Nairobi to Mombasa, Kenya, not Mogadishu. On Aug. 10, Oxfam claimed it was "now reaching 880,000 people in Somalia." A spokesman later admitted to TIME that there was no Oxfam staff in southern Somalia and that the figure of 880,000 was an estimate of the total beneficiaries of Oxfam-funded, locally implemented projects across all of Somalia, including latrines, water projects and aid vouchers outside the famine area. "I don't think we're distributing any food," he added.

It's all too much for Mogadishu's mayor, Mahamud Nur: "How many people will die? The aid groups say they're here, but where? It's complete rubbish! Children are dying!"

The day I first visit Banadir's 35-bed children's ward, a 7-year-old child named Umar has just died. The next day two 1-year-olds follow, a tiny 18-month-old boy dies minutes after we arrive, and Abshir, a 9-year-old who looks 4, dies that evening. On repeat visits, I start recognizing children from the camps, now in sudden decline — vomiting, defecating, breathing shallowly, their eyes rolled back in their heads.

Banadir has lost its cemetery. Refugees have built huts and a makeshift classroom over the graves. As relatives scour Mogadishu for an unclaimed space big enough in which to lay Umar's tiny body, I stand with his mother Khalima, 38, as she watches an orderly wash her son's pin-thin body and wrap him in a white shroud. Overhead, unseen, a Predator drone hums. Then, in the graveyard school next door, the children start to sing.
With reporting by Mohamed Dahir / Mogadishu

This article originally appeared in the September 5, 2011 issue of TIME Europe.

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