One year after the declaration of famine, Somalia sees signs of progress
One year ago, on 20 July 2011, the United Nations declared famine in two regions of southern Somalia, the flashpoint in a humanitarian crisis gripping the Horn of Africa. After an outpouring of international support, the famine ended in February 2012, and countless lives across the region were saved. But 8 million people in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya remain in need of humanitarian assistance, and UNICEF’s relief efforts must continue.
By Athanas Makundi
MOGADISHU, Somalia, 20 July 2012 – Dressed in helmets and body armour, UNICEF Emergency Specialist Maulid Warfa takes an armed convoy through Mogadishu, passing through the strategic K4 crossroads.
Traditionally, whichever armed group controlled the junction controlled Mogadishu. Now, four smartly dressed traffic police are in charge.
“Sometime back, this area was like a ghost town,” says Mr. Warfa. “But now I can hardly believe all the traffic and the families walking out on the street.”
They arrive at the large medical centre known as Hanano, which UNICEF provides with medical supplies and equipment. There, children under 5 are being vaccinated against measles, polio, diphtheria and whooping cough, and are receiving vitamin A supplements.
“I would say we have about 200 people visiting daily. So far this month, we recorded 4,107 people, mostly women and children,” says Hanano project manager Ibrahim Ahmed Hassan.
Somalia's immunization rates are among the lowest in the world, but even in the peak of the famine crisis and conflict, UNICEF continued to provide essential vaccination coverage.
“We have never closed this centre, even during the height of the fighting,” says Mr. Hassan. “We opened a sheltered route through the backdoor where people knew they could safely visit us.”
In the queue, Nadifo Mohamed is breastfeeding 7-month-old Maida. “I brought my child here to be vaccinated because immunization protects children from diseases,” she says. “My firstborn son died of measles. He was not immunized. We did not know about these things.”
Aid for the internally displaced
Mr. Warfa then visits Majo camp, which was set up for Somalis displaced by the food crisis in August 2011, a month after the UN declared famine in two regions of Somalia.
As the convoy arrives, a volley of gunshots rings out.
“Gunfire has become a part of our life,” says Mr. Warfa. “So long as we know we are helping people, nothing will scare us.”
The overcrowded camp is home to more than 28,000 people. As he walks through the camp Mr. Warfa talks to mothers sitting outside their shelters and scribbles notes.
“Life is better here than at home, but we don’t have enough water in the camp,” says Malun Maow Abdulle, who fled the famine at Lower Shabelle last August.
“It is at this level that you get first-hand information from the people themselves,” says Mr. Warfa, who lived in a refugee camp as a child. “When I come to the field and talk to the mothers and children, it reminds me of my childhood, it reminds me how difficult it is to live in a camp and how it is to go without food.”
Assistance for children
Next, Mr. Warfa visits one of the six schools set up by UNICEF. Children at the camp attend lessons in morning and afternoon shifts.
On the floor of one of the school tents sit 57 girls. “I have learnt many subjects here like science, Arabic, Somali and mathematics,” says 9-year-old Fartun Mohamed Hassan.
The school is basic, with few facilities, but for many of Somali children, it is the first time they have been inside a classroom of any kind. Still, more must be done for the students.
“The number of children in this camp is overwhelming,” says Abdirashid Mohamoud Addani of the local NGO Somali Community Concern. “We need more schools to accommodate them all, and we also need chairs and other furniture for the children to sit in class.”
The convoy moves on to a UNICEF-supported feeding centre run by the local NGO SAACID. During the crisis last year, displaced people in Mogadishu were among the six declared famine areas.
“The children coming to the feeding centre are early cases of malnutrition compared to the once who came here at the point of death last year,” says SAACID project coordinator Adam Yusuf Mandi.
In some ways, these families are lucky. There are areas of Somalia that UNICEF cannot get to. It is estimated that over 3.5 million people – half of them children – have been out of reach since November 2011, when the Al-Shabaab militia banned UNICEF from the areas they controlled.
Security remains an issue for all humanitarian staff working inside Somalia. Between January 2008 and August 2009, about 40 aid workers were killed in the country. Mr. Warfa has been ambushed twice and kidnapped once, but he is undeterred.
“What motivates me is knowing what people are going through and knowing what I can do can change their lives,” he says. “As UNICEF, we are trying to make sure we leave no stone unturned when it comes to helping to save lives of children and women.”