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Occupation of UNICEF Somalia base hinders vital interventions

© UNICEF/NYHQ2009-0205/Ysenburg
Children and women queue to see a medical worker outside Jowhar Maternity Hospital in Somalia. UNICEF’s base there was taken over by a militia group on 17 May 2009.

NEW YORK, USA, 24 June 2009 – The Somali militia group Al Shabaab is still occupying the UNICEF base in Jowhar town, nearly six weeks after taking it over on 17 May. Jowhar is UNICEF’s main hub for the southern and central regions of Somalia.

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Militiamen reportedly raided the compound and undertook large-scale looting and destruction of humanitarian supplies and equipment.

“These supplies are life-saving,” said UNICEF Chief of Field Office Wafaa Saeed. Among the destroyed inventory were supplies intended for 40,000 children at risk of malnutrition and for the continuation of a nationwide vaccination campaign.

Delivery network near collapse

Through many years of instability, a large network of more than 100 non-governmental and community-based organizations has come to rely on UNICEF supplies and technical assistance to provide a range of services – from health and nutrition intervention to education and protection.

This network is now “at risk of collapsing” due to the incident in Jowhar and ongoing hostility towards humanitarian aid workers, according to acting UNICEF Representative in Somalia Hannan Suleiman.

In a statement released last week, Ms. Suleiman demanded “the immediate return of our facilities in Jowhar town as well as the release of looted equipment and supplies.”

© UNICEF/NYHQ2009-0203/Ysenburg
A Somali child’s arm circumference is measured by a health worker to assess his growth and health in the Jowhar camp for displaced people.

Displaced population on the rise

Meanwhile, an escalation of violence in the capital has caused another spike in the number of internally displaced people in need of food and shelter. Currently, about 160,000 people have been displaced by violence that began in early May.

“The fighting in Mogadishu has resulted in one of the most dense IDP settlements in the whole of Africa,” said Ms. Saeed, referring to the 20-mile stretch west from Mogadishu, where some 400,000 Somalis live in temporary conditions.

“Given that we are not present today in Jowhar, this is also affecting our ability to provide assistance for this group,” she added.

Perseverance against setbacks

Eighteen years of fighting in Somalia’s southern and central regions have been disastrous for children and women. Because of the magnitude of their needs, UNICEF has always worked in areas controlled by opposing armed groups, and its neutrality usually has been respected, said Ms. Saeed.

“We’ve been very transparent and open with all parties regardless of who is in control,” she explained, adding that the organization has identified other partners to take on additional distributions during the occupation of Jowhar.

She also noted that despite ongoing instability, UNICEF is still on the ground throughout the country, working with partners and appealing to authorities to allow access to those most in need. In the past two years, for example, the number of UNICEF-supported feeding sites has surpassed 200.

“For us on the ground, when we see these things happening, when we see mothers coming with their children [to the feeding centres], it’s inspiring,” said Ms. Saeed. “If you see them, then you see that what we do is worthwhile and that we have to do whatever it takes to give them assistance.”




24 June 2009:
UNICEF’s Wafaa Saeed discusses the six-week occupation of one of UNICEF’s main bases in Somalia by a militia group.
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