Starving Somalia

Guess who has banned international food relief?

The UN’s recent declaration that parts of southern and central Somalia are in a state of famine was apparently not shared by al-Shabab, the al-Qaeda-linked Islamist terrorist organization that controls nearly 90 percent of the drought stricken areas.

Consequently, the Islamist terror outfit has now banned international relief organizations from the territory it controls, an action that is now reportedly preventing emergency aid from reaching over 2.2 million starving Somalis.

Somalia’s drought is just part of the larger drought that has gripped the entire Horn of Africa, one that has affected over 11 million people. For Somalia -- already engulfed in horrific sectarian violence and subjected to near continuous anarchy for over twenty years -- the current drought has been particularly nasty.

According to various reports, more than half of Somalia’s 3.7 million people live in drought-affected areas where they are unable to find food and, as such, face imminent starvation. It’s been estimated that 500,000 Somali children alone are critically malnourished. In fact, so bad has the situation become that the UN reported 11,000 Somalis have died from famine since June.

However, according to al-Shabab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage, the UN has “exaggerated” the drought in Somalia. Moreover, he called the UN's claim of the famine’s existence a complete “lie.” Instead, Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage accused the UN of political subterfuge and many of the foreign relief agencies as being “spies” who were “harming our people.”

Ironically, and perhaps somewhat confusingly, al-Shabab -- which banned relief organizations from its territory in 2009 -- had actually allowed food agencies back into its territory at the beginning of July 2011.

Perhaps al-Shabab relented because, as it remains locked in a battle with Somalia’s Transnational Federal Government (TFG), allowing locals to starve wasn’t the most effective way to win their hearts and minds. In any case, the result was that five tons of emergency supplies were quickly airlifted into al-Shabab-controlled territory.

Yet, weeks later, the relief agency ban is back in effect. Now, according to Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage, the Somali people need to just stay home and “wait for rain.”

Nonetheless, a mass exodus of over 500,000 refugees has poured into the neighboring countries of Kenya and Ethiopia, with the largest camp being at Dadaab, north of the Kenyan border, which is home to 370,000 refugees.

A smaller contingent has made its way to the Somali capital of Mogadishu. Others, to one of the 50 refugee camps set up by the TGF, with the largest being Badbaado, home to 20,000 refugees. In all, over 3,000 Somalis make their way daily into these various refugee camps.

Unfortunately, most affected drought victims live in remote communities. As such, they have to travel far distances to reach the safety of these camps and thus risk the wrath of encountering al-Shabab.

While some refugees encounter al-Shabab at checkpoints and are merely turned back, others aren’t so lucky. For example, only recently, herders who refused to turn over their livestock to al-Shabab insurgents were attacked. While five herders were captured, two were decapitated and their corpses displayed into the town of Afgoye, nearly 20 miles south of Mogadishu.

That brutal incident may help to explain why so few young Somali males are seen in the refugee camps. According to refugee aid workers, abduction is a frequent occurrence among new arrivals. As such, many say that most of the young Somali men stay behind in fear of being forced by al-Shabab to fight in the civil war against the forces of the TFG.

As one aid worker has explained, many refugees come to the camps to “escape the recruitment of child soldiers by al-Shabaab,” a recruitment effort that is taking place in mosques, schools and on the outskirts of Somali towns.

Of course, the notorious brutality of al-Shabab is well-established. In its efforts to remake Somalia into a Sharia-run Islamist state, al-Shabab has, among other things, stoned adulterers to death, cut off the hands of thieves, and murdered Christian converts from Islam. Al-Shabab has also subjected Somali women to forced marriages and gang rapes.

So, needless to say, it comes as little surprise that al-Shabab is now enacting a food ban that would purposefully starve to death huge numbers of Somalis. Certainly, al-Shabab’s current actions aren’t a surprise to those foreign aid organizations charged with providing humanitarian assistance to downtrodden Somalis.

Many of these organizations have witnessed al-Shabab kidnap and kill their workers, as well as seize food and other supplies meant for starving Somalis. Since 2008, 14 World Food Program employees alone have been killed in Somalia. So, in order for some of these foreign donors to go back into Somalia without fear, it’s now looking for some security guarantees.

As one UN spokesman said in a bit of a gross understatement, “The situation we have for humanitarian workers inside Somalia at the moment is not what we want it to be...Somalia is the riskiest environment we operate in the world today.”

Unfortunately, that disturbing reality seems unlikely to change anytime soon. Despite calls from the African Union for al-Shabab’s complete eradication, as well as a series of recent airstrikes from US Predator drones, al-Shabab has been increasing the effectiveness and scope of its work.

To that end, it has been reported that al-Shabab is transferring fighters to Yemen, across the Gulf of Aden, to reinforce al-Qaeda in Yemen’s (AQAP) attempt to overthrow the Yemeni government. For some, this move may be a precursor to al-Shabab and AQAP seizing control of the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, a key oil artery linking the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. As one intelligence official said, such a move would present a “nightmare scenario.”

Sadly, living nightmares are all too familiar to most Somalis and, as demonstrated by al-Shabab’s most recent action, ones not likely to end any time soon.

Frank Crimi is a writer living in San Diego, California. You can read more of Frank's work at his blog,