July 29, 2011
If the past is anything to go by, TVs the world over will show heart-wrenching pictures of malnourished Somali babies with distended kwashiorkor bellies; of flies feeding on their eyes; of mouths sucking at milkless breasts. Environmental experts will pontificate on the recurrent droughts in Somalia. Aid organizations will canvass the world’s rich to find the funds to feed the starving. Governments will make promises they won’t keep. What has been a tributary of refugees leaving Somalia and entering neighboring Kenya will become floods. These will be channeled into refugee camps, which will overflow with rivers of human misery.
A couple of years ago, I was visiting my good friend Abdullahi Mohamed Shirwa, a respected civil society leader based in Mogadishu. He wondered aloud if the country would continue to exist, given the prevailing circumstances. A week ago, I received a call from him. He described the situation as “disastrous, almost beyond repair.” He asked: “Why are our people being left to die, starving — decade after decade?”
Weigh In Corrections?
Nearly 170,000 Somalis have come to the refugee camps since January, according to the United Nations. Yet the suffering humanity fleeing the famine is indicative of the catastrophe awaiting an even larger multitude of Somalis. I am talking about those who have stayed behind, those from whom death harvests its daily dividend. After all, they are in worse need, desperate for help that they are not likely to receive. This is because humanitarian agencies are not allowed to reach these unfortunates. Access is being prevented by al-Shabab, the al-Qaeda-linked hard-line religionists who claim divine sanction — and who are declaring death on the cut-off hordes.
In a way, the current situation in Somalia is much worse than the one in 1992. During the famine then, warlords held the nation hostage. Millions of Somalis were caught in the middle and hundreds of thousands died of hunger. In response to the crisis, the United States sent in the Marines to to do “God’s work,” as President George H.W. Bush put it. But that intervention was a half-measure, and the unfinished mission led directly to the calamity we’re living today.
The U.S. military action in Somalia resulted in the deaths in 1993 of 18 American service members; thugs supporting the warlord whom the Americans were hunting dragged corpses through the dusty alleys of Mogadishu. Humiliated, the United States withdrew. Al-Qaeda claimed credit for the attack and went about the business of recruiting terrorists nearly undisturbed, and was able to launch attacks on the U.S. Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya five years later.
The American withdrawal played into the hands of the disrupters of peace, ultimately privileging the terrorists. The United Nations rewarded the warlords with undeserved honor, describing them as leaders instead of treating them as criminals. The warlords were invited to a series of national reconciliation conferences to form a government, and Somalis equated this bizarre turn of events to the notion of entrusting your flock of sheep to hyenas. Only a fool thinks that no harm will come to his sheep.