‘Our lives have been completely lost.’ Somalis flee drought and conflict
As Muslims across the globe were celebrating the end of Ramadan last month, distraught father Warsame was grieving for his son.
His six-year-old boy died during Eid – a festival marking the close of a month of fasting – shortly after arriving at a camp for the displaced in Baidoa, south-west Somalia.
The child had been sick for four months with a disease that left his hands and feet swollen, but hunger was thought to have caused his death.
When we meet, the family is crafting a makeshift shelter from branches and scavenged materials. They arrived at this camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) after fleeing drought and harsh sanctions imposed by the terrorist organisation Al-Shabaab.
Warsame, 45, says of their former home: “There is no life for us in that district. There is no hope that I can see because our lives have been completely lost. We have no funds and rely on what our neighbours share. If I can find work, perhaps that will improve our lives.”
As the world’s attention has been diverted to the civil war in Sudan, a humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding in Somalia. Eight million people in Somalia are thought to be facing food shortages, including 5.1 million children.
More than 600,000 Somalis have ended up here in Baidoa after abandoning lands decimated by five failed rainy seasons.
Climate change, rising commodity prices due to the war in Ukraine, and conflict have created a perfect storm. The country has endured decades of political instability and violence by militia groups, as well as inter-clan friction.
Ongoing conflict has eroded the resilience of communities and prevented humanitarian aid reaching the most vulnerable rural areas. Al-Shabaab, an affiliate organisation of Al-Qaeda, controls vast swathes of central and southern Somalia.
Warsame, whose name we have changed to protect his identity, says the group severely restricted transport and food imports in his hometown, which drove up the price of food. A 1kg bag of rice costs almost twice as much there compared with here in Baidoa, he explains.
At another IDP camp, 41-year-old Abdi is living in fear after barely escaping alive from an Al-Shabaab stronghold.
He tells us: “I was brought here by the drought and Al-Shabaab. Al-Shabaab tried to recruit me, I refused and was detained for 47 days. They put me in a sack and put me under water, in a river, to try and make me accept their requests.”
Abdi, whose name has also been changed, says the ordeal only ended when his former teacher, who was a member, intervened. His captors were persuaded to release him but told him: “If we see you, we will kill you.”
Abdi’s family scraped together enough money for a flight to Mogadishu. He made his way to Baidoa, while his wife and seven children travelled by car.
Sitting inside the sturdy shelter he built for them, Abdi says life in the camp is “unbearable” but at least people stick together. He adds: “Everyone here is affected by the drought. We are all suffering so we support one another.
“We used to depend on farms and the farms depend on rain, if they don’t fall we can’t survive.
“The other thing is that before you sow your farm, you have to pay Al Shabaab $150 (£120). My father is now in jail because he couldn’t pay.”
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Abdi says he still receives threats from his tormentors. “They call me or send messages telling me I must join.
“They think that people who are here are ‘disbelievers’ because we are working with the government and humanitarian organisations. They say one day they will come and kill us. Sometimes when I feel afraid, I go and stay near the police station.
“Back home, my life was being threatened but I was with all my family. My security here is better but I was happier at home.”
Al-Shabaab has been driven out of major cities including Baidoa but regularly stages attacks. The threat means the movements of aid organisations are often limited to safer areas.
Sarah Njeri, a lecturer in humanitarianism and development at SOAS University of London, explains that aid is often seen as haram – forbidden – by these Islamic extremists.
She says: “In 2010, even with the famine being declared, a few agencies were kicked out by the militia groups, especially Western aid organisations.”
Conflict and climate change have had a detrimental effect on the resilience of communities, Ms Njeri adds. She says: “The ongoing conflict has meant people migrating – going into Kenya or other neighbouring countries.
“Most of the people who will leave will be the able-bodied men and women, who are the ones working on farms or keeping livestock.
“What you’re left with is a community that is not as resilient. That means that even if miraculously there were rains and people could start ploughing and tending livestock, it becomes very difficult.”
The drought has a ripple effect. Livestock are the mainstay of the Somali economy and also play a key role in the traditional legal system of customary law, often used by clans to settle disputes. If compensation in the form of livestock cannot be arranged, this can trigger further clashes.
Ms Njeri says all of these challenges – climate change, drought, the influence of militias – must be addressed if communities are to recover.
She adds: “Unless an integrated approach is put in place, I don’t think there will be any progress in terms of providing communities with resilience or opportunities to recover from the drought.”
Save the Children treated more than 50,000 children for malnutrition in Somalia last year. You can find out more about the charity’s work here.
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