Somalia's fragile security puts aid out of reach for many who desperately need it

Published: November 27, 2015

The streets of Mogadishu are eerily quiet. Military roadblocks and checkpoints are everywhere. This is not unusual, but these days it is increasingly hard to know who is manning them – the army, a private militia or insurgents.
In recent years, the national army, backed by peacekeepers from the African Union Mission in Somalia force, has largely pushed the Islamic militants of al-Shabaab out of many key towns, including Mogadishu, Kismayo and Barawe.
But gains are fragile: al-Shabaab still carries out frequent gun-and-bomb attacks, as well as assassinations, in Mogadishu, and also seeks to recapture territory around the city. To complicate matters further, Somali soldiers are underpaid, undertrained and often demotivated.
Soldiers in Somalia are not paid a fixed rate. Instead, income varies depending on the battalion and on how close a soldier is to the commander. That is if they get paid at all.
Bashi’s journey from Africa to Europe may signal a bigger refugee crisis to come
Mohamed Yahya
Read more
On the road heading to Shibis, a district in Mogadishu, our vehicle is stopped several times at checkpoints. It is still impossible for staff from foreign aid agencies to move around without armed bodyguards, and the sheer difficulty in travelling has put the brakes on critical humanitarian projects in a city that still bears the physical and human scars of more than two decades of war and natural disasters.
In Howlwadaag district, more than 120 families live in a collection of ramshackle iron and plastic shelters. Some have been here for five years; many arrived in 2011 during the drought that ravaged Somalia and the region. Others are here because they were threatened by al-Shabaab.
Usmaa is 50 and has eight children. “We moved here from Kismayo because of al-Shabaab – they were threatening my husband,” she recalls. “He was a businessman, selling camel meat. Al-Shabaab were demanding a lot of taxes from him to do business there, so we decided to leave because we felt threatened. We haven’t gone back to Kismayo in five years because the road is very dangerous and you can get ambushed. But I want to go back because it is home.”
Amma is a nurse in the nearby Shibis health clinic, which is supported by the Swiss-based NGO Medair. She says children regularly die from preventable diseases: “Children are often coming with malaria and diarrhoea and respiratory infections. The children can’t take food orally because of the diarrhoea. When children are sick the parents will often give traditional medicine, too – that makes the problem worse. And then they come to us too late and the child is already very sick.”
Shireen is a midwife at the same clinic. Four midwives deliver between 135 and 150 babies monthly. She says early marriage is exacerbating poverty. “Girls are often not very well formed when they give birth for the first time, and it is hard for them to deliver. When there is an emergency, people do not have money to pay for their ambulances or cars so they often don’t get to the clinic in time.”
Abdul, 18, is one of the few camp residents in education. He is studying to be an electrician. “I have four brothers and three sisters, all younger than me. They don’t go to normal school – they only go to madrasa because there is no money in our family to be able to send them to school at the moment. I am the only one able to go to polytechnic because my mother gives me all of the money she earns to pay for it – it is only $15 – so that hopefully one day I can get a job and make money to help her.
“My mother is the only source of income in our family and we all rely on her. My father is disabled. He was shot through the leg with a bullet during the war. He used to be a driver and had a job but after this he couldn’t work any more.”
Since their house was destroyed in 2008, Abdul’s family have been living in a one room temporary structure with iron sheet walls and a plastic sheet roof. There is no toilet or water supply. “Food is a problem,” he says. “We only have breakfast – porridge and tea. So my brothers and sisters go to madrasa only with this. At Elman peace centre, my polytechnic, we get a little food at lunchtime. But my siblings get nothing, so they are hungry.”
Sowraz is 15 and also from Kismayo. She says lack of education is the major challenge in her family. “You have to pay to go to school and sometimes if we miss being able to pay the school fees we can’t go. The fee for my school is $10 per month – $5 for fees and $5 for books. We don’t get fed at school. I try and eat before I go – normally I eat bread and a bit of oil and some black tea. It isn’t easy to study because we are hungry.”
Medair works alongside al-Dawa, a local NGO, to promote basic hygiene by training healthcare volunteers in the camp. Usmaa, one of the first to sign up, explains: “We learned if a pregnant woman feels a severe headache or bleeding we know that we have to send her to a hospital. We also learned about breastfeeding. Normally, in Somalia women would give water with sugar to their newborn baby – this is cultural. But now because of this training we are encouraging women to change this and start giving their babies breast milk.
“We also learned how to prevent people getting bitten by mosquitoes, and how to clean water before they drink it by using chlorine, or by boiling it. People were getting very sick from drinking dirty water and now this is reducing. But we don’t have any mosquito nets, which is a big problem.”

Women wait to see a health assistant at the Shibis health clinic. Photograph: Kate Holt
Women wait to see a health assistant at the Shibis health clinic. Photograph: Kate Holt

Usmaa says one of the biggest challenges facing residents is stress. “They are suffering from mental illness because of their poverty. If the mother has children and they don’t have anything to eat and the baby is crying because there is no food and her breasts are dry, she will become stressed. There is a lot of divorce because of family problems: if the mother has no food for the children, she will argue with the husband who is unable to provide. And the husband will leave and then she is left alone, which is even worse.”
Two years ago, aid agencies were more easily able to reach communities like this one. Due to the worsening security situation, however, NGOs have decreased in both presence and reach. Usmaa shakes her head sadly as she explains: “There are still no jobs for us, or a solution to people being able to return home in safety. The rains have come and the shelters aren’t enough to keep us dry. The camps are getting very wet and everything is very dirty … There are old people whose children have left to look for work and they cannot look after themselves, so as health volunteers we will help them do things like wash their clothes and help them clean their homes. This is a growing problem. There are no foreigners who come to our camp – nobody comes to see how we are living. Nobody knows how bad the situation is here.”
• Additional reporting by Nadene Ghouri

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *