TOPICS > Politics

Violence, Humanitarian Crisis Continues to Grip Somalia

November 26, 2007 at 6:40 PM EDT
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Ongoing violence in Somalia has worsened the humanitarian situation in the war-torn East African country with disease, displacement and hunger among the problems. Two Somalia experts examine the crisis and the international community's response.

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, a return to Somalia, the East African nation once again under siege by a combination of war, displacement, disease and starvation.

One year ago, Ethiopian troops occupied the capital, Mogadishu, in an effort to bolster the government and to root out alleged terrorists; that set off an insurgency by nationalist and Islamist groups. There have been human consequences.

Jonathan Miller of Independent Television News tells that story. A caution to viewers: Some of the pictures you will see are quite graphic.

JONATHAN MILLER, ITV News Correspondent: They still run for cover, but the only place left to run is away, away from the hellhole that Mogadishu’s become once again. And 600,000 now have fled, a third of them in the past two weeks alone.

The bloodletting is relentless; it has been for weeks now. Probably hundreds dead, hundreds more wounded, no one really knows amid violent chaos and suffering so awful that finally it’s forcing the world to take notice.

Downtown, our Somali cameraman happens across a spontaneous demonstration against the Ethiopian occupiers, blamed by residents for the maelstrom that’s engulfed their city. “We beg Allah,” she says, “to end this occupation.”

Among these people, a masked insurgent, an Islamist. “Worse is to come,” he warns. “Long live Somalia!”

But it doesn’t come much worse than this, the U.N. says. This, the body of an Ethiopian soldier, one of several caught by insurgents and dragged through the streets by a mob in a scene reminiscent of 15 years ago, when the U.S. Black Hawks went down, and American bodies were dragged through the streets.

The Americans pulled out, but Ethiopian troops are locked down in Somalia, bogged down in a quagmire, Christian troops in a Muslim land.

This is the aftermath of the reprisal for the desecration of the dead Ethiopian soldiers, their biggest humiliation so far. Ethiopian tanks shelled civilian homes. A house-to-house hunt ensued as they searched for insurgents, many civilians killed and wounded.

SOMALI CIVILIAN (through translator): The Ethiopian troops came in. All the men in the neighborhood ran away, and we locked our doors. They were shooting all night, until 9:00 in the morning. You’ve seen all the bodies, the wounded. They didn’t spare anyone. The injured bled to death, because no one could reach them. They’ve left us in this mess, to suffer. May God drive them out.

JONATHAN MILLER: The reprisals triggered the latest exodus. Mogadishu residents fled in the tens of thousands.

Our cameraman was trapped in this building, pinned down for two days and nights, terrified, unable to move.

Medina Hospital, the only functioning hospital in the capital, filled up with injured. They’re used to gunshot wounds, shrapnel wounds here. More than 5,000 injured in Mogadishu so far this year, 110 casualties, though, in just one night.

DR. HASSAN OSMANIS, Medina Hospital: Medina Hospital, you know, has long experience for this kind of situation for eight years, and it is one of the most difficult days we have so far seen.

JONATHAN MILLER: Afgoye, once a sleepy fruit-growing town 20 miles east of the capital, 200,000 people have now sought refuge here, half of them since the beginning of November. Little huts cluttering the landscape, just like Darfur, but this is a humanitarian catastrophe that the U.N. now says is the worst in Africa. They call it “the forgotten emergency.”

Tell-tale signs of a nation on the brink of famine. Our cameraman went back to find these two acutely malnourished children he’d filmed in October. They’re no better, and now they’ve been joined by more.

These children are very ill. The head of the U.N. in Somalia says most in here are likely to die. Few aid organizations are prepared to brave the lawlessness. There are unknown thousands unable to make it to makeshift emergency centers, Somalia’s unreached and unseen. Malnutrition rates now nearing 20 percent among under-fives, way over the U.N.’s emergency threshold.

There are dire warnings now that, as the insurgent said, things will, indeed, get worse. The U.N. secretary-general has publicly stated that a peacekeeping mission is neither realistic nor viable. The harvest’s failed. Violence prevents aid getting through. And as the bloodshed relentlessly escalates, Somalis fear they have been forsaken.

Government legitimacy

JEFFREY BROWN: And for a further look at what's going on in Somalia, I'm joined by Ahmed Samatar, a professor of international studies at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. Born in Somalia, he travels to the region regularly and most recently was there six months ago.

And Stephen Morrison, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, he's worked on East Africa's issues for the State Department and Congress. He was last in the region a year ago.

Professor Samatar, starting with you, help us understand more about the fighting. How much power does the transitional government actually have at this point?

AHMED SAMATAR, Macalester College: Very little power, and very little legitimacy and competence.

JEFFREY BROWN: In what way?

AHMED SAMATAR: Well, in the sense that, in the level of legitimacy, the transitional federal government was primarily engineered by the Ethiopians in that long conversation and conference in Nairobi. When they decided to come back into the country, they couldn't, because nobody really wanted them. So it will take the Ethiopian occupation to actually land the transitional federal government inside Mogadishu.

And then, after that, they yet have to demonstrate any kind of a competence, even at the level of being just competent politicians, let alone statesmen, to pick up the country and move it in a different direction. So without the Ethiopian support and the occupation, the transitional federal government wouldn't last long.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Stephen Morrison, the insurgents. Describe this coalition as it exists now, and how much power does it have?

STEPHEN MORRISON, Center for Strategic and International Studies: Well, this coalition had power for about six months, up until the end of last year when they were displaced when the Ethiopians came across. The Islamists were shattered and scattered and have regrouped a couple of times.

And you have a coalition of various warlords, in combination with Islamist insurgents who have been able to regroup. They've done intense battle with the Ethiopians in the spring, in the March-April timeframe, and they were set back. They've regrouped again and engaged intensively in and around Mogadishu in October, in the latter part of October and up to today. They've begun engaging increasingly in political assassinations, use of IED bombs, and the like.

And so they've been able to keep the Ethiopians off-guard. They've been able to keep the TFG off-guard. But they are a diffuse, fragmented, un-unified movement, which is another problem in how you begin to engage them.

They include some radical Islamists. They include some who are more opportunistic warlords and others who are probably prepared to engage in good faith. If a political process can be brought forward somehow, they may be willing to enter that.

Thousands displaced

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, before we go into that, Professor Samatar, tell us more about the rise in the number of displaced people. Now, is this directly related to the civil war and the fighting?

AHMED SAMATAR: Well, yes, but, Jeff, you know, before we get to that, it's important to note that the Somali people were not always like this. Yes, they live in a fallen time now, particularly in the last 30 or so years, but at one time Somalia was the most democratic country in Africa, between 1960 and 1969.

So I think your audience needs to note that. And then the question will be asked, well, what happened? But in terms of the enormous devastation that has taken place in Mogadishu, there's no question that nearly a million people now are displaced internally and have scattered around the greater Mogadishu area into Afgoye and that region.

And this is directly as a consequences of the resistance to the Ethiopian occupation and the incompetence and the illegitimacy of the transitional federal government.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me stay with you. As we heard in that piece, the U.N. secretary-general has basically said it's unrealistic for any U.N. action right now, or it sounds like in the near future. What options are there for the international community? Or what barriers are in place?

AHMED SAMATAR: Well, I think from my perspective -- and I've been studying this problem for the past 25 years -- there are at least five things that the international community can do, and do it rather quickly.

One of them, of course, and immediately, is to make sure that there is access to these thousands and hundreds of thousands, maybe a million people who are now displaced, and the ones behind them, which are being pushed by the rise of the starvation and hunger. So that's one.

And then the second thing, really, is the quick taking out of the Ethiopian troops, that they have to move out of Somalia, and they have to be replaced by an international African group that is going to be neutral in the conversation and the dispensation that has to take place.

Thirdly, I think the international community would need to understand that the transitional federal government is a creation of the Ethiopian government, and therefore there will have to be a new conversation, a new dispensation, inclusive political conversation, that will guide the country towards the 2009 new legitimate authority and government.

And then, finally, I think the international community would have to understand that the rebuilding of Somalia is going to take a Marshall Plan-like investment.

Some of us scholars have estimated anywhere between $1 billion to a $1.5 billion a year for at least five to six years, which would be in the hands of the international system, and not from Somali government. Particularly, that is going to be dominated by the politics of warlordism and tribalistic politics. If that can be done, I think we might be able to get somewhere with Somali people.

Humanitarian crisis

JEFFREY BROWN: Stephen Morrison, start at the top of that list, which is the humanitarian crisis. Is it even possible at this point to get food to these people, given the security problems?

STEPHEN MORRISON: I think that if there is a concentrated focus on expanding humanitarian space and getting some type of truce between the warring parties, you could expand your access.

There are about 1.5 million people in need of assistance. The gap of people that are not being reached, it's probably in the 500,000 to 700,000, 800,000 of that that are not being reached.

But aid is flowing into the areas outside of Mogadishu. The border areas in Kenya might be renegotiated, open access. Some of the port access -- there are different points at which assistance can be moved forward, if there is a concentrated push in that direction. So that's one point.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how important do you think it is to lessen or to end the Ethiopian role here?

STEPHEN MORRISON: One has to be very realistic about what can be accomplished in the near to medium term here. The Ethiopians are in there for strategic reasons. They're in a quagmire. It's going to be very difficult for them to withdraw in a comprehensive and quick fashion.

I think I agree with Ahmed. It's very important that we begin to find a way to get them to disengage, in return for political compromise coming from various directions.

I think there needs to be a political strategy that takes advantage of the appointment of a new prime minister and gets some initiatives underway that show compromise, bring new folks from outside of the transitional federal government into cabinet positions. I think they need to be tested deliberately. I think the opposition, the external opposition, which is very divided and fragmented, needs to be tested, as well.

U.S. role

JEFFREY BROWN: And let me ask you, briefly, is there a U.S. role at this point? The U.S. supported Ethiopia's intervention. What is the U.S. looking at now?

STEPHEN MORRISON: Well, I think the U.S. has a very important role in this. On the humanitarian side, the U.S. is putting about $90 million a year into Somalia, about half of the current flow. It's not meeting all of the needs, by any means, but the U.S. has been consistently generous and has a lot of leadership to play through Nairobi and elsewhere in expanding the access.

On the political level, the assistant secretary delivered his recent interview in which he put pressure on all parties to begin to respect civilian rights, and to move towards compromise, and put pressure on the Ethiopians and the transitional federal government to show much greater restraint in the way they're going about doing their business on the battlefield. The U.S. could step up its political engagement directly and through the Security Council.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we have to leave it there. Stephen Morrison and Ahmed Samatar, thank you both very much.