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Somalia’s Growing Famine Crisis Puts 12 Million at Risk

August 4, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, the mounting humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa.

Twelve million people are at risk, and the most endangered are in southern Somalia, which is controlled by the Islamic insurgent group al-Shabab. Today, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on the militants to allow — quote — “unfettered food assistance.”

Somali journalist Jamal Osman of Independent Television News is one of the first reporters entering southern Somalia. His report contains some disturbing images.

JAMAL OSMAN: This is Baidoa, stronghold of the Islamist al-Shabab group, whose flag flies over most of drought-hit southern Somalia.

al-Shabab say they are the legitimate authority of Somalia, but America and Britain accuse al-Shabab of being a terrorist organization — caught in the middle, these Somalis fleeing the worst drought in 60 years. The old presidential palace has become a refugee camp that’s swelling by the day.

I had heard stories of widespread desperation and hunger, especially amongst the children, but nothing prepared me for the shocking scenes once I entered the main hospital. The U.N. says nearly four million Somalis are in danger of starvation, the majority of them children.

Mohamed Janayo is in grave danger. His tiny body shows signs of acute malnutrition and dehydration. His big brother Mohamud is there to comfort him, but years of not enough food has left him, too, looking much younger than he is. Mohamud is 16.

“My parents are out in the camp, looking for food with my four other brothers and sisters,” he tells me.

It’s the same story next door. Hamdi tells me she’s been left to look after her sister, Safiya.

DR. ABDALLA BULLE, Bay Hospital (through translator): Although we have saved many lives, four, five or six children die and are buried every day. Some die of diarrhea, others, lack of food.

JAMAL OSMAN: The hospital had six rooms full of mothers desperately trying to keep their children alive. With some help from the outside world, these doctors are able to save lives.

But here in southern Somalia, natural disaster has been turned into famine by arguments over access. Many international aid agencies, including the World Food Program, have pulled out of al-Shabab areas, accusing the group of extortion and intimidation. This is one of the most dangerous places in the world for aid workers to operate.

This is the WFP compound in Merca. It was the second largest base in southern Somalia. By this time of the year, it would have been very, very busy. But it’s completely empty, because they were kicked out of this area by al-Shabab.

Now the international donors are unwilling to rush money back into the area, fearing it will end up in the hands of militants linked to al-Qaida.

In his first television interview with the Western media, I asked the al-Shabab spokesman if his group was deliberately obstructing the aid effort.

SHEIKH ALI DHERE, al-Shabab spokesman (through translator): There is a drought, but it has not reached a famine. The famine has been averted due to support and aid from business and Somali communities.

JAMAL OSMAN: He dismissed reports that al-Shabab have demanded taxes from aid agencies as just propaganda.

SHEIKH ALI DHERE (through translator): We have only refused those who were doing more harm than good and those agencies with political agendas. We have allowed access to all other charities.

JAMAL OSMAN: And, as the authority, it is al-Shabab which decides who’s allowed in. The group monitors throughout every process of the aid relief operation.

Islamic Relief is one of the international agencies who have been able to bring supplies into the worst-affected zone. With their own staff on the ground, they say they are confident none of their supplies are being diverted or taxed. I joined them on the first day as they distributed rations to 5,000 families in Baidoa.

HASSAN ISMAEL, Islamic Relief: we really need sometimes to put politics aside, and we are in a humanitarian emergency. We really need to save lives. When I come to Baidoa and I find people really in need of aid, and I’m not able to access funds and support basically because somebody is fearing that funds are going to access al-Shabab, I think it’s not humanistic; it’s not — it’s not very noble.

JAMAL OSMAN: A makeshift clinic is run by two volunteer doctors and their medical students. They say they are seeing an alarming rise in cholera-like cases.

Irgigo Kusow is in emergency treatment on the floor. Months of poor nutrition have left her body weak against disease.

MAN: The medical students, they are trying to get the I.V. for rehydration, actually. So, we are doing our best.

JAMAL OSMAN: In southern Somalia, where so many are barely surviving, the aid is trickling in, but it’s only trickling in with the cooperation of al-Shabab.

Aid organizations recognize it’s impossible for them to operate without the group’s help. Since the famine was declared, the Islamists have repeatedly been accused of hampering the relief effort. But, during the short period I was there, I didn’t see any malpractice or corruption. In fact, many of the aid workers told me they actually appreciated al-Shabab’s assistance.

These people need a whole-scale rescue effort. While the argument over access goes on, their long wait will continue.