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Violence in Somalia Furthers Humanitarian Crisis

BY Admin  January 26, 2007 at 8:13 AM EDT

Somali refugees

Since late 2006, when Ethiopian backed government-forces waged an assault on the United Islamic Courts, a contingent of Islamist hardliners who seized Mogadishu in June 2006, a violent power struggle has racked the country, especially southern Somalia.

But even before the latest fighting and bombing campaigns, the Somalis were struggling with another kind of crisis.

Throughout 2005 and 2006, a severe drought devastated most of the Horn of Africa. But in Somalia, which has lacked a stable government for the last 15 years, the effects have been especially acute. Conflict has destroyed infrastructure. Irrigation projects have failed. Getting aid to Somalis has been arduous.

When the rains finally came in November and December of last year, they were torrential. According to the U.N. Children’s Fund, flooding in central and southern Somalia has affected over 300,000 people in just the first several weeks of January.

“It has … pushed people to the margins of existence. Yet less than a year ago, these regions were bone dry. Displaced people sought shelter in hastily assembled camps across the regions to get assistance from devastating droughts,” Siddarth Chatterjee, a UNICEF senior program officer, said in a statement.

“It’s a diabolical twist of nature,” said Chatterjee. “These are challenges of good security, challenges of displacement, and what ominously hangs over all of central south Somalia is a conflict.”

The floods have submerged villages, destroyed homes and displaced thousands of people in communities situated by the Shabelle and Juba rivers.

The floods have displaced over 450,000 thousand people, according to rough estimates. The humanitarian organization CARE said the floods have affected approximately 1 million people.

The impact of the floods includes reduced access to health care and increased exposure to water-born diseases, such as malaria. This is on top of a growing number of cases of polio in Somalia.

Somalia is a severely poor country. Nearly 7 million of the roughly 9 million Somalis live in extreme poverty, exhibiting some of the worst health indicators in the world. According to the U.N. World Food Program, life expectancy at birth is 46, and a quarter of children die before age 5.

The war has added fuel of the fire.

Recent military campaigns have focused mainly in the south, where Somali transitional government forces have been fighting United Islamic Courts’ combatants. The United States launched airstrikes in an effort to attack operatives allegedly affiliated with the terrorist network al-Qaida.

UNICEF, which has been assessing the violence in the country, has reported that children have been indiscriminately shot in the street. Others run the risk of being captured by warlords and recruited to fight.

Branches of the United Nations, like UNICEF, and local nongovernmental organizations say violence in Somalia has made it difficult to offer aid to victims.

“Somalia was already suffering badly from the worst drought in a decade followed by the worst floods in years. Now it has renewed war in some of the same areas hit by drought and floods. These people can’t resist this kind of pressure and need our help,” Leo van der Velden, deputy director of the U.N. World Food Program in Somalia, told the U.N. News Service. “If we are to operate normally and efficiently, we first need peace.”

Simon Schorno of the International Committee of the Red Cross said in an interview that hospitals in southern Somalia received a couple thousand wounded in the early days of January — “so lots of fighting, casualties, displacement and relatively few humanitarian actors present amidst this confusion.”

“It’s been very difficult for humanitarian workers to operate in Somalia,” Schorno said.

Broken roads caused by the conflict have hindered workers from reaching those in need. And since people are constantly on the move searching for shelter or water, identifying them and supplying them with aid has proven to be a daunting task.

Moreover, Kenya, which borders southern Somalia, has blocked its borders from Somalis looking to flee the country.

“It’s a constant struggle to remind all the parties to the conflict that humanitarian access is a priority,” Schorno said.