Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, is considered one of the most dangerous, lawless cities in the world. AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades are sold openly at weapons markets, insurgent and government forces fight each other regularly in the streets. Years of civil war have left the city in shambles.
“Every building has been affected by bombing. It’s almost like an earthquake has hit the place,” said Dr. Yakub Essack, medical coordinator for the South African aid organization Gift of the Givers, who recently returned from an aid mission to the city.
Add to this backdrop of instability a severe drought and more than 3 million Somalis experiencing famine conditions, and the result is a major humanitarian crisis. Starving families are fleeing the country for large-scale refugee camps in bordering nations, or leaving their barren farms for Mogadishu desperate for aid.
The United Nations says food aid is reaching about half of the Somalis that need it, but Gift of the Givers is one of only a few international organizations working inside Mogadishu, providing food each day to 30,000 Somalis living in makeshift camps. Essack said the group, backed by the South African government, will continue providing supplies for the next few months, but the need is constantly growing.
“We feed 300 new refugees everyday,” he said. “Malnutrition, famine and poverty is taking its toll. Those traveling from far away, lots of them are dying on their way, some arrive very ill and can’t be saved.”
Aid workers are cooperating with Somalia’s politically weak Transitional Federal Government, but when the group first arrived in August they were confined to certain regions of the city by al-Shabab, an al-Qaida connected group that controls parts of Somalia. Workers on the ground had to communicate with the insurgent group in order to expand their relief efforts, part of what has made providing aid inside Somalia difficult, dangerous and politically challenging.
“We were given a guarantee [that al-Shabab] would not interfere with our aid and work,” Essack said, and so far al-Shabab has honored that guarantee. Still, the group only works during daylight hours for safety reasons, travels through the city in a convoy and has 24-hour security support from Somalia’s military. Essack said a political agreement will have to be reached in order to improve conditions for Somalis, but also called on more governments to step up the aid response.
“People [in the camps] have been very despondent about aid, about foreign aid workers coming in and making promises and not delivering,” he said. “Aid from wealthier nations has not come through and they are feeling betrayed.”