Residents of Mogadishu’s largest famine refugee camp accused government soldiers of starting Friday’s chaos by trying to steal some of the 290 tons of dry rations that aid workers were trying to distribute there.
Then refugees joined in the scramble, prompting soldiers to open fire, the witnesses said.
“They fired on us as if we were their enemy,” said refugee Abidyo Geddi. “When people started to take the food then the gunfire started and everyone was being shot. We cannot stay here much longer. We don’t get much food and the rare food they bring causes death and torture.”
The chaos underscores the dangers and challenges of getting help to a nation that has been essentially ungoverned for two decades and now has a severe famine sweeping over it.
Aid workers are puzzling over how to help the starving without helping gunmen who either prey on the refugees, compete for security contracts to guard the food, or steal it and take a share of the profits when it’s sold at market.
The situation echoes the one in 1992 that prompted deployment of a US-led multinational force to safeguard the delivery of food to Somalia’s starving. That international intervention collapsed in 1993 after two US Black Hawk helicopters were shot down and 18 servicemen were killed in one single battle in Mogadishu.
US and UN officials acknowledge that some aid in Somalia is bound to be stolen during delivery. No one is talking seriously about military intervention.
“Will there be losses? Sure. Will there be some looting? Of course, there will be. What we have to do is try to minimise it,” said WFP spokesman David Orr.
“This is the highest risk environment in the world … the safety of our staff and getting food into the right hands are our highest priorities.”
Friday’s food distribution was organised by Mogadishu’s mayor, and had been delayed two days as officials tried to shore up security arrangements. Orr told The Associated Press that the food distribution started smoothly at 6am, but degenerated a couple of hours later.
“We got reports of trouble, looting. The trucks were overwhelmed by a mob of people. There were reports of some shots fired,” said Orr, who said he could not confirm any death tolls.
One of the camp’s refugees, Muse Sheik Ali, said soldiers first tried to steal some of the food aid, and that other refugees began to take the food.
“Then soldiers opened fire at them, and seven people, including elderly people, were killed on the spot. Then soldiers took the food and people fled from the camp,” he said.
A Western official said the distribution went smoothly until militia members arrived on the scene. The official could not be identified because he is not authorised by his employer to be quoted by the press. No details on which militia the gunmen may have belonged to were available. At least four militias prowl government-controlled areas of Mogadishu, their gunmen roaring around in pick-up trucks.
Thousands of Somalis have flooded into Mogadishu from the drought-stricken south, walking much or all the way and seeing weakened loved ones perish from starvation or complications from malnutrition. The drought and famine in Somalia have killed more than 29,000 children under the age of 5 in the past 90 days in southern Somalia alone, according to US estimates.
Somali Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali visited the camp after the violence and said he was “deeply sorry”. Ali said an investigation would be opened and promised harsh punishment for anyone found guilty.
The already mostly lawless capital has been made even more chaotic with the arrival of tens of thousands of refugees fleeing drought in the south, the famine’s epicentre. International groups face huge challenges in distributing food inside Somalia. The
worst-hit part of the country is a no-go area for most aid groups because it is controlled by al-Qaeda-linked insurgents, who deny there is a famine and who have allowed only a small number of aid groups to enter.
More than 12 million people in the Horn of Africa are in need of immediate food aid. The UN says 640,000 children are acutely malnourished in Somalia, where the UN has declared five famine zones, including the refugee camps of Mogadishu.
WFP often tries to do what it calls “wet feedings,” in Somalia – giving out already made food like porridge – to limit the chances that it will be looted. But in this case it was dry rations, Orr said.
Somali soldiers control just part of the capital and are poorly trained.
“It was carnage. They ruthlessly shot everyone,” said Abdi Awale Nor, who has been living at the camp. “Even dead bodies were left on the ground and other wounded bled to death.”