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Somalia: after the hunger

'I remember his blood, dark on the earth, the look on our children's faces as he lay there.' Mano, a young woman sitting beside me in Mogadishu, is telling me about the tragic death of her husband, lost in the bitter conflict in Somalia.

A camp in central Mogadishu
A camp in central Mogadishu

Her family were already struggling to survive on their land affected by prolonged and agonising drought, when her husband became one of the many victims of the violence associated with the conflict that has lasted here for more than two decades.

'I had no husband and my children no father; everywhere around us there was hunger, so we decided to leave our land for Mogadishu.' Mano recalled.

That journey was over 100 kilometres long, all on foot in the stifling heat. Hungry, thirsty and afraid, her four traumatised children - the youngest was only seven years old - struggled beside her.

The fresh horrors that Mano witnessed along the way were experienced by countless other mothers and their children, all of them uprooted by drought, failed crops, famine and conflict.

Among them was grandmother Ulumo, who one day watched agonisingly as life slipped away from her starving two-yearold grandson, Mohamed, while he lay on the ground before her, too malnourished and weak to move.

"We could do nothing, we buried him in a small hole and went on our way," Ulumo recalled, her matter-of-fact tone not unfeeling but evidence of someone trying hard to erase the most searing of horrors too hurtful to dwell on. "The hunger is what I remember most," Ulumo concluded quietly.

Sitting alongside Ulumo, Mano summed up the story of the subsequent life women like them now faced in the overcrowded, insanitary and dangerous makeshift camps for displaced people that have sprung up around the anarchic Somalian capital, Mogadishu.

"Every day was a struggle to eat, to live, it was a long time before I even managed to get smallwork, washing clothes for betteroff families," she said.

For decades now ordinary Somalis have endured such pain, hardship, hunger, and conflict. It was two years ago this weekend that famine was declared in six regions of the country, including South Central Somalia from where Mano and Ulumo fled with their children. According to figures compiled by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), more than a quarter of a million people are estimated to have died during that famine, making it the worst in the past 25 years.

Cold statistics can never convey what mass hunger and famine really mean for those caught in its grip, but by any standards these facts are chilling. So too is the fact that more than half of the dead, a total of 133,000, were children under five and at its peak the famine was claiming about 30,000 deaths every month.

I had come to Somalia to try to understand what impact two years on such a catastrophe has had on ordinary people like Mano and Ulumo.

It had been some years since I was last in Somalia. It is hard to think of any other city in the world so comprehensively damaged as Mogadishu. In parts it reminded me of the ruined city of Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, which I visited after the earthquake that hit the Caribbean country in 2010.

Where that comparison ends, though, is that Mogadishu's physical destruction is not a result of the ravages of nature but inflicted by man through years of bloodletting with bombs, bullets and shells.

Amongst the local humanitarian workers who have committed themselves long term to helping their fellow Somalis cope with the hardships and challenges there is also an inspiring courage and dedication.

International humanitarian organisation Concern Worldwide is one of the few aid agencies to have had a continued presence and worked in Somalia throughout its recent decades of instability and conflict.

As a humanitarian organisation, Concern's presence in Somalia is enabled by its adherence to the values of neutrality, independence and impartiality.

Along with help from a variety of donor and partner organisations - some large, like the Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department of the European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO), or local groups like Youthlink in Mogadishu - Concern has provided both emergency assistance at the height of the famine and in its wake the kind of rehabilitation work that helps the poorest and most vulnerable.

Women and children almost always suffer most in any humanitarian crisis. How best, then, to help children recover from the stress of trauma, violence and hunger so that they can resume normal life?

At two schools in central Mogadishu, the boys and girls who make up the roll there come almost exclusively from those IDP - internally displaced persons - camps that have swollen in size as people arrived in search of sanctuary and food.

In Mogadishu's Bondheere District, Concern Worldwide and Irish Aid, along with other supporting partners, have transformed what was until a few years ago a bomb-blasted shell of a building into a thriving, well-built and bustling school.

Where once sat a frontline and militia fighters dug a warren of tunnels and trenches from which they exchanged fierce rocket and gunfire with peacekeeping troops from the African Union Mission in Somalia, youngsters now play between classes, the boys smartly dressed in white shirts, the girls in vivid blue hijabs.

"Before Concern came this school site was one big battleground," the school principal explained. "All around here there were dugouts, tanks, sandbag emplacements and tunnels, the fighting was intense," he continued.

As we talked I noticed that behind his desk sat an old metal filing cabinet on which, scrawled in black felt pen, were the Somali words; RAJO SOO CELIN - Restore Hope.

The cabinet was clearly a piece of leftover office furniture from the 1992 American-led, United Nations sanctioned operation of the same name. It was during Operation Restore Hope that two US military helicopters were shot down, giving rise to the Hollywood depiction of events in the movie Black Hawk Down.

IF nothing else, it served as a sharp reminder of just how long Somalia and its people have been subjected to conflict.

That hope, in the form of education, was now being restored at this school as the result of humanitarian intervention, not military helicopters, is perhaps a salutary lesson in what Somalia needs much more of these days.

There was hope in this district too for a tiny, emaciated nine-month-old boy,whose mother, had brought her son to the Concern-run nutrition centre that is housed in the school, after she noticed his health failing and he lost weight and had problems breathing.

The mother and her little boy, like those other mothers and chil-dren before them, had come to Mogadishu from South Central Somalia, uprooted more recently because of food shortages and conflict. Like their predecessors, they now were struggling to survive in an IDP camp, crammed with other members of their extended family into one of the ramshackle rags-and-sticks tents to be seen everywhere across Mogadishu and beyond.

"The boy is suffering from marasmus and there may be other complications," confirmed a Concern nutritionist after examining the toddler at the centre while the boy's mother anxiously looked on.

The occurrence of marasmus, characterised by often severe emaciation, increases before a child reaches a year old. In the boy's case his sunken cheeks, frail torso and skin hanging in folds from his buttocks and legs were all typical symptoms and he was in urgent need of hospitalisation.

Nutrition screening, education for displaced children, livelihood support for mothers through cash transfers and money vouchers, self-help groups aimed at starting small income-generating projects, are all part of Concern's integrated programmes that give the least able and most vulnerable women and their children the safety net that stops them from sinking into the abyss.

This is real aid at work, allowing people, albeit tentatively, to once again stand on their own feet. All the time, of course, humanitarian agencies must simultaneously prepare contingency plans for the worst, should instability and displacement escalate or drought strike again, creating the mass hunger that necessitates an emergency response.

It is perhaps a measure of Concern's success, along with other humanitarian agencies, and because of the slowly improving security situation in Somalia, that many mothers like Mano and Ulumo have asked for help in returning to the communities from which they fled at the height of the famine and fighting. Concern, with support from the European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO), hopes to do just that.

"I came here only to escape the drought and hunger, Mogadishu is not our home," insists Ulumo, despite all she went through on that long trek from the famine affected areas of South Central Somalia.

Like most of the other hopeful women returnees she realises that fighting still exists in areas like this and that the food security situation remains fragile, but is undaunted by the prospect of going home.

Mano, who lost her husband to the conflict, says she already misses those families who have left Mogadishu to go back.

"We are pastoralist people, we have a way of life so different from here in the city," Mano tells me. "We all support each other, if I stay here I will feel very alone with-out my neighbours and friends."

Two women, one who lost her husband, the other a grandson, all of them victims of hunger and war.

How can they be sure they will manage if they go back to their rural communities, I asked? "We believe in Concern, they have supported us here in Mogadishu since the day we arrived with nothing and say now they will help us return, that is enough," Mano reassures me.

Contextual targeting label: 
Families

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