U.N. pulls out of southern Somalia

Friday, January 8, 2010

Somali children waiting to receive food aid.
Two Somali girls with United States food aid.

With violence against foreigners escalating daily, and after being deluged with various threats and demands from al-Shabaab, a radical Islamic militant group with ties to al-Qaeda, the United Nations World Food Programme announced on Tuesday that, as of the end of this week, they are going to suspend all of their operations within southern Somalia—including the distribution of desperately needed food aid to Somali civilians. This is now the third humanitarian agency, after CARE International and Doctors Without Borders, to evacuate from the war-torn nation.

The pull out, which will include the closing down of all UN offices and the withdrawal of all local staff, is going to effect over one million Somalis—many of whom relay on this food program for their daily meals.

When asked by The New York Times to further explain the UN's decision, Peter Smerdon, a spokesperson for the program, said via telephone from Nairobi, Kenya, "In the past few weeks there has been a harder line of unacceptable demands and conditions set by armed groups (such as al-Shabaab) in these areas. We sadly had to make the decision to pull our staff out."

Smerdon also cited the fact that over forty aid workers have been killed between January 2008 and September 2009, and that four volunteers still remain in the hands of their captors.

Furthermore, when asked how this move by the UN will effect the Somali people, Smerdon said simply, "People will go hungry...you could see malnutrition rates rising [as a result]." When asked by a British newspaper, The Morning Star, the same question, another program representative, Emilia Casella, conveyed like sentiments, "[Those] dependent on food assistance in southern Somalia face a situation that is particularly dire."

In a nation that—due to civil war—has not had a functioning government in over two decades, Islamic extremists groups—such as al-Shabaab—as well as various warlords and pirate gangs control most of the Horn of Africa nation, except for its besieged capital, Mogadishu, which is protected by African Union and NATO troops in addition to UN peacekeepers.

According to the UN, al-Shabaab—which has direct influence over the area that is going to be effected—presented their offices with numerous lists of demands. Among their demands was that the UN pay Shabaab a $20,000 protection fee every six months, seek Shabaab approval for all their projects, fire their entire female staff, and run their operations according to the militant group's schedule.

When asked by The Associated Press about the UN's decision to leave southern Somalia—including his own town of Jilib—Somali civilian and father of eight children, Abdullahi Awnur, said that al-Shabaab is responsible for driving the UN food program away, and that what they are doing is "indirect[ly] killing" innocent people.

Awnur went on to say, "We have been forced to flee from our houses and depend on [UN] food aid, and now that it is finished, that means [al-Shabaab] here does not want us to live."

Despite all that has been said, al-Shabaab spokesperson, Sheik Ali Mohamud Rage, told New York Times reporters that he found these claims to be "baseless" in their origins. He continued by stating that, "All we (al-Shabaab) ordered them (the UN) was to buy food from Somali farmers and distribute it. They (the UN) do not want to do that, and because of that, they have made this very ridiculous justification." Nevertheless, the UN has noted that even when harvests were good, Somali farmers are only able to supply 30-40% of the food needed to sustain the bulk of the country's population.

"[Somalia] has been described as the most complex emergency in the world, and perhaps the most dangerous to operate in. However, the world is not hearing this," say David Gilmour director of CARE International's Somali branch.