World Looks Elsewhere As Somalia Misery Grows

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the Toronto Star

World Looks Elsewhere As Somalia Misery Grows

Relief official says aid programs overstretched, underfunded as thousands displaced by war

by
Olivia Ward

The bleeding in Somalia goes on, with thousands dead, more than 300,000 displaced and the survivors of the conflict threatened with rape, starvation and disease.

Yet, humanitarian agencies say, Somalia is becoming Africa's forgotten crisis, as the catastrophic conflict in Darfur captures the headlines, and wars in other parts of the world dominate the news.0918 03

Degan Ali, executive director of Somalia-based Horn Relief, was in Toronto yesterday to remind Canadians of the dire situation and aid workers' struggle to bring relief to people who have been caught in decades of wars.

"The conditions for people who have fled their homes are horrific," said the Somali-born American, who took over the project from her mother, Fatima Jibrell. "In some regions they're being charged `rent' by local people just for sheltering under a tree."

Water, food and sanitation are poor to non-existent.

In the capital Mogadishu, meanwhile, daily gunfire and explosions confine people to their homes, and only the poorest - or fighters' families - stay on.

Inter-clan fighting has caused near-anarchy in Somalia since the ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, igniting a power struggle of warlords, clans and splinter groups. After a brief takeover by an Islamist movement that was driven out of power last year, fighting flared again when an Ethiopian-backed transitional government tried to recapture the capital.

Yesterday gun battles spread through villages south of Mogadishu, as Somali leaders meeting in Saudi Arabia said they want to replace foreign forces backing the interim government with Arab and African troops under United Nations command.

Humanitarian groups have fled Somalia after attacks and killings. But, Ali says, in spite of the danger, aid programs continue, though overstretched and underfunded.

One that has met with surprising success is Horn Relief's cash handout program that gives $60 a month to destitute people to buy food, shelter, medicine or other badly needed goods.

"It gives people freedom to get what they need most. For some it's help with moving, others, access to credit or a pair of children's shoes," she says.

Working with its partner, Oxfam, Horn Relief is also planning a more ambitious infrastructure project, rebuilding a once-bustling port at Laas Qoray, in the Gulf of Aden in northern Somalia. The $8 million project is expected to produce crucial revenues from trade and shipping.

For now, Ali says, what Somalis need most is security and an end to war, something countries like Canada should promote in the international forum. According to Human Rights Watch, civilians are under attack by Ethiopian, Somali and insurgent forces, but the abuses have met "a shameful silence ... on the part of key foreign governments and international institutions."

Yesterday in Riyadh, three leaders of Somalia's interim government and parliament signed a statement saying they would seek reconciliation. But earlier, Islamists attending a rival meeting in Eritrea boycotted the conference and refused to join peace talks.

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