Armed with missiles and heavy machine guns, a menacing French naval frigate appeared recently off Somalia’s coast, providing cover as two heavily loaded ships piloted toward this sun-bleached village.
By dawn the next morning, an onslaught was in full swing involving scores of small boats and hundreds of young men, who charged through the surf like soldiers at Normandy.
But rather than guns, this brigade raced up the beach with heavy sacks of U.S.-donated sorghum and yellow split peas balanced on their heads, tossing them like sandbags onto the shore and running back in the water for another load.
The “invasion” of aid on the village 45 miles south of the capital, Mogadishu, marked the latest example of the kind of hit-and-run humanitarianism that international relief groups must resort to in this chaotic and lawless Horn of Africa nation.
After fending off three pirate attacks this year, the United Nations’ World Food Program decided for the first time in its history that it needed a foreign naval power to provide protection to continue deliveries to nearly 1.2 million needy people in Somalia. After the agency appealed to the U.N. secretary-general, the French government volunteered to escort the two ships that anchored off Marka last week.
Other delivery routes to Somalia are increasingly problematic. Truck convoys were reduced this year because the number of illegal roadblocks, where bribes now top $500 per vehicle, tripled. And the WFP was reluctant to use Mogadishu’s port because of heightened tensions with Somalia’s transitional government after the October arrest, without explanation, of the agency’s top official in the capital.
Eager to deliver 3,500 tons of food, enough to feed nearly 200,000 people for a month, the U.N. agency opted for a trickier “beach landing” in Marka. There isn’t even a port in the seaside village, only a wobbly wooden pier.
“It’s a last resort,” WFP spokesman Said Warsame said with a shrug.
As Somalia’s humanitarian crisis worsens, the restive country presents international aid groups with some of the stiffest challenges they’ve ever faced.
Most U.N. agencies and international charities still work from headquarters in stable neighboring countries such as Kenya. When it’s time to deliver food, immunizations or other services, international staffers dart in and out of Somalia, usually under armed guard and adhering to strict curfews and travel restrictions.
“I thought Darfur was complicated, but staffing in Somalia is insane,” said Elizabeth Ross, Africa director for Relief International, a Westwood-based aid group balancing the risks and rewards of staffing a water project in the northern town of Galkayo. Ross could hire Somalis to run the project, but she said international managers offer more experience and are usually better received by the local community.
Somalia has been without a fully functioning government since the 1991 collapse of the Mohamed Siad Barre dictatorship. The U.N.-recognized transitional government controls much of the south, including Mogadishu. But it has been weakened by political infighting, a lack of acceptance by major clans and an insurgency by Islamic militants.
More than 600,000 people have been displaced this year, mostly from Mogadishu, where several neighborhoods have been completely abandoned. As many as 6,000 civilians have died in the conflict this year, according to one local group, though its figures could not be verified.
In addition to political conflict, a cycle of drought and floods has ruined crops this year, putting 8,500 children at risk for starvation, UNICEF says.
“The humanitarian needs are indeed very large and have not been met,” said John Holmes, the U.N.'s chief humanitarian official, who made a surprise visit last week to displacement camps. Because of security concerns, arrangements were kept confidential and he could spend only a few hours on the ground.
Experts say that even as the humanitarian needs in Somalia rise, security for aid groups is deteriorating. In November alone, an aid convoy was struck by a roadside bomb; another vehicle was carjacked; and two people were killed and six wounded in armed attacks at two food distribution sites.
Only a couple of dozen international aid workers are now permanently based in south-central Somalia, where most of the violence and humanitarian need are focused, officials estimated. Nearly every international staffer has been evacuated from Mogadishu, they said.
By contrast, there are about 900 international staffers in Darfur, in western Sudan.
Even as the government in Somalia issues pleas for help, top leaders, including the president and Mogadishu’s mayor, have publicly and privately criticized international aid groups for aiding Islamic “terrorists,” circumventing the government’s authority and misrepresenting the crisis. Despite formal complaints from the U.S. Embassy in Kenya and the United Nations, aid workers in Somalia face harassment and arrest.
It was when the World Food Program began distributing its food in Mogadishu through local mosques this fall that the government arrested its top official in the capital and held him for five days without charge. WFP officials said they had hoped that using mosques would reduce violence and robbery attempts during distributions, but government officials objected.
Likewise, the government’s intelligence chief briefly halted last week’s seaside food delivery to Marka, insisting that the relief agency should use the Mogadishu port instead. After a flurry of criticism, he rescinded his order the next day.
“To be honest, every day we are battling the government over something new,” said UNICEF’s Somalia representative, Christian Balslev-Olesen.
In Mogadishu, the deputy mayor defended the government’s motives, saying it simply wants to have a stronger role in coordinating and supervising aid.
“We aren’t harassing them,” Abdifatah Ibrahim Omar said. “International aid groups must work through the government because we are the administration. It isn’t good for them to collaborate with other individuals.”
Refugees say they feel caught in the middle. Asia Ali, 47, a divorced mother of four, fled Mogadishu’s fighting this fall and walked for 20 days to reach relatives in Marka. She used to scrape by delivering groceries for strangers in Mogadishu, earning a few cents a day to feed her family.
Now she relies entirely on an Italian charity to provide daily meals.
She worries about what will happen if the aid group shuts down here because of insecurity, government clashes or lack of funding.
“If they leave,” she said, “I guess we will be in God’s hands.”