Conflict and late rains drive thousands from their homes in Somalia

July 1, 2014
Originally published in: Huffington Post
Written by Crystal Wells

The potentially deadly combination of conflict and drought are threatening to spark another food crisis in Somalia three years after a famine claimed some 260,000 lives.

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Shukri Sheikh Ali thought this year would be different. It was to be a time of rebuilding, of recovering, of returning home. Instead, she is starting over once again from scratch, her land thirsty for rain and her village emptied by conflict as Somalia once again faces the threat of a cascading and critical food shortage.

Three years ago, drought and famine forced Shukri and her family to leave their village of Anbaray in Lower Shabelle in southern Somalia. They resettled in a displacement camp near the airport in Mogadishu, the country’s conflict-shattered capital, where they lived for more than two years. In late 2013, they thought it was finally safe to go back to Anbaray and prepare their land for planting.

“When we decided to go back to our village, we were so excited,” she says. “We were so happy. The thing on our minds was to start rebuilding our lives, our farms, the life we knew.”

To help them in their first months back home, they were given a mobile phone through which they received a monthly cash allowance from Concern Worldwide, an international aid and development organization, with funding from the European Commission. However, their plans to piece back together a life in Anbaray soon started to unravel.

First, the rains were late. When they did come, the showers were sporadic and the soil too dry, so the beans, corn and vegetables Shurki was hoping to harvest remained unplanted, their land once again fruitless for the fourth year in a row.

It was not the drought, though, that ultimately pushed them to abandon Anbaray.

In February, the joint African force for Somalia, AMISOM and Somali government forces shouldered their way through parts of Lower Shabelle in an offensive against Al Shabaab. As the frontline consumed villages around them, Shukri and her family decided to flee Anbaray once again for the relative safety of Mogadishu, settling in a displacement camp on the seventh-kilometer road marker, now known as “K7”, of the infamous Afgooye corridor, the road between Mogadishu and Afgooye that is home to one of the densest concentrations of displaced people in the world.

Shukri is among the tens of thousands of Somalis uprooted by conflict in the past three months. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, estimates that approximately 50,000 people fled their homes between March and May. The largest reported driver of the population movements is conflict. However, as the months go on, the number of people leaving their villages due to drought rises dramatically, from just 90 in March to 1,200 in May.

The pattern disturbingly resembles what happened three years ago when Somalia succumbed to famine for the first time in decades. Conflict fueled displacement and failed rains raised the alarm that harvests would likely fail, leaving hundreds of thousands without enough to eat. But the international community was slow to respond and 260,000 people, most under six years of age, lost their lives.

While the current signs are not as grave as those leading up to the colossal humanitarian tragedy three years ago, they suggest that Somalia could once again descend into food crisis. The late and possibly altogether failed rains, combined with a conflict that is forcing people from their homes, preventing them from planting, or trapping them with little to no way in or out, is eroding the delicate progress many Somalis have made in the past three years — a deterioration that could have deadly consequences. Despite this, only 12 percent of Somalia’s humanitarian funding needs have been met so far this year.

Maey Omar, 40, also fled to Mogadishu from her village near the strategic town of Qoryooley in Lower Shabelle, which is now under control of AMISOM and government troops. She now lives with her six children underneath a patchwork of wood and shredded sacks alongside tens of thousands of families at K7.

“I brought all my children here alone,” Maey says, sitting in the sand underneath the sweltering midday sun. “When the fighting broke out, there was no sign of my husband. I do not know if he is alive or dead.”

A mother of six children, whose ages range from four to 14, Maey explains how they trekked on foot 120 kilometers from town to town. For most of the trip, she carried on her back her son Nour, six, who is mentally and physically handicapped.

“I knew no one [in Mogadishu],” she says. “We were resting under a tree on the roadside and someone approached us and said that we could come here.”

Maey receives a monthly cash allowance of $93 from Concern, which is also providing safe drinking water and building latrines in K7, but she says that it’s not enough. “It covers food, but we need more than that,” she explains, cradling her youngest in her lap, who doses off against her chest.

Like Shukri, Maey was preparing her 20 hectares land for planting sesame, corn and beans before the conflict enveloped her area. She says that even if she had stayed, the crops probably would not have grown because of there was not enough rain. Her village now deserted, Maey has no plans to bring her family back to Qoryooley. “There’s nowhere to go,” she says.

Their only option now is to wait under a patchwork of twigs and scraps, the ground beneath them red and sandy, and see what the coming months bring.