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Somalia: A Nation In Tatters


From the studios of NPR West, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm David Greene, in for Guy Raz.

We begin today in East Africa where residents are suffering through the worst drought in 50 years. There are so many statistics that tell the story of this tragedy, none more than this one: 29,000 children have died in just the past three months. The epicenter is Somalia where there are not only food shortages but also political instability, violence and a mass movement of frightened refugees.

Each day, thousands more take a brutal journey on foot to refugee camps in Kenya, desperate for medical attention, food and hope. Once they make it to the food line, it's chaos.


GREENE: Those sounds are from Dadaab, Kenya, home to nearly a half million displaced Somalis. It's the largest refugee camp in the world. And that's our cover story today: Somalia, a nation in tatters. In a moment, we'll talk to an aid worker at the refugee camp in Kenya.

First to the political situation in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu. The transitional government there has been battling an Islamist militant group known as al-Shabaab, which controls the southern portion of the country. Abdirahman Yabarow is a journalist, chief of the Somali service for Voice of America. He says al-Shabaab had been acting like the solution, offering food and shelter, but Somalis were not quick to trust an armed group with links to al-Qaida.

ABDIRAHMAN YABAROW: People started not obeying al-Shabaab because they figure out that in any way, they'll die. They either die by hunger or by bullet. And one of them said, heck with it. Kill us. We have to go to Mogadishu.

GREENE: For families reaching Mogadishu, safety was no guarantee. Al-Shabaab also controlled much of the capital. They were blocking international aid groups from delivering food and medical supplies. But there seems to be a breakthrough this weekend. Al-Shabaab retreated from the capital. Their leaders said this is just a tactical move, but Abdirahman Yabarow says this could be a sign a militant group is getting weaker.

YABAROW: Al-Shabaab had leaders from Somalia, or Somalis, indigenous, and foreigners. So those two leader groups were in conflict for quite some time.

GREENE: With the unrest in Mogadishu, many Somalis' best chance to get much-needed food has been to journey to those refugee camps in Kenya. Stephanie Savariaud of the U.N. World Food Program says the flow of Somalis into the Dadaab refugee camp shows no sign of slowing down.

STEPHANIE SAVARIAUD: What we're seeing is still a large influx of people arriving every day here from Somalia. The influx is actually not slowing down; it's increasing. And we have about 1,500 people arriving daily. They've walked for days. They're very tired. Especially children arrive in a very, very bad shape. I mean, I've met someone this morning, a family who came with a child, his parents died on the way. And so the child basically is now part of this new family, and he's also receiving assistance. But the stories you hear are really, really sad.

GREENE: And, Stephanie, how many refugees are there in the camps in Dadaab?

SAVARIAUD: Well, we're talking about, you know, more than 420,000 people at the moment. I mean...

GREENE: Four hundred and twenty thousand.

SAVARIAUD: Yes. That's the figure of people that the World Food Program is feeding. On top of that, there are another (unintelligible), especially for children, malnourished children, but also pregnant and lactating women who can get added assistance in hospitals or house posts. It's extremely difficult to look at children. So today, I saw a family. The woman had six children. You know, her husband stayed behind in Somalia because he's still, you know, he was still actually hoping that things would get better, and he had a family member who was sick, so he wanted to stay behind.

But their child was 2 years old, and she really, really looks like a 10-month-old baby. And she was coughing, and she had very tiny legs. And, you know, I was telling the woman maybe you need to bring her to hospital and she said that I've been there already and I'm so tired. And, you know, if I need to get back the hospital, it's so far, and I've got the other children to take care of. I mean, it's a desperate situation.

GREENE: Can you tell us what the biggest challenges, issues facing the relief effort are as of now?

SAVARIAUD: Well, yes. I mean, the challenges are resources and logistics in a way, and time. We need, you know, we don't have time. Basically, we need continuous funding because the numbers keep growing. And because of this very high malnutrition rate, we need more specialized food for children, especially children under 5. And then, you know, as more refugees come, it means to give more shelters, more latrines, and we need to do that now. And that takes a bit of time. It can't be done in one day. So we don't have the time. You know, the time is running out, and that's the biggest (unintelligible). We need to do things now because people are just here, and they have nothing.

GREENE: It's the voice of Stephanie Savariaud from the U.N. World Food Program, and she joined us from Dadaab, Kenya. Thank you so much for talking to us, Stephanie.

SAVARIAUD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.