MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Thousands of rural Somalis are camping within earshot of fighting in the capital Mogadishu after Islamic militants prevented aid groups from helping them survive a drought.
Al Shabaab rebels, who profess loyalty to al Qaeda, have forced a number of aid groups, including the United Nations’ World Food Program (WFP) to cease operations in parts of the country, parched by the failure of recent rains.
Medics in Mogadishu, where there are daily gunfights between the rebels and African Union peacekeepers protecting the Western-backed government, said they were seeing a growing number of dysentery, diarrhea and malnourishment cases.
“We receive hundreds of children and mothers sick with drought-related diseases every day,” Abdirizak, a doctor at Mogadishu’s Banadir Hospital told Reuters.
WFP pulled out of southern Somalia a year ago because of threats against its staff and demands from al Shabaab of payments for security. Mogadishu-based rights group Elman said other aid groups have also given up distributing aid.
“I am from the Lower Shabelle region where al Shabaab have denied us access to food relief. My herds of cattle and goats have perished,” Ahmed Disow told Reuters as he tended to his two surviving scrawny cows in Mogadishu’s Madina suburb.
“We have spent a week under this tree and we cannot afford to build even a simple shelter. We urge aid agencies to assist us,” the 50-year old father of seven said.
He is part of a new wave of refugees from a four-year Islamist insurgency that has killed more than 21,000 people, uprooted 1.5 million people from their homes and left roughly one quarter of Somalia’s 9 million people dependent on aid.
Western spy agencies say Somalia has become a haven for militants and foreign jihadists bent on striking east Africa’s main economies.
Meanwhile, rates of acute malnutrition hit 30 percent in some parts of the country, double the emergency level threshold, the U.N.’s OCHA agency said.
In the breakaway northern enclave of Somaliland, about one million people face a water shortage described by the government as a national emergency.
“Dams and reservoirs are empty. Many wells and bore holes are not working ... we have to take emergency measures,” said Vice President Abdirahman Abdillahi Sayli’l.
The head of a local NGO who asked not to be named told Reuters al Shabaab had sought hefty fees from U.N. agencies.
“They also banned local NGOs that do not pay a $5,000 registration fee and 20 percent of every project carried out. This rule applies even to Islamic organizations,” he said.
Al Shabaab had, however, allowed the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to operate in Baidoa where there is a severe drought, the official said.
Many residents in central Somalia accuse local charities of diverting emergency food relief to markets to sell at a profit.
A local WFP contractor was exposed last March as a Somali businessman with links to al Shabaab in a case that illustrated how some U.N. agencies had unwittingly allowed aid for needy Somalis to enrich rebels and criminals.
Halima Ali, who used to rent land outside Mogadishu and shelter and feed displaced people by selling some of the aid, said she was frequently forced to surrender supplies.
“We could not transport tents for shelter and food like rice to the displaced people unless we gave half the goods to al Shabaab,” said Ali, now herself living in a temporary camp from where she can hear the daily exchanges of fire between al Shaabab rebels and African Union peacekeepers.
“Contractors and local heads of aid agencies were notorious for selling most food to traders. They distributed hardly any grain and cooking oil.”
Others pleaded for the international community to step in.
“No hungry mother can breastfeed a baby,” said Fatuma Osman, nursing her youngest of five children under a plastic shelter.
Writing by Richard Lough; editing by Philippa Fletcher