07/12/2011- This morning we woke up very early, around 6:00 o’clock and rushed to the Nairobi Jomo Kenyatta International airport. Our goal was to reach the town of Dolo on the border with Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya. I wanted to see humanitarian aid projects financed by the European Commission. After about a three and half hour flight, we got there but since it had been raining cats and dogs we could not land. The airstrip was flooded and the pilot said it was too dangerous to land. We made a quick turn around and after some discussions we decided to head for Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia.
When we were flying over Dolo, I saw a lot of cattle, vast green landscape, and scattered homes. I saw many herds and animals moving about. Instinctively, I thought to myself “So what is this famine about?” What I saw from the plane made me realize that are dealing with different segments of the population, some of which own land, some of which own cattle, and some of which fall in between and probably have neither. These are the most vulnerable ones. I also realized that the impact of drought is felt for months afterwards, especially when the rains come because by that time many people will have already lost all their assets.
Even though the trip did not go according to our original plan, I got something out of it that I would never have gotten while sitting behind a desk in Brussels. Most importantly, I got a feeling for the geography on the ground, the vast landscape and the complexity of Somalia. Now I know where the military compound is located in Mogadishu, where the airport is, the kind of security that is deployed, how AMISON troops are moving about, and the kinds of precautions that visitors must take.
We were lucky that one of our partners was just a phone call away and ready to organize an impromptu visit for us. In Mogadishu, we visited a feeding program for pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers as well as newborn babies. The focus is on providing services for internally displaced people. I saw dozens of women coming into the clinic holding severely undernourished babies. They were given food assistance and the children were weighed. I saw first hand the plight that has struck these families. Many don’t even have tears in their eyes anymore. Their stare is blank.
We also visited a camp for internally displaced people in Mogadishu. We crossed through town and used all kinds of shortcuts to avoid traffic jams and minimize security risks. We were told an explosive device went off that same day. This was not a joke, so we had to be extremely vigilant. At the entrance of the camp, there was a man with a Kalashnikov. I saw many huts, very close to each other. I wondered how people could live here. There were thousands of families. I saw mainly women and children. We visited a station where they distribute food vouchers. Women are entitled to get a monthly ration of beans, flour, oil, and sugar. With the voucher they can buy the food or stock up as needed. This allows them to survive for one month.
I have never in my life seen such a run down city hosting so many people. It was much worse than I expected. In many areas there is no pavement, there are piles of rubble, roadblocks, artificial checkpoints, and improvised shops and stalls. I also noticed heavily guarded compounds. It is strange to think that those compounds are more secure than the streets where people walk. There is a sense of threat everywhere and the atmosphere is tense.
You race around on a heavily guarded vehicle and people jump for their lives because they do not want to be run over by these cars zigzagging through the narrow streets. I noticed signs of schools and universities. Run down signs but signs of hope nevertheless. I also saw women impeccably dressed in the streets, with beautiful ironed gowns and headscarves. They carry themselves with an impressive sense of dignity that pervades the place and belies the destruction you see on the surface. It was quite an extraordinary day.
By Claus Sorensen
Director General of ECHO
(Interviewed by Bea Spadacini, ECHO Regional Information Officer based in Nairobi)