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Somali Famine Defies Easy Answers

The famine sweeping southern Somalia is posing a painful challenge to humanitarian organizations. Children are dying by the thousands just a few kilometers from warehouses full of emergency food supplies. But the countryside is still a war zone controlled by an al-Qaida linked extremist group that restricts humanitarian access, and has killed aid workers.

This Somali child is suffering from measles and malnutrition.

This Somali child is suffering from measles and malnutrition.

The roads into Mogadishu are dotted with families streaming in from parched southern Somalia in hopes of saving their wafer-thin children from starvation. But even in the capital, the prospect of survival is little better.

Twenty-six-year-old Hamsa Ali and her six children were part of a small community that packed their belongings and walked 20 days to get to Mogadishu. Fifteen died along the way, and now children weakened by malnutrition are dying of measles.

She said her three-year old boy became swollen, contracted measles and died a few days ago.

Her group has taken refuge in the remains of an Italian-colonial-era church, but it offers little protection from the elements, and the crowded conditions invite disease.

Officials say hastily-erected tent communities like this one are at the breaking point. New camps spring up every day.

Some stocks of emergency food have arrived at a U.N. World Food Program warehouse in Mogadishu. More is on the way, and much more is needed, but the vexing question is how to get the food to people before they starve.

It is more complicated than one might think. Years of control by the anti-Western al-Shabab extremist group have left Somalia with no aid delivery infrastructure. After al-Shabab was driven out of Mogadishu this month, the flood of hungry families from the countryside intensified. But al-Shabab still controls the famine ravaged south, where 2.2-million people are believed to be in desperate straits.

That desperation is spreading to Mogadishu. Last week, hungry residents at one camp laid siege to a truck delivering grain and began carting away sacks of food. Guards trying to control the crowd began shooting. Several people died.

The dilemma is this - the World Food Program distributes food primarily through humanitarian NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations), but Western aid groups spooked by the killing of humanitarian workers have stopped working in Somalia. Even the World Food Program shut down its operation a year and a half ago after 14 of its local employees were killed.

WFP spokeswoman Susannah Nicoll.

WFP spokeswoman Susannah Nicoll.

Now, when people are starving by the thousands, there is no system to ensure the aid gets to those who need it. WFP spokesperson in Mogadishu Susannah Nicoll says rebuilding the aid infrastructure is excruciatingly time consuming. "It is not a case a case of just dumping food. You can not just dump it. It is a desperate situation where you know you want to get the access, but you have to do it in a fashion that you know it would be safe and it would reach the people you are trying to target," she said.

The World Food Program and other agencies have come in for severe criticism for keeping a warehouse full of food, while people in the city are starving. The self-proclaimed mayor of Mogadishu has urged the World Food Program to give the food to local NGOs who can at least help some of the people.

But the WFP’s Susannah Nicoll says the short-term solution would be a long-term mistake. “There are lots of people who have arrived in town claiming to be NGOs and you have to know they are going to be able to [distribute food] in a reasonable fashion with minimal risk to be able to target people. It is not just a case of handing out food to anyone who says, ‘We can give it out," she said.

With food security analysts predicting the famine zone might soon spread to the entire south, the head of Somalia’s feeble transitional government is proposing creation of a special food security protection force. But Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali admits it would take precious time to train and arm the force, which would then face a difficult challenge escorting food shipments through Mogadishu, much less the al-Shabab controlled south.

Susannah Nicoll says the World Food Program is not ruling out anything as it looks for ways to reach people in the famine zone. But when asked how long it would be before the aid operation would be up to full speed, she said it would only be when humanitarian groups have full access to the south.

The reality is, there is no quick solution. Somalia faces many difficult months ahead.