Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, is said to be among the most dangerous places in the world, mainly because of the multitude of unpredictable and deadly attacks by the militant Islamic group al-Shabab. Yet, national and international aid workers continue to provide badly-needed help among the traumatized population, with the assistance of security officers from the United Nations and African Union.
Today’s mission is to take a group of journalists to various sites within Somalia’s beleaguered capital. It is a tour designed to show first-hand the deplorable living conditions of those who fled drought, famine, and al-Shabab.
United Nations’ field security coordinating officer Jotame Misivono knows that anything can happen at any time. Within the past week, several roadside bombs have gone off on Mogadishu’s streets and almost a dozen armed clashes took place. Just yesterday, the mayor’s deputy assistant’s car was blown up by an IED, or improvised explosive device, that was planted inside his car.
Misivono’s job is to transport United Nations staff in armored vehicles called “caspers” as they carry out their humanitarian work. He says anticipating possible insurgent attacks - and taking measures to prevent being targeted - is a challenge, but needs to be done because, as he says, “people need to be fed and supported.”
“It’s normal to a human being’s reaction, that you have fear. But as a professional, you have to control your fear, taking into consideration that the life of the staff members are in your hands,” said Misivono.
For Gwendoline Mensah, head of the United Nations refugee agency in Mogadishu, Misivono and his colleagues are a godsend, as is the African Union mission, known as AMISOM.
“Whenever we go outside of the U.N. compound, then we go, as we did today, in the caspers," said Mensah. "You have the highly professional AMISOM soldiers who are protecting you. Of course, they cannot mitigate against every possible threat, but you do feel confident that, if something should happen, they will be on hand.”
A Ugandan peacekeeper from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) assists his wounded colleague after an encounter with Islamist militia in the northern suburbs of Somalia's capital Mogadishu, January 20, 2012
AMISOM is comprised of troops from Uganda, Burundi, and Kenya. AMISOM’s stated aim is to, among other things, stabilize the capital to make it safe for humanitarian workers to operate.
Captain Ronald Kakurugu takes comfort in the fact that he and his colleagues are trained to physically and psychologically prepare for, and deal with, anything that could happen at any moment. He describes what happened after he was injured when insurgents fired a bomb as the troops were securing part of Mogadishu.
“Fortunately, we have a very swift medical team - we have several medical teams. Casualty evacuation is very fast," said Kakurugu. "First aid itself is done very quickly, and evacuation to the hospital is also very fast. So all that was done and in the space of about 15 minutes I was under very good care, and I recovered after a few weeks.”
In the bustling compound of the Somali Rehabilitation and Development Agency, or SORDA, hundreds of mostly women and children receive food rations and health care. Nurse Khadra Suleyman is giving a young mother medicine for her sick baby.
Suleyman has had at least one close call on the streets of Mogadishu, being injured by a stray bullet when thugs shot a man while robbing him.
Al-Shabab killed Suleyman’s husband three years ago - she says she is both mother and father to her eight children. Love and care for her children keep her going back to the workplace day after day despite the risks. Her big worry is who will care for her children if she dies. But, speaking through a translator, she says she has found strength and a certain level of peace.
“I pray to Allah and I feel that I will not be in trouble since I am helping people," said Suleyman. "But thanks to Allah, since I have been working here, I have never encountered a problem.”
The safety of national and international aid workers is a growing problem within Mogadishu and across the country. Doctors Without Borders this week announced that they would cease operations in a section of the capital following the killings of two of its workers.
Last November, al-Shabab banned 16 international aid agencies from operating in the territories it controls. The militant group accused the agencies of spying on them on behalf of western entities.
A season of rains has eased the drought that helped drive parts of southern Somalia into famine last year. But the situation in the country remains dire. According to U.N. figures released in December, 250,000 people in Somalia face imminent starvation, 450,000 children are acutely malnourished, and 3.7 million people all across the country are in need of primary or basic secondary health care services.