A shipment of 500 metric tons of food aid from the World Food Program arrived by road in the drought-stricken southern Somali town, Wajid, this week. This is the first time the aid agency has trucked food into the area in almost five years. It has been forced to do so because of a spate of recent pirate attacks in the waters off the coast of Somalia. The convoy ran into many difficulties along the way. Cathy Majtenyi was in Wajid and files this report for VOA.
Fatuma Mohamed, a 35-year-old farmer, stands in Wajid's noisy market with her large clay pot, selling camel milk.
Ms Mohamed tells VOA that, when the rains were good, it would take her one day to fill her pot with milk from her three camels. Now, she says, it can take up to four days to fill the same container.
The mother of three says that her camels produce less milk because they, like her and her children, are hungry. Ms Mohamed used to grow maize, but no longer does so because there is not enough rain to grow her crops.
Ms Mohamed's situation illustrates how the people of Wajid and surrounding areas in the Bakol and other regions of southern Somalia are being affected by the drought, which has worsened in recent months.
According to a recent report by the Food Security Analysis Unit, the start of the minor rainy season, which occurs from October to December, had been delayed by more than three weeks in southern Somalia, and rains since then have been patchy.
The report says that the rains' delay and inadequate amount will likely lead to the worst cereal harvest in more than a decade.
The drought has caused many families to leave their farms and set up makeshift shelters of rags, branches, plastic bags, and other materials on the edge of Wajid town. More than 700 people, some returning to the area after fleeting during Somalia's civil war, are camped out there.
To respond to the need, a 14-truck convoy, contracted by the World Food Program, rolled into Wajid town, Sunday morning, carrying more than 400 tons of maize, pulses, and oil for people in need in Wajid and surrounding areas.
Because of attacks and other insecurity on the roads spilling over from Somalia's long-running civil war, this was the first time in almost five years that the aid agency trucked in food to the area.
Zlatan Milisic, WFP's Somalia country director, tells VOA the spate of recent pirate attacks on the waters off Somalia's coast left his agency no choice but to go by road. "This first convoy is, in a way, an experiment for us to see whether this route would work, and also what are the obstacles for it, so once that is done, we will analyze. Our goal is simple: we have to come here with the food. Now the question is, what is the way to do so? After the ships were basically stopped and blocked because of the piracy, we are now looking into the options," he said.
It had been a very rough ride of 1,200 kilometers. The original convoy, which had 17 trucks carrying 500 tons of food, left the Kenyan port city, Mombasa, on November 21.
The trucks drove through Kenya for about a week before reaching the border town, Mandera, where Somali drivers replaced their Kenyan counterparts. Three trucks broke down along the way.
The Kenyan-Somali border is a little more than 200 kilometers away from Wajid town, yet it took the convoy about five days to drive that distance.
What took so long was that the convoy had to pass through 25 checkpoints set up by heavily armed militiamen to extort money from all vehicles traveling on the road.
"They (militiamen) said, 'we need money.' They don't care (that) this is food aid or anything because they are there to get money. These people (drivers) say, they have to explain that this food is for the families and for the people who are suffering, and those who need assistance. After long, long discussions, they have to reach some conclusion on releasing the trucks," he said.
Mr. Sharif says that every vehicle that passes through a checkpoint must pay something, but trucks carrying humanitarian aid generally pay less that those trucking commercial loads.
He explains that charges commonly range from about $20 to $130 per checkpoint, and that negotiations can take from a half an hour to several hours or even a day.
Farhan Dahir Hassan, one of the convoy's drivers, tells VOA he feared for his life at certain points in the journey. Mr. Hassan says that, before the convoy reached the first checkpoint after crossing the border, militiamen fired on the trucks, and one of the tires became punctured.
Later on, at a place called Luq, militiamen wanted to charge a huge amount of money, and would not let the convoy pass. They started fighting among themselves, and one militiaman was injured. The convoy was able to leave after the intervention of another militia group and local elders.
Lawlessness and chaos have reigned in Somalia ever civil war broke out 14 years ago, with no central authority to provide food aid or even basic services, or to stop militia from setting up these checkpoints.
A transitional government was selected, last year, but members say they cannot do much to stop the insecurity and lawlessness that plagues Somalia's roads, making it difficult for groups such as the World Food Program to deliver badly-needed assistance to places like Wajid and beyond.