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UN Flood Relief Efforts Stymied in Southern Somalia

Somalia's interim government says it is in control of Somalia now that the Islamic Courts Union has abandoned key posts across the country. That should have been good news to United Nations aid workers in the port city of Kismayo, who had been delivering assistance to hundreds of thousands of people affected by severe flooding in southern Somalia in the latter part of 2006. The aid workers had to stop their humanitarian deliveries from Kismayo on December 25th following a directive from the Islamic Courts Union. But the aid workers have yet to resume their operations even though the Islamists are no longer in control.

The ouster of the Islamists began in earnest at Christmastime, when Ethiopian troops, which are backing Somali government forces, conducted air raids on various locations in Somalia. The Islamists abandoned their key posts of Jowhar, the capital Mogadishu, the port city of Kismayo and other locations following the air raids and ground advances by government and Ethiopia troops.

The Islamic Courts Union rose up against the interim government in June, saying that they wanted to bring order and stability to chaotic Somalia. Their forces captured key locations mostly in southern Somalia between June and December.

In the midst of the conflict, massive flooding caused by heavy rains affected more than 155,000 people in the Gedo, Middle Juba, and Lower Juba regions of southern Somalia.

The United Nations had been delivering food and other aid to isolated communities in the Juba Valley area on helicopters from the Kismayo airport. But those deliveries stopped on December 25th, when the Islamists closed the airport.

The halting of the U.N. helicopter flights, which would have delivered an estimated 250 tons of food and other supplies, was a big blow to aid efforts. In many places, the floods had destroyed or damaged roads, making it difficult to get aid to the affected communities.

Somalia's interim government is now in control of Somalia. But aid workers say they face a new set of challenges in a post-Islamist Somalia.

Eric Laroche is the United Nations' humanitarian coordinator for Somalia. He explains to VOA why airlifts of food and other supplies in helicopters from the Kismayo airport are still not happening.

"We don't have any more activities in Kismayo because it is impossible to go there. The airport, for example, where we used to have our helicopters is taken over by the Ethiopians,” said Mr. Laroche. “Instead of having two U.N. helicopters for humanitarian action, we have eight helicopters from the Ethiopian forces for another type of action. I have been in contact with the Ethiopian (authorities), I have been in contact with the president of Somalia, I've been in contact with the prime minister of Somalia -- trying to advocate for resuming as soon as possible the operation there."

Laroche says he was told that the Ethiopians still need the airport because there are fears that fighters of the Islamic Courts Union have not left the area. The U.N. official also worries that Somalia may revert back to "warlord-ism," where factional leaders and their militias maintain control of different parts of the country.

"We do not want to work with warlords anymore. Why? Because in the past, in the last 15 years, we had always to go through the warlords to deliver whatever humanitarian assistance. It means that we were obliged to rent the cars from the warlords at $50 a day. The warlords were putting a lot of pressure on us to hire the staff they wanted us to hire, and we don't want that. They were putting a lot of pressure on us to fix the salaries of the guards who would take care of our compound and so on. This is just not acceptable."

In the meantime, some flood and war-affected populations in the Juba Valley area of southern Somalia remain isolated. VOA visited the Juba Valley two days before Christmas and, although the area has become drier since then, people are still in desperate need. In one area, several dozen families had set up shelters consisting of branches, plastic sheets, blankets and other materials.

Fahade Abdella Mute and her five children are among the families living on the roadside after fleeing her village. Mute explains that at two o'clock in the morning, a big wall of water came roaring towards the village. "We grabbed whatever we could and ran away. It's a night I'll never forget as long as I live."

Another village, Mofi, was completely cut off from the road network by the floods and was submerged in water for two months.

Village chief Hussein Suleiman Munye describes how the floods have affected the village of 477 families. "All the roads are blocked and we had small sugar cane farms we used to cultivate with hoes that we cannot cultivate anymore."

Faced with this plight, U.N. officials continue to push for access to the Kismayo airport, so that they can begin airlifting much-needed supplies to isolated communities in the Juba region.