Return to Somalia

by Omar Abdi | UNICEF
Wednesday, 10 May 2017 21:35 GMT

Zeinab, 14, (L) collects a chewing stick from a tree to be used to brush her teeth at a camp for internally displaced people from drought hit areas in Dollow, Somalia April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

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* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

People – pastoralists and farmers alike – are on the move all over Somalia in the face of another disaster

I left Somalia in 1989 – half a lifetime ago when the country was teetering on the brink of a conflict that has dragged on, in various forms, ever since.

I returned this month in the face of another disaster – a long nationwide drought that has left the country on the verge of famine and could result in almost 1.4 million children being acutely malnourished this year. During my visit I witnessed the incredible resilience of my fellow Somalis and saw first-hand how the international community, including UNICEF, has scaled up their life-saving work to prevent another famine.

At a makeshift camp for the hundreds of families displaced by the drought in Somaliland in the north, the extent of the disaster was clear. A small town of domed shelters made from branches, covered with pieces of material and plastic sheeting stretched far across the dusty plain into the distance. Most of the families here were pastoralists. Although used to hardship, they were left with no choice as their animals grew thin and their children became sick and frail from lack of food and from drinking contaminated water.

People – pastoralists and farmers alike – are on the move all over Somalia. More than 680,000 have been forced to leave their homes simply to survive since November. Camps are springing up all over the country. And many of those who have stayed, unable or unwilling to move, also need urgent support.

Yet even in this appalling situation I saw signs of  hope. UNICEF is supporting the Somaliland Red Crescent Society to run mobile health and nutrition clinics – and I saw this work in action in a small, sweltering tent in the camp. One child cried out as a health worker gave him a measles vaccine – a crucial jab to safeguard the little one from the potentially deadly disease. Close by a mother received a supply of therapeutic peanut paste to treat her severely malnourished toddler. She looked worn down but trusting that help was at hand.

One mother, standing patiently among the crowd queuing outside, told us how worried she was about her only child who had been throwing up and suffering from diarrhoea for nearly a week. She said they only had rice to eat, but at least they now had water in the camp and her daughter had been vaccinated.

And next door we visited a local school that has opened its doors to over 180 children from the camp. Children crammed together on the benches and some even sat on the floor, but UNICEF had provided them all with books and supplies and had trained the teachers. For some it was the first chance they had to attend school.

The warm welcome for the displaced children was just one indication of how Somalis are working together to overcome the drought. The Prime Minister in Mogadishu proudly told me how they had raised $4 million dollars from small donations, I heard similar stories in Puntland and Somaliland, about funds from the diaspora and local businesses and the generosity of host communities providing food and water. As today’s conference in London shows, the international community has stayed with Somalia – despite the decades’ long crisis – and unlike in 2011, they have not waited for a famine to be declared to act. 

With funding received so far, UNICEF has saved the lives of more than 67,000 severely malnourished children, provided access to safe water to over a million people, supported 59 cholera treatment facilities and vaccinated over 300,000 children against measles.

I have had to learn new vocabulary during my brief visit back home – words such as displaced person didn’t exist before in our daily parlance. But then neither did the pentavalent vaccine which protects children against five diseases in one shot.

Towards the end of my time in Somaliland I could see how just a few days of rain had already turned the previously bone-dry land green. While the rains bring new challenges; water-borne disease, and flooding and making access for humanitarian organisations more difficult, they also bring hope. Yet many parts of Somalia still remain with little or no rain.

We cannot become complacent, but the resilience and determination of the families I met, coupled with the comprehensive, coordinated response from the international community, give me hope that we will be able to prevent a repeat of the nightmare of 2011.

Omar Abdi is UNICEF's deputy executive director.