Famine Returns to Somalia

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Lisa Mullins: I'm Lisa Mullins and this is The World. The United Nations today, formally declared a famine in parts of Southern Somalia. The U.N. says millions of people in the conflict torn East African nation are at risk of starving to death. It also warns that famine could engulf the rest of Southern Somalia within weeks. East Africa is enduring the worst drought in decades, and the disruption caused by war is making things even more severe. Justin Kilcullen is the director of the Irish aid agency known as TrĂ³caire. He has been to various areas of Somalia in recent weeks, he's now in Nairobi. What have you seen, Justin, that has proved to you just how bad this drought and this famine is?

Justin Kilcullen: Well I've seen hundreds of people on the move, exhausted, after long walks of 20 days or more across arid land, looking to find help. Coming to reception centers, where unfortunately, there is little for them. They tell stories of tragedy along the way - of having to leave dead children on the side of the road, elderly people dying. I spoke to a young woman today, just 15, who was raped. And there are many other stories like that. And they arrive to these areas of bush land with little there - some plastic sheeting to provide some cover for them. They sleep on the ground. They are mixing with animals. Today we were in the camp, having to pick our way through the excrement of animals, watching people just sitting listlessly, and waiting for the aid to arrive. Meanwhile, in Nairobi today there was a press conference and the point was made over and over again, that only 40% of the requests from the United Nations and other aid agencies for the money that they require to deal with this crisis, only 40% is forthcoming. And unless more funds come immediately, this is going to escalate.

Mullins: Justin, why has the response been slow? Because famine doesn't just happen overnight.

Kilcullen: Well, first of all, last October when the crops failed for the second year in a row, the development agencies began to raise this issue but it found little resonance with governments. We have had, I suppose, the crises in Haiti and Pakistan last year, two enormous disasters that focused the world's attention on other areas other than East Africa. And then you have an underlying political problem here in question of Somalia, which is seen as a failed state, is seen as a risk to the security of Western countries. And that, you know, the Somali people have somehow been neglected because living amongst them are those who are seen to be dangerous to our security. So once again, putting it frankly, we've out our own welfare before that of others. And what we're saying here in Nairobi tonight is it's time to put people first. It's time to stop branding Somalia as a terrorist state. There are 10 million people living in Somalia, there are not 10 million terrorists living there. A tiny number in comparison to the broad population, and yet somehow they all seem to have to suffer because of this perceived threat to our security in the West.

Mullins: You're talking, Justin, about some of the complicating factors. One enormous complicating factor is the Islamic militant group known as Al-Shabaab, which has violently opposed any kind of foreign aid and has killed foreigners, has killed in fact humanitarian aid workers, as you well know. Have they disrupted, this group Al-Shabaab, has it disrupted your organization's deliveries?

Kilcullen: Well you know, what you say is true, but Al-Shabaab is changing. They have said that they will open up the regions under their control to allow in reputable agencies to bring assistance. So they have seen, I suppose, the plight of their people. And any political group knows that if they're not meeting the needs of their people then they have no legitimacy whatsoever. So the circumstances there are changing. And Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland and the former U.N. Commissioner for Human Rights, who led our delegation, made the point here in Nairobi tonight that in a strange way, this famine may be an opportunity to have political developments in Somalia, because it changes the game. Everybody now has to take account of this crisis and I believe that if there's correct political engagement, in a very considered and focused way, with the different political factions in Somalia, there is an opportunity to move the political situation forward. And that would be to the benefit the of everybody, not least the people of Somalia who are so desperately in need of aid.

Mullins: That was Justin Kilcullen, who's Director of the Irish aid group known as TrĂ³caire, speaking to us from Nairobi, Kenya.