- The Washington Times - Monday, June 18, 2007


With Somalia embroiled once again in the kind of devastating fighting that has racked the failed state in the horn of Africa for more than 15 years, the work of humanitarian organizations becomes both more dangerous and more important. Lately it’s become more dangerous not only operating in the country, but actually moving relief supplies to Somalia, which is done by sea, has become a deadly endeavor. In May, a cargo ship carrying food for the U.N. World Food Program was attacked by pirates, and a guard killed in the process of defending the ship.

The WFP has had difficulties with piracy off the coast of Somalia in the past. In 2005 the agency was forced to send food to the country by land, but trucks moving through Somalia inevitably face roadblocks set up by local militias. Long regarded as a dangerous region of the ocean, piracy again seems on the uptick. The attacks are often carried out in international waters, with pirates later returning to Somali waters and likely finding easy shelter along Somalia’s long coast.

The serious problem for sailors could have even more severe repercussions for Somalis. “If unresolved,” said Josette Sheeran, WFP executive director, the problem of piracy “will sever the main artery of food assistance to the country — and to the people who rely on it for their survival. Unless action is taken now, not only will our supply lines be cut, but also those of other aid agencies working in various parts of Somalia.”

Piracy is part and parcel of the overall security situation in Somalia, which started the year with an optimistic outlook only to deteriorate rapidly. Somalia’s sordid years of being overrun by warlords and clan-based strife have returned after only a brief reprieve, which started when the Council of Islamic Courts took control of Mogadishu from the warlords last year. As the group advanced its position and threatened to sack the U.N. backed Transitional Federal Government, Ethiopia intervened.

Experts warned that Ethiopian troops had little chance of unseating the Islamic militias, but when Ethiopian forces crossed the border, their victory was as swift as it was surprising. Fighters from the Council of Islamic Courts fled Mogadishu, the capital, in a chaotic retreat. The internationally recognized government was able to move from the city of Baidoa to Mogadishu, and for the first time since the collapse of the Siad Barre dictatorship in 1991, there seemed a very real opportunity to put the country on the path toward legitimate governance and security.

The effort to seize that window of opportunity was supposed to include a neutral force of upwards of 7,600 African peacekeepers working under the auspices of the African Union. Uganda dispatched around 1,400 troops — an ineffective force well short of what had been envisioned. In April, reasons for optimism were all but entirely gone when fighting on the streets of Mogadishu reached what the International Committee of the Red Cross called the worst levels in 15 years.

In addition to the staggering death toll, the bloody battles have displaced an estimated 400,000 residents of Mogadishu. The work of international aid groups is critical in Somalia, and will continue to be as war ravages the country. The WFP estimates that it will feed close to 1 million people in Somalia this year, and it is joined in these efforts by other humanitarian organizations, including the Red Cross and CARE. But to do that, those organizations will need to bring in food by sea, which means that the international community needs to start looking at ways to ensure safety in Somalia’s shipping lanes.

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