MOGADISHU, Somalia — Thousands of sacks of food aid meant for Somalia's famine victims have been stolen and are being sold at markets in the same neighborhoods where skeletal children in filthy refugee camps are starving.
The U.N. World Food Program for the first time acknowledged that it had been investigating food theft in Somalia for two months. The aid is not even safe once it has been distributed to families huddled in the makeshift camps popping up across the capital.
Families at the large, government-run Badbado camp said they often were forced to hand back aid after journalists took photos of them with relief supplies.
Ali Said Nur said he received two sacks of maize twice, but each time was forced to give one to the camp leader.
"You don't have a choice. You have to simply give without an argument to be able to stay here," he said.
The United Nations says more than 3.2 million Somalis - nearly half the population - need food aid after a severe drought that has been complicated by Somalia's long-running war.
More than 450,000 Somalis live in famine zones controlled by al Qaeda-linked terrorists, where aid is difficult to deliver. The United States says 29,000 Somali children younger than 5 have died.
International officials have long expected some of the food aid pouring into Somalia to be missing, but the sheer scale of the theft taking place calls into question aid groups' ability to reach the starving.
It also raises concerns about the willingness of aid agencies and the Somali government to fight corruption, and whether diverted aid is fueling Somalia's 20-year-old civil war.
"While helping starving people, you are also feeding the power groups that make a business out of the disaster," said Joakim Gundel, who heads Katuni Consult, a Nairobi, Kenya-based company often asked to evaluate international aid efforts in Somalia.
The World Food Program's Somalia country director, Stefano Porretti, said the agency's system of independent, third-party monitors uncovered suspicions of food diversion.
For sale in Mogadishu markets are vast piles of food sacks with stamps from the World Food Program, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Japanese government.
An official in Mogadishu with extensive knowledge of the food trade said he thinks unscrupulous businessmen are stealing up to half of aid deliveries.