- The Washington Times - Friday, December 5, 2008


A class of medical students improbably graduated from a Somali medical school Thursday, even as a humanitarian crisis has settled on the conflict-ravaged nation.

The eight women and 12 men are the first class in two decades to graduate from of Mogadishu’s bullet-pocked Benadir University.

“Every morning I was risking my life to reach the university, and about seven times I was trapped under crossfire,” said 19-year-old Hafsa Abdirahman Mohamed, whose mother lives in London and helped her pay the $1,500 annual tuition.

“But that did not stop me, and now my dream is real,” she told the Associated Press.

With widespread malnutrition and armed militias battling for power, Somalia could not be more desperate for medical care.

The U.N. relief coordinator for Somalia warned Wednesday that the population is facing a humanitarian crisis.

International relief organizations have found it difficult to deliver and distribute emergency assistance because of hazards ranging from harassment by gunmen to rapacious pirates off the Somali coastline.

A sustained drought has exacerbated the situation, making it even more difficult for people to raise crops or livestock.

“After three years of drought and prolonged crisis, we are at a stage where the population is facing total destitution,” said Mark Bowden, the chief U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Somalia - a land he described as the world’s second-worst humanitarian crisis after Sudan’s Darfur region.

Earlier this week, the U.N. office for humanitarian affairs issued an emergency appeal for nearly $919 million, a sharp increase that reflects the escalating need for assistance as well as the cost and difficulty of importing relief supplies. Most of the contributions will pay for food, health care and sanitation.

“The humanitarian situation reached a new low point in 2008,” Mr. Bowden said at the launch of the appeal. “Continuous instability and conflict, economic crisis and deepening drought all have led to the rapid deterioration in the humanitarian situation and a dramatic increase in the vulnerability of Somalis.”

He said 3.2 million people, or 40 percent of the population, are in need of outside assistance.

Those numbers may rise higher as fighting continues to drive Somalis from their homes.

Relief agencies - which are known for reaching isolated civilians regardless of the terrain, weather or combat - have found an unusual obstacle in Somalia: pirates.

Using little more than motorboats and RPGs, the pirates have captured more than two dozen ships to extract ransom payments, according to the International Maritime Bureau.

Pirates are still holding for a reported $3 million ransom a Ukrainian freighter filled with armored Russian tanks, and a supertanker with more than $100 million worth of crude oil from Russia.

A U.S. cruise ship was approached earlier this week, but it easily outran the attack.

The U.N. Security Council on Tuesday extended by six months a mandate for international forces to escort ships through the troubled waters. So far, warships from NATO, the European Union and other forces have patrolled the area around the Gulf of Aden.

Increasingly brutal combat between rival militias has claimed 10,000 lives in Mogadishu over the past year, according to estimates by relief workers. An additional 600,000 people, more than half the population of the capital city, have been displaced.

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