Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Sliver Of Hope Amid The Gloom

Australia for UNHCR National Director Naomi Steer has just left famine-stricken Somalia – a situation described as “the worst humanitarian disaster in the world”.

I was in Somalia last week when the United Nations declared parts of the country to be in famine. With some estimates putting acute malnutrition rates as high as 50% in southern parts of the country, the scenario is very grim. Refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia are overflowing with new arrivals desperately seeking relief assistance. With an estimated 3.7 million people affected by the drought – that’s one in every two Somalis – the situation is very bad.

I was in Galkayo district as part of a UNHCR mission looking at the situation of displaced people within Somalia and how Australians might provide support. Flying into Galkayo, the landscape below was tough, red, rocky earth.

Galkayo is in the middle of Somalia, midway between the capital Mogadishu and the coastal town of Bossaso, a jumping-off point for refugees trying to make it across the Gulf of Aden into Yemen. In my pre-mission security briefing I had been advised to keep a low profile, be appropriately covered at all times and to avoid conflict. I was given a card with advice about what to do if taken hostage. It was all pretty confronting stuff but necessary given Galkayo is rated as a Level 5 Security Phase, one short of the most extreme rating of 6. All movement round Galkayo is with an armed security escort. A strict curfew is enforced between 8am and 5pm.

During my stay, I visited several camps for internally displaced people (IDPs). The path to one settlement was strewn with discarded blue plastic bags – the “Galkayo flower” as someone cynically described it to me. People were squatting in the dirt making shelters out of twigs and rags and cardboard. They were barely able to keep out the never-ending wind and sandy grit that clung to everything. In one camp, a newly arrived family worked against the clock to get their shelter up before night. Their meagre belongings, carted many hundreds of miles from their village in the south, lay strewn on the ground around their camp site. They had gathered together a collection of used vegetable oil tins which they were going to use as a bed base. Next door a woman had gathered rocks together as her base and she cried as she told me she had never thought her life would lead to this situation.

Outside, a chirpy little boy showed me his torn-off thumbnail. One of the many young children who work as child labourers here, Mohammed told me that he was a shoe shine boy but was worried that with his infected finger he would not be able to do his job. This was important to him as he said his parents fought all the time, his mother blaming his father for not providing food for the family.

A little girl nearby clung to her mother, her swollen belly and feet indicating acute malnutrition. The mother told me her daughter had been in hospital for two weeks but, now released, wouldn’t eat her ration of Plumpynut – the high-protein, peanut-based therapeutic food provided to acute malnutrition cases. But there was nothing else for her to eat.

The displaced population in Galkayo are either refugees from war, famine or both. People tell stories of failed crops, of whole flocks of sheep and goats dying from thirst and lack of feed. Many had fled Mogadishu after seeing family members killed in missile attacks or caught in cross fire. One woman arrived only days before, still in shock after learning that both her brother and father had been killed in the family home after staying behind to protect their window fittings and roof sheeting from looters during missile raids.  Another young woman showed me remnants of shrapnel in her hands and legs. Everyone here has run out of coping strategies. It is the end of the line.

In the midst of all this gloom stands the oasis of the Galkayo Medical Centre. Established by Dr Gaima in 2004, the hospital provides a huge range of health services including being the main referral hospital for fistula repair in Somalia.

Dr Gaima, until recently, was the only trained gynaecologist in Puntland. In contrast to so much of what I have seen, the hospital is spotless, the staff efficient and friendly. I tour wards of women suffering from all sorts of gynaecological problems; there are some rape victims, and many men who have suffered gunshot wounds or car accidents. In addition, Dr Gaima deals with many unique cases he says he never saw in his many years of practice in Italy – an indication, perhaps, of the total lack of health care most Somalis endure. As we do the morning round people reach out their hands to him. Dr Gaima has a kind and cheerful word for all his patients.

I am surprised to find out that Australia for UNHCR is the sole donor to the hospital as part of UNHCR’s ongoing support. In addition to this hospital, Australia for UNHCR also funds three health posts in the IDP camps and health services at Hadiya hospital. These services are the only free medical services provided to IDP’s, refugees, asylum seekers and poor locals.

To me the hospital represents a sliver of hope in this tough, dangerous country. I promise Dr Gaima and his dedicated staff that Australia for UNHCR will continue providing Australian donor support as long as we are able.

Naomi Steer

Please visit to find out how you can help UNHCR provide humanitarian assistance and food relief to those fleeing drought, famine and conflict in Somalia.