MOGADISHU, Somalia – The World Food Program said Saturday that it is expanding its food distribution efforts in famine-struck Somalia, where the U.N. estimates that only 20 percent of people needing aid are getting it.
Some of those from the outlying regions have walked for days to the capital for help, only for it to be too late.
In the pediatric ward in one of Somalia's best-equipped hospitals, a shriveled baby lies motionless on a crowded ward; a doctor said he weighs less than he did at birth. Doctors push a feeding tube down the nose of a skeletal 3-year-old, his body covered in sores. Mothers lay their babies between the cots on the floor because there are no beds left.
Banadir hospital lacks equipment, nutritional supplements and even beds, but its a refuge most of the families here have walked for miles to get to, carrying children who got weaker by the hour. Many arrive too late to be saved; both Ali Abukar, the baby, and Ibrahim Abukar Abdi, the 3-year-old, died shortly after the Associated Press spoke to their mothers.
That's why aid agencies urgently need to increase their efforts to reach families beyond the Somali capital, said Valerie Amos, the U.N.'s top humanitarian official, on Saturday. Wastelands in the battle-scarred capital are being transformed into makeshift camps as families move in and set up shelters, hoping for help.
"We have to start getting aid out to them to avoid a massive influx of people into the city," she said.
The U.N. estimates that 2.8 million Somalis need food aid, and 2.2 million of them live outside the capital in areas controlled by Islamist rebels, who have forbidden many aid agencies to work in their territory, including the U.N.'s World Food Program. But WFP is already getting aid to some areas in southern Somalia that had been inaccessible a month ago, said one official.
"We are expanding our activities in Mogadishu and we are looking to dramatically increase those activities over the coming days and weeks as the security situation in the city permits," said Stanlake Samkange, the WFP regional director in East and Central Africa. More aid was getting to southern Somalia as well, he said.
But it's hard enough to distribute aid in the capital, controlled by pro-government forces with the help of 9,000 African Union troops. At least 10 people have died this month in shootouts when aid agencies attempted to distribute bags of maize or grain, and competing militias fought over the site. Much of the food ended up being looted.
For now, the U.N.'s World Food Program is trying to discourage the looting by serving hot meals at designated sites, where families can come with jerry cans or buckets. The food can't be stored so it's less attractive to looters, but it's also a labor intensive process and means families have to wait in line for hours every day.
Amos said one possible solution was deploying more Somali police officers to the sites. There are around 3,000 Somali police who have undergone a three-month training course sponsored by the European Union.
She also said that AU troops might be able to help secure areas, but said they were currently over-stretched securing areas of the city vacated by the Islamists. The rebels withdrew from their bases in the capital a week ago. The move was the biggest territorial gain for the U.N.-backed government in four years and Samkange said it could help expand humanitarian access.
Tens of thousands of people are feared to have died in the famine, caused by war in Somalia and drought in the Horn of Africa — Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Eritrea and Somalia. More than 12 million people in the region need food aid, according to the United Nations.
But Amos said there were already worrying signs that people were seeking to profit from the misery. Some Somali businessmen were encouraging people to settle on their land, and then demanding compensation, she said.
"They're looking for some form of payment from people who have nothing," she said. The only thing most displaced families would have to offer would be food aid — if they are lucky enough to get some.
"We spoke to the prime minister about the problem of these gatekeepers," said Amos. The Somali government had also promised to provide more police, she said.
Tom Odula in Nairobi, Kenya and Mohamed Sheikh Nor in Mogadishu, Somalia contributed to this report.