ABC News' Kirit Radia (@kiritradia_abc) reports:
With international aid groups finally being allowed back into Somalia amid record drought, the United States and international aid groups have begun to explore how they can assist millions of people suffering from famine in the isolated country.
Yet nowhere has the famine been felt more acutely than in Somalia, where conditions have been exacerbated by authorities who, until earlier this month, would not allow international aid groups to distribute assistance to even the most malnourished children. More than 2.8 million people there are said to be affected and up to 1.5 million have already been displaced.
Finally, with famine reaching epic levels in many areas, and rising food prices elsewhere, al Shabaab, the radical Islamist group that rules much of Somalia, agreed to allow aid in. The United Nations sent its first emergency aid flight last week.
The United States has provided more than $383 million in emergency food assistance to the region since October, resulting in the distribution of more than 347,720 metric tons of food aid,. But al Shabaab’s restrictions have allowed only a fraction of it — $43 million — to reach victims in Somalia. That figure includes last week’s $21 million contribution of 19,000 metric tons of emergency food rations through the United Nations World Food Program.
Somalia has been without a central government now for two decades and law and order is enforced in most areas outside of the capital of Mogadishu by al Shabaab, which has ties with al Qaeda. Two years ago Shabaab expelled foreign aid groups, accusing them of undermining the strict Islamic state it seeks to build in Somalia.
The timing could not have been worse as rainy season after rainy season began to fail, plunging an already food insecure region into famine. Desperate Somalis now trek for weeks to reach refugee camps in neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia, where the situation in the host community is not much better. The refugees risk violence from armed groups along the way. Many have had to bury children who starved to death before reaching the relative safety of the camps.
Yet despite the dangers of travel and the dire conditions in the camps themselves, thousands of Somalis continue to stream across the border each day. The United States Agency for International Development quotes humanitarian agency estimates that about half of the children younger than 5 who arrive at the Dolo Ado transit center in Ethiopia are malnourished. They quote relief group estimates that nearly one in five of children between 6 months and 5 years of age residing in refugee camps in northern Kenya are “severely malnourished.”
Although the United Nations sent in a first shipment of aid to Somalia last week, other private groups are reportedly reluctant to follow suit, worried about the tenuous security situation in the country and unsure about al Shabaab’s promises.
The U.S. State Department, however, said earlier this month that it would take al Shabaab at its word and test its willingness to cooperate. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week directed her staff to explore what was needed to head off a humanitarian catastrophe, her representative told reporters. The United States Agency for International Development has mobilized its disaster emergency response teams to identify aid priorities and coordinate assistance arriving in the region. USAID has also set up a task force to oversee the effort from its Washington, D.C., headquarters.