Severe drought in Somalia is putting more than two million people at risk of starvation and forcing thousands out of villages and into a relief camp outside the capital. The United Nations has called for emergency aid to help those in need, including nearly a million Somali children facing hunger.
Tens of thousands of people seeking assistance have arrived in Mogadishu during the past three weeks due to lack of water and food.
Among them is Jowharo Mohamed, a mother of four who is expecting her fifth. But the scars and swelling on her body are not from pregnancy or childbirth. She says that after Somalia’s severe drought this year killed all her goats and cows, she walked over 100 kilometers (60 miles) from her village to a relief camp outside Mogadishu.
She says all the livestock died and life became so unbearable they could no longer stay there. So, they had to walk for 15 consecutive days and finally reached the camp.
The drought and loss of food production means hundreds of thousands of Somali children are suffering from hunger.
Among them is one-year-old Amina, whose growth has been severely stunted.
Amina’s mother, Nima Ali Hassan, says her child has been suffering from malnourishment for the past six months. He has been suffering so much and the reason is because of the hardships, including the drought and lack of proper food, she added.
The United Nations warns Somalis need emergency aid or the country will face a major humanitarian crisis.
Head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Somalia Justin Brady says that the situation is desperate.
“The levels of coping and resilience of these communities have been deteriorating and deteriorating over the last seasons. The government has stepped up to try and put in place a resilience and recovery framework to address the drivers of need. These are solutions that are not implemented overnight,” said Brady.
Somalia Humanitarian Affairs Ministry Director Mukhtar Hussein says more needs to be done at the local level to prevent displacement of those in need.
He says his ministry proposes and encourages people be helped while they can still cope, so they do not leave their homes and get uprooted, and is ready, as a ministry, to implement it.
In 2017, severe drought displaced almost one million Somalis, but a quick humanitarian response prevented famine.
After nearly three decades of war, many Somalis carry invisible scars from exposure to violence. This is a health and lifestyle news.
According to the World Health Organization, 1 in 3 Somalis is affected by some sort of mental illness, a figure that is higher than other low income, war-affected countries. Despite the need, the country only has five mental health centers and a handful of trained psychiatrists practicing.
One Somali mental health practitioner is trying to change this. Rowda Abdullahi Olad is a psychotherapist and founder of Maandeeq Mental Health Without Borders. After practicing in the United States, she returned to her home country with the intention of offering clinical services. She quickly realized the need was far greater.
“So many have experienced decades of war, drought, displacement and now are still experiencing terror attacks daily,” she told VOA during an interview in Washington. “So how that affects people is not that we can address only with a clinical approach. So what I came up with when I went back to Somalia is that mental health should be an integral component of state-building and political stability.”
‘A nation that needs healing’
Working with political leaders, aid organizations and civil society groups, Olad holds training events to educate the public about the problem and its treatments.
“Most of my work relates to how I can tell the international community and people who work in the humanitarian sector and development and Somali government to understand this is a nation that needs healing,” she said. “This is a nation that has experienced more than what a human mental capacity can take.”
Olad also believes progress on issues like reconciliation and peace-building cannot occur without including mental health services. Many of the people entrusted with playing roles in healing the country need to be healed themselves, she said.
“What I have seen is people who are in a conflict reconciliation setting or negotiation setting, you can see people are so traumatized, and you can feel their interactions daily,” she said. “You can see the clinical and psychosocial healing needs on the ground.”
Stigma of mental illness
Olad’s organization is working to erase the stigma around health in Somalia. People suffering from mental illness are often shunned by society and even their families. Harmful practices, including using chains to restrain patients, are still used in the country.
“There is a stigma because [people believe] either you are crazy or you’re not crazy. You are insane or you’re not, there’s nothing in between,” she said. “And people don’t see mental health as something that’s curable or sometimes it can go severe that a person experiences schizophrenia or bipolar, that you need to have medication.”
Olad also wants to use the lessons learned from Somalia to help post-conflict countries around the world. She is hoping to pursue a fellowship at the Mary Hoch Center for Reconciliation at George Mason University to develop a guidebook on how mental health can be used for peace-building in post-conflict societies.
“This guide will be used by all the countries that have experienced war,” she said. “So I’m hoping if we get academic institutions supporting this [it can] have an influence on the policy level of the organizations and the government institutions.” (VOA)
In many homes around Jebel Boma County, dinner consists of bitter-tasting leaves that can be picked off the bushes outside. The leaves are neither filling nor nutritious, but in South Sudan’s Jebel Boma and Pochalla counties, there’s not much else to eat.
Through a combination of ruinous floods, a lack of decent roads and widespread insecurity, the two counties in the Upper Nile region, near the border with Ethiopia, have been effectively cut off from the rest of South Sudan and a reliable food supply.
This reporter visited the area during the last week of December and witnessed thousands of families who have no food and are surviving mainly on leaves or seeds distributed by aid agencies.
The governor of Boma state, David Yau Yau, told VOA’s South Sudan In Focus that he has been waiting to meet President Salva Kiir to discuss the dire humanitarian conditions in Boma state. Yau Yau says aid agencies should intervene to save lives of families who are starving.
‘’We knew the people are going to starve unless there are serious humanitarian interventions. We are opening our mouths more louder to be heard so that something is done for the people of Boma state. Otherwise, this looming starvation is imminent,” Yau Yau said during an interview in Juba.
The commissioner of Jebel Boma says if aid agencies wait too long to intervene, some people will die. Longony Alston says the floods that hit the area in September washed away crops and destroyed food storage for local farmers, exposing 58,000 families to starvation.
‘’All these 58,000 are suffering. In fact, some of the people went to Ethiopia during clashes [in 2013] and some of them came back [and] are facing this hunger in Jebel Boma,” he said.
The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) released in September 2019 estimated 5.35 million people in South Sudan — more than half the population — are in a state of food insecurity.
The situation has been bad since the start of South Sudan’s civil war in December 2013. Fighting has died down since a September 2018 peace agreement but not stopped.
Kiir’s envoy to Boma state, Akot Lual Arech, said the situation in several parts of the state is exacerbated by intercommunal violence that prevents the aid agencies from delivering services.
‘’There [are] no roads in the area and accessibility is very difficult. The problem is not only in Kachipo and Jie areas. If you go to Maban or Nasir, you will feel bad. It is because of the war that is taking place now. War and development cannot go together,” he said.
Arech says aid agencies have abandoned several villages in Boma state. “They see the window that we are fighting each other. So they don’t really, they don’t care. They will do whatever they desire to do,” he said.
The local chiefs and residents of Jebel Boma County say it is the government of South Sudan that has forgotten them. Nakou Lokine, a traditional chief in Naoyapuru village, said there is no health center in his village.
“We have no hospital here in Boma and when someone gets sick here in Boma, then we have to wait until a plane comes from Juba. Then the patient is taken to Juba. You can even see the children with your eyes; they are really suffering from sickness,” he said through an interpreter.
Residents of Pachalla County on the border with Ethiopia are also experiencing serious food insecurity. This reporter visited Pochalla county headquarters in December and saw deserted residential areas.
Munira Abdalwab, the member of parliament representing Pochalla in the transitional national assembly in Juba, said there is a lack of government services in search of clean drinking water, health services, education and security, in addition to food.
Traders in both Pochalla and Boma County have run out of stock in their shops because of poor conditions on roads connecting the two counties with Ethiopia and Juba.
Patrick Ochum Gilo was once a successful businessman in Pochalla. He says the exchange rate of a dollar to South Sudan pounds shot up, and that prevented him from importing goods from Ethiopia.
‘’I used to bring [import] everything. I had soap, sugar and other basic commodities. I also run a restaurant that had all kinds of food. The problem started when U.S. dollar became scarce and we have to buy goods from Ethiopia, and the cost of transportation from Gambella [Ethiopia] is very high.’’
The scarcity is now affecting Boma National Park, a protected area in eastern South Sudan near the Ethiopian border. Armed civilians and military personnel in Boma and Pochalla depend on game meat from the park for food. Alston says he has found it difficult to arrest poachers, because there is no food in the markets and none has come from the World Food Program or other agencies. (VOA)