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Last Updated: Friday, 2 April, 2004, 07:55 GMT 08:55 UK
Diary from a Somali aid operation
Marcus Prior
Marcus Prior: Took four planes and seven hours to reach Puntland
Somalia has a reputation as a difficult and dangerous place for aid workers.

Marcus Prior is visiting the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) operations in the port town of Bossaso, in Somalia's semi-autonomous north-eastern region of Puntland, and is writing a diary this week for BBC News Online.

31 March

Time is short and we have a lot to pack in on my final day, so we rise early and head straight for a nearby clinic for TB patients.

Names are called and the patients come forward, many on unsteady legs, to be given a selection of pills.

All must swallow them in front of the clinic officials before leaving the room.

One young boy is at the front for about ten minutes struggling to get the medication down.

Environmental concerns

The WFP also helps with a nearby project run by the local NGO Horn Relief. A group of women earn money here constructing small ovens for use in the home.

The ovens are 25-30% more fuel efficient than an open fire and therefore an important environmental development.

Horn Relief is looking to go further. Their latest project is to develop solar-powered cookers, a prototype of which was being used to boil a kettle when we arrived at their offices.

With virtually every mature tree around Bossaso already felled for firewood, solar power is an exciting and important alternative.

Refugees

The poorest people in Bossaso are the internally displaced refugees, the majority of who have fled from the south.

As we drove through their windswept location, I was shown a patch of scarred land.

A few weeks ago it had been a squatter settlement before a stray flame burnt every shack to the ground.

Homes nearby are made from anything the people could get their hands on. It was a desperate place.

But the people who fled here came with skills.

WFP's food in return for work scheme here means they can spend the money they earned from selling their shoes on sending their children to school.

The plane to take me back to Nairobi is due in Bossaso tomorrow. I shall leave many new friends behind. But I am also looking forward to a beer and my own bed.


30 March

Our ship is still waiting for a cattle transporter to clear the dock so we made use of the window of opportunity to head out of town.

Our destination was Sherbi, a small village in the Nugal valley some 200km to the south.

Our driver, Ahmed, is a sheikh.

Somali custom has it that if you want to get married but are having problems gaining family approval, you can take a sheikh with you at least 100km from your home and he is permitted to perform the ceremony there and then.

As we passed the 100km mark, Ahmed smiled and admitted he had been right there only in the past week for exactly such an occasion.

The region around Sherbi is in the grip of a drought that shows no sign of abating.

It has been four years since the last regular rainfall and along with the neighbouring Sool and Sanaag areas it has now been targeted for food distributions.

The ground was as crisp and dry as a cheese biscuit. It seemed a miracle anyone survived here.

Women's role

The method used for food distribution in Somalia is tried and tested.

Quite simply, the ration is laid out on the ground and after the village elders have delivered a list of the most needy, they come forward and sit on their bag of maize.

Most of them are women, who the WFP consider far more likely to ensure the whole family is fed.

On the way back to Bossaso we saw evidence of this.

A Somali man drew up in his car and sat down to eat, leaving his entire extended family of women and children in the car to watch him.

We made it back to Bossaso just in time to see our ship unload 850 metric tonnes of maize, corn-soya blend, beans and vegetable oil.


29 March

Our ship has not come in. Instead, today has been a lesson in the conditions under which the staff of WFP Bossaso, and in particular head of sub-office Jeremiah Etheri, all too frequently have to work.

We had just concluded a meeting with the regional education office when Jeremiah was summoned to an urgent telephone call.

An unidentified man with his face masked and carrying an AK-47 had been spotted lurking suspiciously around the office compound and the WFP warehouse.

We were instructed to remain where we were. About 30 minutes later another vehicle arrived and we were whisked back to the compound, but only once our security staff had released the safety catches on their own AKs.

Back behind the gates of the compound, Jeremiah immediately convened a meeting.

'Edgy'

Although some present felt the threat was minimal, a mysterious gunman is never to be underestimated in Somalia and it was agreed that the town "network" should be used to try and identify the man.

Nothing alarmist. I was assured it would not take long.

Somalia's bush telegraph is more reliable than the internet. Within an hour we knew the man to have been involved in a feud over a plot of land only a few blocks from the WFP compound.

His brother had been killed. Apparently Bossaso town has been edgy for several days as the killers went on trial, much to the anger of their own, heavily-armed clan.

Tension rose to the point that the case was adjourned yesterday, without a verdict. The feud, it appears, continues.

The threat had not been directed at WFP, but in hard times when drought in the region is making life a daily survival exercise for many Somalis, WFP's food stocks can quickly become a target.

At the very time we were dealing with security concerns in Bossaso, food distributions were continuing in drought-stricken areas to the south.

The work, invariably, goes on. And our ship is due in port in the morning.


28 March

At first glance of Somalia from the air, a thousand rivers appear to drain the land. Look a little closer and they are scorched dry.

Even the country's two main rivers, the Juba and the Shabelle, are hugged by just the thinnest wedge of green before the sand takes over again.

Ariel shot of Somalia
Somalia is classified as a food-deficit country
People do live here, but in some of the harshest conditions imaginable.

Somalia is classified as a least developed, low income and food-deficit country. It is easy to see why.

Our eight-seater plane touched down at the port town of Bossaso, an important commercial centre in the region of Puntland.

Although the town is relatively calm, guns are still standard for personal security, especially for aid workers.

Despite the uncertain climate, WFP maintains a sub-office in Bossaso which oversees food distribution for several hundred kilometres to the south.

It had taken us four stops, two different planes and seven hours in the air to reach Bossaso from Nairobi.

It would take half that time if there was a direct flight.

That felt arduous enough, but the ship from Mombasa piled high with WFP food due in port tomorrow has taken much longer.




SEE ALSO:
Country profile: Somalia
29 Jan 04  |  Country profiles
Timeline: Somalia
29 Jan 04  |  Country profiles


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