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Last Updated: Wednesday, 3 May 2006, 13:51 GMT 14:51 UK
The dangers of taking food aid to Somalia
Man holding bowl of leaves
Villagers say they are surviving by eating leaves
As Somalia is hit by its worst drought in a decade, the BBC's Mike Thomson reports on the difficulties of delivering food aid to a country overrun with gunmen and with no effective authority.

As our small chartered plane lands on a remote dusty air strip near the town of Bu'aale in south-west Somalia, the men with guns are waiting.

Sitting languidly in the back of an old pick-up truck bristling with protruding gun barrels, they roar towards our craft.

Happily for me and two members of the charity Tearfund, they have come to protect rather than rob us.

One of the men, clutching his AK-47 machine gun, jumps into the rear of the car that we have hired to take us into Bu'aale.

Just when I am just wondering whether all this is a severe case of "over-kill", given that this is supposed to be on the safest areas in Somalia, I spot two young boys shepherding a couple of bony cows along the roadside.

Lawless nation

They look little more than 10 years old. Each has a machine gun slung casually over his shoulder.

In a country with no national police, army or effective government (the current transitional one only controls a small part of the country) this is a very worrying sign.

The only way to stop the violence, is for us to have a proper national government again
Mohammad Boray

Nearly everyone in this virtually lawless nation owns a gun - except for those left destitute by years of fighting.

This poses particular problems for the various international aid agencies that have pledged to deliver food aid to a country suffering its worst drought in a decade.

It is estimated than 70% of the country's livestock has died, two million people are in need of food aid and a further 500,000 are wandering the country searching for help.

Their quest, and that of the agencies aiming to feed them, is not being helped by the gangs of heavily armed milita gangs that roam at will hijacking aid convoys and killing, robbing and raping desperate villagers.

Unanswered question

The UN World Food Programme has launched an appeal for more than $500m to help countries in the Horn of Africa, ($326m of which is earmarked for Somalia) but there is one question that it has not yet answered.

If that sum is raised (and only a third has come in so far) how can the UN and other aid agencies get the food to Somalis who need it when much of the country is too dangerous to travel in?

Somali gunmen
Guns are an important status symbol in Somalia
Nobody yet seems to know.

It is widely acknowledged that many clan leaders see aid as valuable booty to be stolen at will and woe betide officials who try touring problem areas to check that they have not stolen it.

There is another problem, too.

The longed for seasonal Gu rains have finally come in some places but not yet in the quantity that farmers need.

The little that has fallen has caused flash floods and turned many of the country's rough dirt roads into quagmires.

Many are already impassable to the few aid convoys that dare or are able to travel on them.

Afraid

My four-wheel-drive car, with armed guards on the roof as well as in the car behind, finally slips and slides its way into the village of Jabikore, around an hour's drive from Bu'aale.

There I meet mother of nine, Gulay Hassan Dagane.

Woman doling out porridge at an emergency feeding centre
Aid agencies are distributing emergency food rations
The 35-year-old woman, shoves a bowl of leaves under my face.

"This," she says, "is all my family have to eat. We have not had any food aid for two months now and I fear for the lives of my children."

It is a similar story in the village of Halgan, just outside Bu'aale.

All the people here have fled from the fighting in surrounding regions.

They too claim to have little but leaves to live on and fear that some of their children could die.

Yet none will even contemplate returning to their former homes where brutal and often random killings and rapes were everyday events.

Mohammad Boray, a tense looking man in his late 30s, shows me his left arm which was crippled by a militia man's bullet.

"The only hope for my country," he tells me, "the only way to stop the violence, is for us to have a proper national government again. Without it the killings will just go on and on and so will the hunger too."

Sadly, with the present transitional government controlling only a tiny portion of the country and even afraid to set foot in the capital, Mogadishu, the omens do not look good.


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