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Children bear brunt of Somalia strife


WISDOM MDZUNGAIRI
Monday, May 07, 2012

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The Somali flag is plain, a sea of light blue with a white, five-point star in the centre. The blue honours the United Nations which was instrumental in Somalia’s independence and the white represents peace and prosperity.

The points of the star symbolise the five major Somali ethnic regions that were divided by the colonial powers before independence in 1960.

But, the Somali star has been falling since the 1991 overthrow of President Mohamed Siad Barre ignited a heartless civil war.

The country’s infrastructure has been totally shattered, and no official government was created to rebuild what the war destroyed until the recent inauguration of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Sheik Sharif Ahmed with the support of the African Union mission in Somalia (Amisom).

Severe droughts and years of war have killed nearly a million residents and at least 2,5 million are refugees in their country of birth or are internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Over 4 000 Somali refugees are trying to rebuild their lives from the ashes of lifelong strife and civil war. Like many immigrants before them, they came here with nothing but their culture and customs, and a hope for a better life.

But now, thanks to the help of resettlement agencies, local activists, their own community organisations to be and a collective mental toughness, their star seems to be rising again in the capital city.

Nearly two-thirds of the Somali capital has been secured by Amisom supported Somali government forces, led by outgoing commander Major General Fred Mugisha, creating an ever-expanding haven of relative peace and safety for much of the city’s population.

For 12-year-old Mohammed and many of his generation, however, life is different. He has never been to school and has never known peace. His parents have been hopping from one place to the other in search of a place to call home.

They live in plastic shacks reserved for IDPs, but during the day they move from camp to camp in search of food at the many distribution centres dotted around Mogadishu.

Mohammed’s story is the same as that of thousands of other IDPs. They receive two meals a day — breakfast and lunch, and they are expected to look elsewhere for supper.

In many cases, however, they go to sleep on empty stomachs and wait for the next day’s ration.

Like Mohammed, Farina (30) from Lower Shabelle region in Southern Somalia, who worked as a “runner boy” for Al-Shabaab regrets having to leave school and his village.

“I wanted to continue my education, but warlords and lately Al-Shabaab wouldn’t let us study,” he said adding he was prepared to return to his home once there was peace.

“They would come to our school carrying rifles and bombs and say: ‘You should join us or else . . .’” said Farina adding that the rebels would compel schoolchildren to attend their mass meetings.

Mohamed and Farina’s tales pretty much sum up the plight of school-going children across Somalia where the raging 20-year armed conflict destroyed a generation of young people.

While thousands of children have been killed or injured in the conflict that began in 1991, millions more have been displaced and an overwhelming number orphaned.

The warring factions — Al-Shabaab included — have been using children as porters, spies, informants, bomb planters or suicide bombers and combatants, and the Amisom security forces have arrested and handed over hundreds of children.

Children caught in the raging conflict were left with three stark choices — join Al-Shabaab whose aim is to establish “a kingless Islamist republic”, flee to safer parts of the country or cross the border into Kenya, Ethiopia or even trek down to Southern Africa.

For over 20 years there has been a civil war raging in Somalia culminating in Islamist terrorist group Al-Shabaab taking over control of strategic points.

The ongoing battle for control over strategic areas between the Al-Shabaab and Amisom-backed TFG forces has inflicted heavy casualties not only on Al-Shabaab, but civilians have also been caught in the crossfire.

Thousands of people have been killed. The overwhelming majority of them are civilians who have nothing to do with the fighting, but were allegedly targeted by Al-Shabab-sponsored warlords in an attempt to stamp out civilian mobilisation.

It is understood that one in 15 Somalis have been uprooted because of the violence. It is also estimated that there are over 2,5 million IDPs in Somalia, one of the highest in the world alongside the Sudans. Within this panorama of internal violence and forced acquisition of properties women and children have been adversely affected.

Around 75% of the displaced population are women and children. This gender imbalance is a result of the common breakdown of families following the stresses of displacement, which in many cases cause the men to leave, and due to the fact that when the men are killed their wives and partners are forced to escape alone with their families.

This was the case for Efraka (23), whose husband was killed by Al-Shabaab militia in 2006. She was left widowed with three children — a five-year-old son and three-year-old daughter while four months pregnant. She eventually gave birth to a boy.

“We had to abandon everything we owned, all our belongings, our house and our land, and move,” she says.

“It is the women who are most vulnerable in a situation of displacement. We have to think about how we are going to find food for our children, how we are going to make sure they get an education, while also worrying about how we are going to stay safe and provide for the family.”

A volunteer Somali gynaecologist, Aisha Omar Ahmed, who fled with her family to Italy soon after the civil war broke out highlighted sustained government failure in dealing with IDPs or developing adequate responses for the needs of specific groups such as women and children.

Ahmed identified the gender dimensions of displacement which have been largely ignored, which include: lack of access to healthcare — especially access to obstetric care; fistula cases; malnutrition; high levels of domestic abuse triggered by the increased stresses brought on the family; the psychological trauma suffered by women who have lost loved ones; the alarmingly high number of women who have turned to prostitution as a means of supporting their families; and the high incidences of rape and sexual violence which have been continually used as an act of war by actors in the conflict.

This devastating injustice impelled the AU to rule in 2010 that the TFG was curtailed in its duty to provide humanitarian assistance to the country’s displaced women and children due to Al-Shabaab insurgents.

“The government now appears to be doing something, but their efforts aren’t proving effective,” United Nations Somalia deputy humanitarian co-ordinator Killian Kleinschmidt explained.

“There was no co-ordination between the programmes they offer. As a result displaced children were not able to go to school and mothers weren’t able to work as they have to look after their children during the day. Humanitarian organisations still need more financial resources to help rebuild this country. Although relatively safer in Mogadishu suicide bombers are still a menace.”

Medical practitioner Rahma Mohamed thinks the TFG should focus its efforts on the provision of childcare and helping women fight common diseases and malnutrition.

Ugandan contingent commander Brigadier Paul Lokech says Amisom have driven Al-Shabaab out of strategic points in Mogadishu, but a tough war was looming especially in Baidoa, Banadir central and southern Somalia where the Islamic insurgents have retreated to.

Hence, incoming Amisom commander Lieutenant-General Andrew Gutti urged AU member states to beef up their troops in a war that no one really knows which side will be victors.

Somalia shares a long and open border with Ethiopia and there are virtually no restrictions on travel or finding employment in the host country for Somalis.

Often parents fearing for the safety of their children encourage them to try their luck elsewhere.



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