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Somalia: a cruelty the world ignores
Violence in Somalia has created a humanitarian crisis without equal, but it is being barely noticed

By Sally Healy
Wednesday, December 05, 2007

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As tens of thousands more frightened and exhausted people fled the terrors of Mogadishu last week, a Somali community leader condemned the international community "for watching the cruelty in Somalia like a film and not bothering to help". He was mistaken. The international community has barely been watching the cruelty in Somalia at all.

Life in Mogadishu has become even more intolerable since Ethiopia intervened last Christmas to install the transitional government of President Abdullahi Yusuf. Ethiopia had been alarmed by the aggressive rhetoric of the Islamic Courts government that had taken over the Somali capital. It had seen off the warlords and brought unprecedented order to Mogadishu. But threats of jihad against its powerful neighbour provoked a muscular response. The US stood by its regional ally, declaring that Somalia must not become a terrorist haven, and mounting a missile attack on the Islamist forces for good measure.

The Ethiopians calculated a lesser risk in having Yusuf in charge. Having installed him, they promised to withdraw quickly, agreeing to remain only while an African peacekeeping force was mounted. Lord Triesman, the minister for Africa, praised Ethiopia for creating conditions for peace and stability. British ministers were pleased to describe the new state of affairs as a window of opportunity for Somalia.

The optimism rested on highly dubious assumptions. It presupposed that the transitional government possessed legitimacy, and had the capacity to govern. It also assumed too easily that an African peacekeeping force would materialise and Ethiopian forces would leave. None of this has come to pass.

The core problem was that Somalis everywhere were appalled to see Ethiopian troops on the streets of their capital. What kind of government, they asked, needed the protection of a foreign force against its own citizens? Opposition to the Ethiopian military presence soon manifested itself and an insurgency was born.

Ethiopian forces launched massive military attacks on various quarters of the city in March and April, designed to root out extremists. Their complete disregard, and that of the insurgents, for the population's safety has been condemned by human rights organisations. But the international community took all too little notice of events in a city that was just too dangerous to visit or report on. Humanitarian organisations quietly started to provide for the 300,000 people who fled Mogadishu and established makeshift settlements under the trees. They are still there.

There were other consequences of Ethiopia's rampage through the city. It hardened the insurgents' resolve, and made new enemies among the clans targeted; it deepened opposition to the transitional government, in whose name the operations were conducted; it prompted the flight of the business people so vital for any normalisation; and it alarmed African nations who might have considered joining the small Ugandan contingent to provide security and enable the Ethiopian forces to leave.

The insurgency has deepened and spread. The tactics are those of Iraq, but with more roadside bombs than suicide bombs, and a growing tally of assassinations - most directed against office holders of the transitional government, but journalists, humanitarian workers and civil society leaders are all at risk. A government-sponsored reconciliation conference came and went, without result. A prime minister has resigned. The transitional government seems not only powerless but irrelevant, and wholly dependent on Ethiopia.

A renewed crackdown in Mogadishu has caused hundreds more deaths and pushed another 200,000 people into destitution on the roadsides. Somalia is now the worst humanitarian situation in the world. The number of internally displaced has reached a million. Insecurity and extortion are putting untold strain on the efforts to provide humanitarian assistance.

We cannot say we were not warned. Six months ago the UN's head of humanitarian affairs highlighted the deplorable conditions of the displaced. He observed that more people had been displaced from Mogadishu in the previous two months than anywhere else in the world, and that a political solution was the only way to resolve the crisis: "Otherwise I fear the worst."

The worst has now come. What are we waiting for?

Sally Healy OBE is an associate fellow of the Africa Programme at Chatham House, the foreign affairs thinktank chathamhouse.org.uk

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