Many Somali famine victims afraid to return home

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In this Nov. 21, 2011 photo, residents harvest crops at a community-run farm, which receives assistance by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), near Dolo in Somalia.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

DOLO, Somalia — Lush patches of green dot this once-barren land, allowing goats and camels to graze. A nearby field is full of large, purple onions thanks to a U.N.-funded project.

Four months after the U.N. declared famine in much of Somalia, some regions are beginning a slow recovery from a disaster that has killed tens of thousands of people.

But many Somalis — women, mostly — living in a stick-hut camp in this border town say they won’t return home because they’re afraid of hard-line Islamic militants stalking the country and of being unable to feed themselves and their children.

The U.N. reduced the number of famine zones in Somalia from six to three and said the number of people at risk of starvation has dropped from 750,000 to 250,000.

Since the July 20 famine declaration, the U.N. has received $800 million in aid for Somalia, and the U.S. has provided $650 million to drought-stricken Horn of Africa nations, including Somalia. Still, the fate of 13 million people affected by East Africa’s worst drought in decades remains in doubt.

“We are just at the beginning of a phase of a potential recovery if everything goes well,” said Luca Alinovi, the head of the Somalia office of the U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization.

“We are very far away from the end of the famine,” he stressed, saying it will likely be a year before anyone is sure the danger has passed.

Drought wiped out much of Somalia’s crops, and herds of camels and goats perished. But the arrival of seasonal rains has pumped new life into Dolo, a river town on the Ethiopian border.

Now, small herds of goats frolic near Dolo’s yellow flowering bushes. Camels munch on green shrubs outside town, and donkeys drink puddles of muddy water.

A camp on the edge of town is home to 5,000 people, mostly women and children who fled the famine in other parts of Somalia. Somalis have also crowded into refugee camps in the capital, Mogadishu.

A Somali U.N. worker, Abdi Nur, said many of the men at the Dolo camp have returned home to plant crops. But many of the women said they won’t join them.

“I don’t want to go back,” said Hafida Mamood, 62. “There’s no security and no animals. We don’t want to go anywhere. The food is here.”

Other women nodded in agreement. “I want to stay here because of the security,” said Fahim Mohamed Mahmood, a mother of four.

Nearby, barefoot children played, ducking behind the colorful robes of the women as aid workers and journalists moved through the camp, dotted with rows of stick huts draped with with tarps, blankets and cloth. In the distance, people filled large water containers at a central water point.

Challiss McDonough, a World Food Program spokeswoman, said the displaced Somalis “have to feel physically secure and have a livelihood that will allow them to make ends meet” in their home regions.

Somalia’s famine has been made more severe by al-Shabab militants who control the country’s south and have impeded the work of aid agencies, including WFP.

Kenyan forces moved into southern Somalia last month to battle al-Shabab, and some Somalis have fled that fighting. The military intervention is also preventing some food supplies from being delivered.

Alinovi said the conflict could keep food production down, despite the new rains. This rainy season, if all goes well, will only supply about 30 percent of Somalia’s food needs.

“Where conflict increases, farmers do not go to plant. They stay out of their field. If this happens things will get worse and worse,” Alinovi said.

Kenyan troops in Somalia are trying to move toward the al-Shabab-controlled port town of Kismayo, but their advance has been slowed by rain. Ethiopian troops over the last week have also moved into Somalia.

Security is not a concern for the refugees in Dolo, which is under the security umbrella of Ethiopia.

On Monday, Alinovi visited an FAO-funded irrigation project on the outskirts of Dolo that has allowed 20 families to plant and harvest.

Keynan Ibrahim, a 20-year-old Somali who took part in the project, said he helped clear trees and bushes from the fields in early 2010 so food could be planted.

“They were able to continue to produce even during the drought. They’ve been selling their food ... and they didn’t need any support from others,” he said. “This is a very good example of what should be happening all across Somalia.”