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Somalia aid passes through dangers to reach families

    MERKA, Somalia — The handful of grain Abiye Omar clutches in her skinny hand has traveled a long way from the fertile fields of midwestern America to this desolate Somali seaside town.
    It has sailed on a relief ship through seas plagued by pirates and sharks, then been carried ashore by porters into the hands of aid workers who have to contend with bandits, arsonists, insurgents and even the Somali government’s own forces to get it to the hungry.
    ‘‘Somalia is without a doubt one of the toughest places for us to work in the world,’’ said World Food Program spokesman Marcus Prior. ‘‘Anytime you have to worry about security the cost of delivery goes up. In Somalia, we worry about security all the time.’’
    The United Nations says this Horn of Africa nation faces Africa’s worst humanitarian crisis. The harvest has failed in Somalia’s Shabelle region, traditionally the breadbasket of the country, after the worst drought in 13 years. That has put even more pressure on families sheltering some of the 600,000 people who have fled fighting in the capital between Islamic insurgents and Ethiopian troops backing shaky Somali government forces.
    Like many of her neighbors, Omar has taken in a relative, her daughter, seeking refuge from the violence in Mogadishu that has claimed thousands of lives this year. Another daughter arrived seeking food after her crops failed in the hinterland. Omar’s reed and wattle compound, fenced by scrawny thorn bushes, is home to five children and 16 grandchildren. When three-month-old Aisha cries with hunger, her wrinkled grandmother rocks her and sings, drip-feeding the baby water in a futile effort to calm her cries.
    ‘‘A mother cannot sleep when her children are awake with hunger,’’ Omar said. But getting food to families like hers is tough.
    Following three attacks by pirates on WFP ships this year, few ship owners are willing to risk their crews and cargo to deliver aid, and those that do demand exorbitant prices. Since last month, the merchant ships that deliver 80 percent of WFP’s aid have been accompanied by French warships, and teams of elite French commandos camp on their decks, machine-guns at the ready.
    Of the two ships escorted by the French navy ship Premier Maitre L’Her last week, one managed to evade an attack last May — although a guard was killed during the fighting — while the other was held for over a month last year.
    ‘‘There were three small boats and a big one, which tried to shoot us with a (rocket propelled grenade),’’ recalled Nasser Musa, chief officer of the MV Torgelow. The pirates demanded a $3 million ransom, but backed down after the ship’s Somali contractors sent an army of bodyguards to the pirate camp to do battle.
    Evading the pirates is only the beginning.
    Somalia has had no functioning government since 1991, when rival clan leaders overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and then turned on each other. When an Islamic group took power in parts of the south and the capital last year, the weakened transitional government invited in Ethiopian troops to dislodge the Islamists. The Islamists regrouped with support from Ethiopia’s archenemy, Eritrea, and have been fighting an Iraq-style insurgency against the government ever since. Several aid workers have been killed by stray bullets and mortars this year, and the years of fighting have devastated Somalia’s infrastructure, making aid delivery both difficult and dangerous.
    Last week, ships coming from Kenya headed not to chaotic Mogadishu but to the nearby port of Merka. All that remains of the disintegrated pier is a series of jagged metal poles biting into the turquoise sea. The rusty wreck of a cargo ship run aground on the shoals warns the aid ships not to come too close. Instead, a rickety flotilla of small boats sets out to meet the ships, ferrying sacks of grain through rough seas toward hundreds of porters waiting neck-deep in waters where aggressive bull sharks hunt.
    Once the food is piled on the beach, aid workers organize its storage and transport through roadblocks manned by hungry gunmen, their teeth rotten and eyes bloodshot from chewing qat. In the chaos of Somalia, the ragged gunmen can be freelance bandits, members of a clan-based militia or even work for the government. The cost of moving a truck through roadblocks along the 20 miles from Mogadishu to the refuge town of Afgoye has shot up to $475, and there have been 15 incidents of looting from WFP convoys this year.
    Because of the instability, WFP uses local contractors such as Abakr Abdi Shire to move aid. He pays a bond for the value of the food which is only returned once it has been safely delivered. Shire has lost seven employees since he began working for WFP, five of them killed at checkpoints and the others by bandits.
    ‘‘We knew all of them,’’ he said sadly, recalling a kindhearted friend known for his masculine charm and stylish dressing, who was shot defending an aid shipment earlier this year.
    If the trucks haven’t broken down, the route hasn’t been blocked by fighting or the food has escaped looters, the most dangerous part of the operation begins: distribution. At least 20 people have been killed at food distribution sites this year. The perpetrators and their motives have not always been clear.
    Aid workers say the Somali government has inflamed tensions by describing its displaced citizens as terrorists and questioning why humanitarian agencies feed them. The agencies acknowledge that a few armed insurgents may be in the camps, but say it is impossible to individually screen the 1.5 million Somalis who need aid.
    In October, the head of WFP in Somalia, Idris Osman, was dragged from his compound by scores of heavily armed government security forces and kept for almost a week without explanation. WFP suspended its operations until he was freed.
    Despite all the difficulties, last week’s food shipment at least reached the hungry.
    It meant 40-year-old Faduma Hassan needn’t spend her husband’s 50 cents in weekly earnings on food and instead could buy medicine for her sick four-year-old son.
    For Nurto Ahmed, it meant her 17-year-old son could re-enroll in Quranic school. He had dropped out, too hungry to concentrate.
    And for Abiye Osman, the sack of grain at her feet meant a long stretch of quiet nights.
    ‘‘Tonight it’s not necessary to go without food,’’ she said. ‘‘Tonight it will be peaceful.’’

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