January 17, 2006

Militia roadblocks keep food from hungry in Somalia

By Guled Mohamed

WAJID, Somalia (Reuters) - When Habiba Hassan's food ran
out, she fed her four children on boiled bones and aran, a
bitter leaf that grows in Somalia. She blamed her husband for
the family's plight, and not just because he abandoned her.

Hassan said her husband was with a militia group manning a
roadblock near the Wajid refugee camp where she lives in a
small shack made from plastic bags, dirty rags and pieces of
cardboard box since fleeing fighting in southern Baidoa.

"He is with the militia who are holding the (World Food
Program) food aid that was coming our way," she said last
month. "He does not care about us."

The 14-truck aid convoy was the first in years to risk the
land route from the Kenyan port of Mombasa to Wajid, a town in
barren and dangerous south-central Somalia.

The United Nations' food agency was forced back onto
Somalia's potholed and perilous roads after pirates hijacked
two of its ships last year, complicating efforts to get food
aid to people hit by years of conflict and a severe drought.

Somalia slipped into chaos in 1991 when militias ousted
dictator Mohamed Siad Barre. An interim government was formed
at peace talks in 2004, but has proved fractious and fragile,
unable to rein in powerful warlords and their militias.

Hundreds of roadblocks, where gunmen extort money from
passing drivers, are dotted across the capital Mogadishu and
along roads and dirt tracks throughout the country, providing a
major source of income for the warlords.

Militia members, armed with guns and sometimes with
double-edged knives, erect wooden barriers to stop trucks and
buses. If the cargo is valuable, they may steal it.

They use the money they extort to buy khat, a stimulant
commonly chewed by Somalis. Once high, they become reckless.
Gun battles often break out and people are regularly killed.

The presence of these ad hoc barricades has angered many
Somalis, like those waiting for the food aid in Wajid.

"These militia are merciless. Why should they hold food
brought to their own people?" asked Ali Marid, who heads the
camp where Hassan lives with 730 Somali families.

"Ten people have already died of hunger this month."


Political wrangling is still undermining peace efforts,
despite the return home last year of the fledgling government
led by President Abdullahi Yusuf.

But there are some signs of tentative progress. In early
January, two factions in the government agreed to convene
parliament in Somalia within 30 days -- offering hope that
efforts to rebuild the country might be revived.

A severe drought has deepened the misery of people in a
country that barely functions. The United Nations said last
month that 1 million people were in dire need of food aid.

WFP says the roadblocks coupled with piracy at sea are
making distribution extremely difficult.

"Surely what do we do when such people are refusing the
food passage?" said Zlatan Milisic, WFP country director in

"Sometimes militia open fire at convoys without warning,"
said Said Sharif Mohamed, a WFP logistics officer in Wajid.

Aid agencies sometimes travel with their own security but
that can be risky as it can increase the danger of ambush by
militia seeking guns and ammunition.

The WFP aid for Wajid did finally reach those in need in
the town some 125 miles northwest of Mogadishu. The militia in
Yurkud, west of Wajid, held the convoy for nearly two days but
let it go after they were paid.


The roadblocks have infuriated people across the Horn of
Africa nation. Bus drivers have gone on strike, people have
thrown rocks at checkpoints in Mogadishu and truckers have set
up their own barricades to halt traffic and cut militias'

In Wajid, residents decided to kill any gunmen seen
operating roadblocks, district commissioner Isak Nur Isak said.

"Three militia operating a checkpoint on the outskirts of
Wajid were shot dead by our police forces recently," he said.

Somalia's Minister of Information Mohamed Abdi Hayr said
roadblocks were endangering millions of lives but that some
were operated by people desperate to make a living.

"If you are to force them to stop ... you need to give them
jobs, food and then you can disarm them," he said, adding that
he hoped the new agreement to convene parliament would
encourage donors to free up funds for Somalia.

"The government expects to receive the aid which was
promised to it and we will this year do something about the
checkpoint menace," he told Reuters.

Welcome words for the people like Nuney Matho, whose
1-year-old son died of hunger in the Wajid camp.

"My worry is that I will lose my other two children," she
said pointing to her son's fresh grave.

"These militia are heartless."

(For more information about emergency relief visit Reuters
AlertNet http://www.alertnet.org email: [email protected];
+44 207 542 5791)