April 3, 2006

Aid convoys brave gunmen to reach hungry Somalis

By Marie-Louise Gumuchian

WAJID, Somalia (Reuters) - Just before he begins his
perilous drive, Cheikh Ibrahim Khalil says a prayer.

He knows the journey ahead will take him across Somalia's
barren and dangerous routes, where he will be stopped by gunmen
at numerous roadblocks.

Armed with sub-machineguns and knives, they will demand
money. Sometimes, militias loot the maize, sorghum or cooking
oil his convoy is carrying for families, hungry since drought
ravaged their crops and killed their cattle.

"Every night I pray. There are certain areas which I know
will be OK, but there are others that are more dangerous," he
said dressed in a Somali macawis, a loose-fitting sarong.

"There is always a problem with illegal checkpoints and the
groups who control different areas. Sometimes we have
agreements with them to cross their territory peacefully. You
have to negotiate and pay them."

Khalil, a father of 10 and husband to two wives, operates a
transport company working for the World Food Program, the U.N.
food agency, delivering aid in southern Somalia.

Poor rains in the past three seasons and the worst harvest
in a decade have left 1.4 million people in the south of the
Horn of Africa country short of food.

Khalil owns 20 trucks, traveling as far as 250 km (155
miles) from the WFP southwestern base in Wajid, a rare oasis of
calm in the anarchic country.

More than 2 million Somalis face food shortages and
residents fear frequent gun battles in a country where rival
warlords have held sway since military dictator Mohamed Siad
Barre was overthrown in 1991 could worsen the crisis.


Insecurity is hampering aid efforts and the WFP says
delivering food to the needy in a country that barely functions
is a logistical nightmare.

Pirates hijacked two WFP ships last year, forcing the
agency back on to the country's dangerous roads.

A U.N. aid worker was kidnapped this year and a recent food
delivery was stopped when an exchange of fire between militias
killed one person.

"(It is) very difficult, very hard, very unpredictable,
very unstable but we don't have a choice...We try to do our
best," said Zlatan Milisic, WFP country director for Somalia.
"There are too many men with guns in Somalia but that's the
environment in which these vulnerable people find themselves."

Khalil, who travels the most difficult routes, is in
constant contact with his drivers by mobile and satellite
phones. The convoys are guarded by armed men who sit on top.

"I am worried until I know the food has reached its
destination," the 53 year-old said.

He has to pay the WFP a bond, which means that, if any of
the food is looted, he has to compensate the agency.

Khalil's trucks can sometimes be held up for days while the
drivers and militias negotiate a rate. With payments ranging
from $2 to $2,000, the holdups provide a lucrative source of
income for the warlords.

Khalil's drivers recently had to pay $1,800 to pass one
checkpoint. They were stopped again and more money had to be
sent to them. A week later, they still had not arrived at their


Khalil says the worst incident was when one of his trucks
accidentally drove into a militia base. Gunmen seized the
truck, looted 40 cartons of oil and beat one of the crew.

He retrieved most of the load after his clan threatened
retaliation. Fighting broke out and two looters were killed.

One of Khalil's drivers, Mustafa Cheikh Ali, says what he
fears most are the checkpoints that quickly materialize when
his truck comes in view.

"They are not organized. They hear you coming and set up a
roadblock. Sometimes they start shooting," he said. "I get

Somalis are desperately waiting for the April-June Gu rains
to bring some relief to those who have fled their villages and
are searching for water and pasture for their animals.

U.N agencies said last week that famine could soon claim
10,000 lives a month in Somalia if the rainy season is as dry
as forecast.

Khalil fears more violence if the rains do not come. "It
will create more roadblocks," he said." As the drought goes on,
people will be more hungry and they may loot the trucks."

Although he never knows if he will come home after a
delivery, Khalil says nothing will stop him from hitting the

"This is the job I learned to do and assisting people is
part of my ambition," he said.

His family feels differently, however.

"One of my wives has asked me to stop doing this business,"
he said.