One analyst posed the rhetorical question: “How, precisely, does allowing hundreds of thousands of captive fellow Muslims to starve advance any Islamic or Somali cause?”
It is about control. A weakened population of citizens who must devote all of their energy to securing their next rations is in no position to fight back. By controlling access to aid, al-Shabaab keeps the remaining population at its mercy, and the group can attempt to purge the country of its enemies, real and imagined, and Christians, to whom it has denied aid.
For its part, al-Shabaab has consistently denied the famine exists, calling it a conspiracy to drive Somalis toward “Christian” influences.
“Islamist Shebaab push starving Somalis back into famine zone,” from Agence France-Presse, September 23:
Somalia’s Al Qaeda-linked rebels said yesterday they were moving over 12,000 starving families back into famine zones they had fled, where the UN has warned they will die without help.
Draconian aid restrictions imposed by the extremist Shebaab are blamed for turning harsh drought across the Horn of Africa into famine in the areas they control, with 750,000 people at risk of death in coming months, the UN has said.
“The mujahedeen fighters, in their bid to help people displaced by drought, started working on plans to send them back home where they will be assisted, God willing,” said Sheik Mahad Abu-Safiya, a senior Shebaab official.
The families, estimated to number at least 50,000 people, were “taken back to their homes with packages to feed them for three months,” he added. Witnesses said the packages included rice, maize and cooking oil.
However, the Shebaab have refused most international assistance, and blocked people fleeing drought and famine in the Bay and Bakool regions from travelling in search of aid to Mogadishu, where relief efforts are centred.
Crowded trucks began moving people late on Wednesday from camps in and around the Shebaab-held town of Baidoa back to their original villages, up to 50km southwest of the town, officials and witnesses said.
“The process has started and we have moved the first of the 12,000 displaced families to their original locations,” Mohamed Walid, another Shebaab official, told reporters.
“Most of the displaced people were moved from a big camp at Baidoa airport, they were taken on long trucks,” said witness Osmail Mohamed.
“I have seen people returning onboard trucks with food distributed to them by the Shebaab,” said Abdulahi Derow, who said the food they were given was “enough for a month.”
Local aid workers said the Shebaab had ordered them to help move people back to the villages they had fled from.
“The Shebaab group started sending people back to their homes, and gave them some food,” said one Somali aid worker said, asking not to be named. “But people are still in need of help.”
Shebaab fighters last month pulled out of positions in the war-torn capital Mogadishu where they were battling the weak Western-backed government, but they still control swathes of south and central Somalia.
The UN has declared six regions in south Somalia famine zones, the majority in Shebaab-controlled areas.
Drought, high food prices and fighting in Somalia have increased the number of those in need of humanitarian assistance across the Horn of Africa to 13.3mn, according to the UN.
Access to Shebaab areas is a major concern, with a group of 20 international and Somali aid agencies calling on Wednesday for talks with the Shebab to create “free passage of assistance.”
The agencies warned the situation was the worst they had ever seen in decades of work in Somalia, and was expected to deteriorate further with rains next month likely to worsen conditions for disease.
“Never before have we faced such acute suffering with so many lives at stake,” they warned in a joint letter. “Somalia is at a turning point.”
Ken Menkhaus, professor at Davidson College in the US state of North Carolina, called for a “diplomatic surge” from the “West and the Islamic world” to ensure both the Shebaab and the Western-backed government allow access to affected people.
Writing in a paper yesterday for the Washington-based Enough pressure group, Menkhaus called the Shebaab an “Islamic Khmer Rouge, in which an armed group with a deeply twisted interpretation of the faith presides over the mass deaths of its own people.”
The Shebaab “must be made to justify its policy to Islamic leaders and scholars,” Menkhaus added.
One would think there would be a wave of outrage and outpouring of assistance from nearby Islamic countries. Perhaps what Mogadishu needs to do is find a way to blame Israel.
“How, precisely, does allowing hundreds of thousands of captive fellow Muslims to starve advance any Islamic or Somali cause?”