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Oxfam’s Caroline Gluck writes about a recent field visit to Somalia where Oxfam and its local partners are providing life-saving assistance to families struggling in the face of famine and conflict.
It’s hard to blend in during a community visit when you’re wearing a heavy flak jacket. But here I was in Mogadishu, the conflict-ravaged capital of Somalia, dressed not in the hijab I’d just bought in Kenya, thinking it was culturally appropriate, but strapped into a bullet proof protective vest, weighing about 22 pounds, slowing down my movements as I ran about trying to film the work Oxfam is supporting and marking me out clearly as a foreigner.
I was part of Oxfam’s first visit to Somalia by non-African staffers in years. The country has been mired in civil conflict for the past 20 years, and now severe drought has pushed millions into desperation. The UN has declared six areas of the country famine-affected; more than a quarter of the population has been displaced by the crisis and conflict, with several hundred thousand fleeing into neighboring countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia. And inside the country, many more are displaced. Hundreds of thousands have taken shelter in makeshift settlements and camps around the capital, Mogadishu.
I visited some of those camps with two Oxfam partners, Hijra, which specializes in providing water, sanitation and hygiene, and SAACID (a Somali word meaning “to help”), whose therapeutic care centers for malnourished children and mothers are supported by Oxfam. But we were under strict security rules and told not to linger in one place for too long: Somalia is not like most other countries. While the security situation has improved in central Mogadishu, no one takes things for granted. People still worry about getting shot or abducted, cars being targeted, and explosive devices going off.
Gunshots often ring out – sometimes fired into the air by government forces or peacekeepers simply to clear traffic jams because there are no working traffic lights in the city.
Outside the capital, the security situation is even tougher. Fighting continues among the country’s rival groups, and thousands of people find themselves trapped between different forces, unable to freely move and access food and basic health services.
Those who have made it to Mogadishu, often after long journeys by foot as they flee conflict and famine, end up in the overcrowded makeshift camps dotting the city. They live in densely packed areas in huts made of plastic sheets or rags supported by twigs.
It was in these crammed camps that we spent some of our time seeing how Oxfam-supported projects are providing help to those desperately in need.
Clean drinking water and sanitation are priorities, especially as the rainy season is approaching and there have already been deadly outbreaks of diarrhea and cholera. Hijra, our partner, has been installing water tanks and tap stands and chlorinating water. They’ve built latrines and helped and trained communities to form volunteer water, environment, and sanitation committees to make sure the water sources aren’t contaminated. One group of people were energetically sweeping up garbage as we arrived to look at how the community got its water.
In Siliga, a camp for thousands of displaced people, I met Habiba Osman, a mother of seven children.
“There is no problem with water now,” she said. “We have plenty of water all day long.”
She explained that so far, apart from a worrying outbreak of measles, disease outbreaks had largely been kept under control.
“We have been given chlorinated water, jerry cans, and soap. And we’ve been given hygiene training. We don’t have many problems here, thanks to God,” she said. “But there is a lot of hunger. We don’t have proper food distribution but we do have enough water.”
But we had lingered long enough: It was time to get back into our vehicle to reach our next location.