The first line of a recent update sent by colleagues working on Somalia has been stuck in my head all weekend: The country has been without an effective central government since 1991. That’s almost 18 years—a lifetime for countless kids who have known nothing but the chaos and fear factional fighting inflicts on everybody.
What if that’s all you knew? What would that do to your understanding of the world? What would it do to your sense of hope?
I’ve been thinking about those questions as we get ready here to hand our government over to a new president next month—a transition we have become practiced at over the centuries. We expect order with our change. Stability is our security.
But in Somalia, for the boy in one of the pictures my colleagues sent, those words—stability, security—don’t exist. He’s slumped next to the wall of a building in Mogadishu. Blasted by gunfire, the structure crumbles around him.
“A young boy sits outside the remains of a city shop sniffing glue,” says the caption.
Other pictures show the remains of the “People’s Parliament” building; the Salota Shabelle, a once-busy market building; the al-Uruba, a hotel that foreign dignitaries used to frequent; the Isbaheysiga mosque. They are eerie because of their emptiness: no people, no animals, no life in these images of a capital city, just bullet-riddled brick baking in the harsh sun. They evoke terror—and waste.
Colleagues report that because of drought, flooding, and bursts of conflict, almost half the population of Somalia now needs humanitarian help. That’s 3.2 million people who don’t have the most basic things survival requires: food, water, shelter—the essentials of life that a stable and just government should make every effort to guarantee its citizens. But even aid workers are having a hard time delivering these basics. The violence has made it too dangerous for many outsiders to venture into the country, and instead organizations like Oxfam are working through local groups. It’s work that comes with grave risk: More than 30 aid workers, most of them Somalis, have been killed already this year.
In my mind’s eye, I keep seeing that boy next to the wall, completely alone in the dust and rubble under a searing blue sky. He looks about the age of my youngest boy, who has a poster of Barack Obama, our next president, hanging on the wall over his bed with one big word on it: Hope.