I arrived at work this morning per my usual routine; ate a banana as I rode the bus in to Manhattan, stopped at convenient store to pick up coffee and a bowl of Kellogg’s To-Go Cereal, and sat at my desk eating and drinking as I scanned by Twitter Feed for interesting news. Upon doing so, I saw that Somalia was trending. Intrigued by the possibility of more modern day pirate action, I clicked on the topic, and to my horror, all of the Somalia hashtags (#) were preceded by the word FAMINE. I read further to discover that the United Nations (UN) has officially declared a famine in the East Horn of Africa, in places such as Bakool and Lower Shabelle.
Not only is this the first time the country has seen famine in 19 years, but it is also the first famine of the 21st Century. What happened to the UN Millennium Goals? Just 3 ½ years shy of the 2015 deadline to “Eradicate Extreme Hunger and Poverty,” the very first goal set in place, and more than 30% of children are suffering from acute malnutrition, with two adults or four children dying of hunger each day for every group of 10,000 people in Somalia.
Even worse than reading the facts is seeing the pictures. I sat paralyzed, unable to bring myself to pick up my spoon from my Frosted Mini-Wheats as images of starving babies and children with sunken eyes flash the screen. I know things are bad in Somalia, but I can’t help but wonder how did the situation escalated to the degree of famine?
Conflict, Drought & Poverty
In 2009, a ban on foreign aid agencies was imposed by Al-Shabab, an al-Qaeda-affiliated group which controls large parts of south and central Somalia. Although Al-Shabab has recently allowed limited access to the territories, those seeking to help need further safety guarantees that armed groups will allow staff to reach those in dire need. The bottom line is that even those who want to help, like UN and US aid organizations, are unable to do so because of all the conflict in the region.
Making matters worse, the most severe drought in over half a century is plaguing East Africa, with an estimated 10 million people having been affected. Lack of rainfall has led to widespread devastation of farmlands, causing failed harvests and livestock deaths. Food and water prices have soared, with families struggling to get even one meal a day.
In an area where people depend on farming for survival, mothers desperate to feed their children are walking more than 6 days with no food to find help. Neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia have seen a surge in refugees, with more than 166,000 desperate Somalis, including 70,000 children, forced to leave their drought-stricken homes to seek temporary reprieve in overcrowded refugee camps. NPR reports that the area straddling Somalia, Ethiopia and northern Kenya has been dubbed “the triangle of death.”
Mark Bowden, the U.N.'s humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, issued a statement saying “in the last few months, tens of thousands of Somalis have died as a result of causes related to malnutrition, the majority of whom were children.” Those who do survive can be damaged for life by lack of food and nutrition in their developmental years.
What can be done?
Every day we take it for granted that most of us living in the developed world can simply use our money to go buy food at a local store or market. Imagine having no food, no money, and no access to clean water supplies. People in East Africa and other parts of the world are living like this everyday, hoping and praying that they and their children make it to the next.
By declaring a famine, the UN hopes to galvanize international attention and support. Please strongly consider making a donation to the following aid groups and organizations that are working in the region: USAID, CARE, Save the Children, UNICEF, and the World Food Program. Every little bit helps make a difference in the lives of a starving population.
An article published earlier today regarding the Arab Spring in Syria and Libya said that " while adults fight for political power children and adolescents are faced with an increasing number of dangers." True - children are in danger of landmines and other "unexploded ordinances," and the fate of many are almost too common in that they are "killed in crossfire, lose their parents, become refugees or go hungry."
But, with particular reference to Syria, one must not lose sight of the fact that children are the cause, not just the effect(ed).
The face of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib has, in fact, become the face of the opposition movement in Syria. Hamza's family defied threats from police and made his story known:
Hamza was always aware of those less fortune than him, and would often ask his parents to give money to the poor and repressed. A report published in Aljazeera quoted a friend of Hamza's as saying: I remember once he wanted to give someone 100 Syrian Pounds ($2), and his family said it was too much. But Hamza said, 'I have a bed and food while that guy has nothing.' And so he persuaded his parents to give the poor man the 100.
Young Hamza, however, was evidently not shown the same compassion when he was detained by police at a protest in Saida, 10km east of Daraa, on April 29th. When Hamza was finally returned to his family almost a month later on May 24th, all that was left of him was an almost indistinguishable, mutilated corpse.
A video released to Aljazeera and now circulating on YouTube depicts Hamza's swollen body with lacerations, bullet holes, bruises and burns, a broken neck and severed genitals. His wounds are consistent with techniques of torture that have been documented by Human Rights Watch in the past three months since the Arab Spring in Syria began, including the use of electric shock devices and of being whipped with cables.
But Hazma isn't the only youth affected; lest we forget that the Arab Spring first began when protesters gathered in the southern city of Daraa following the police torture of youths who were caught writing what was deemed anti-regime graffiti. These youths were also detained and held illegally for about a month while their parents were told nothing of their whereabouts and denied any type of legal process.
Torture, abuse, and even the death of one child among this group of children ages 10-15 set off the first wave of protests in Daraa on February 17th. Despite the brutal force of police and fear of imprisonment or even death, almost four months later the protests continue. Indeed, Hazma’s death and the torture of his fellow adolescents have served as the catalyst that has propelled the Arab Spring and strengthened the rebellion in Syria.
In honor of Hazma’s death, the scheduled protest on June 3rd was adequately themed Marching for Children. While an even greater crackdown seemed likely, something extraordinary happened as flags depicting the face of Hazma waved throughout the crowd: "Police and soldiers turned on their commanders, and control of the town slipped out of government hands.” Associated Press
Despite the regime’s attempts to pit regions, sects and ethnicities against one another, the movement has taken on a national character. And the repression has not deterred the masses, who each week take to the streets, knowing well and good that those among them may not survive the afternoon.
To those soldiers who mutinied against their commanders, to the people who participated in demonstrations and strikes, and most importantly, to the adolescents who were brave enough to stand up against the regime, it is because of you that the Arab Spring in Syria has captured the attention of the rest of the world, inspired those around you, and lives on.
Heather Martino is a recent graduate of the Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University.