Commentary: Famine equals genocide in Somalia

Special to McClatchy NewspapersAugust 9, 2011 

Once again, the whole world watches as famine stalks the countries of the Horn of Africa. But in one of them — Somalia — that famine is genocide.

Islamist militant groups such as the Shabab that control vast areas of Somalia have been killing aid workers and blocking hungry Somalis from either receiving donated food or escaping to Kenya where they could be fed with international aid.

Some 500,000 children are at risk of death in the coming weeks.

The death of every person due to denial of aid and to denial of the right to flee from famine is the equivalent of genocide.

We strive hard to meet the responsibilities set forth by the United Nations to protect civilians in times of war, mass migrations, internal conflict, drought, earthquakes and other natural and man-made disasters.

Yet no one seems ready to call the refusal of the Shabab to allow aid deliveries an act of genocide.

Using that word is objected to by three groups:

  • Survivors of genocide such as Jews, Armenians, Cambodians, Bosnians, Rwandan Tutsis, Darfurians, and others may fear the impact of their suffering will be diluted.

  • U.S. and other world leaders may fear that by calling it genocide they are obligated by U.N. covenants to act and spend treasure and blood to halt the deaths. (Fear not — Colin Powell called Darfur genocide but the United States only used diplomacy and some money to back a pitifully weak African anti-genocide force — the killings went on for years).

  • African and Muslim leaders, ever sensitive that the former colonial Western nations still look down on them as primitive barbarians, absolutely refuse to call denial of food or blocking escape to 2 million starving people an act of primitive barbarism.

    To this observer, it seems that when the Shabab blocks aid to the starving Somalis under its control that is not any more civilized that shoving them into gas chambers.

    And when the people fleeing famine at the rate of 1,500 per day, walking for 30 days or more over desiccated landscapes offering neither water nor shade, are blocked by the Shabab and routed into concentration camps so they will not partake of evil Western aid, this is no different from the roundups of Muslims in Bosnia, Armenians in Turkey and Jews in Poland.

    Clearly the world is having difficulty dealing with these recurrent African genocides. When I was in Tunis during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, I asked Salim Salim, then the head of the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union) what could be done to stop the slaughter of the Tutsis.

    He told me — and I reported it on the front page of the Washington Times — that he had 5,000 soldiers committed by African countries ready to move at once. All they needed was U.S. logistics and money to make it happen — planes, vehicles, equipment.

    "The ball is in the U.S. court," he said.

    U.S. officials simply dragged their feet — to our undying shame — claiming they needed to repaint armored cars from desert camouflage to jungle green. Might as well have painted them black for hearses.

    Of course, the U.S. was burned out at the time. It lost 18 soldiers when a U.S. Blackhawk helicopter was shot down in Mogadishu, Somalia one year earlier — also trying to provide food in a famine. The American public was gun shy of involvement in another African conflict — and remains so today.

    Our attitude is not very different from British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlin who on Sept. 27, 1938, signed away Czechoslovakia to Hitler, saying it was not right to go to war here "because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing." (Two of those people were my grandparents, Hugo and Pauline Barber, who vanished in the death camps.)

    Of course the United States sent 500,000 troops when oil rich Kuwait was invaded by Iraq. But for 800,000 Tutsi victims we couldn't pledge more than some cans of paint for armored cars which arrived too late to do anything.

    Yes, Somalia is wild and dangerous. It is ungoverned and lawless. It lacks basic systems of justice, police, education, media, health and the other instruments of modern civilization.

    But this is the 21st century and the world must intervene.

    The AU can provide troops — not 15,000 but 300,000 troops. The United States, NATO, Japan, and Russia can send the logistical support — armored cars, uniforms, food, ammo, communications, salaries and helicopters. The U.S. Africa Command has been laying the groundwork for cooperation with African military and civilian leaders. Now those connections can save millions of lives.

    The Shabab must be crushed and tried as war criminals for crimes against humanity.

    At the same time, the Somali pirates that plunder the high seas must also be crushed. In 1803, the fledgling U.S. government sent warships to battle African pirates. How can we allow them to kidnap and kill today? Send in a robust AU force to deal set up a civilian — military — political administration capable of restraining the clans, the militias and the religious sects.

    There are good people in Somalia. They need our help before it is too late.

    This is a place where the West can make common cause with the good Muslims of the world. Let Saudi Arabia — just across the Red Sea from Somalia — supply troops and logistics and cash to end the genocide.

    And in fighting this famine-genocide, by fighting the anarchic evil men behind it, we can make a statement that could reverberate in other violent corners of the world: that there is a world-wide international humanitarian law and it’s will shall be carried out by those of us who are able to contribute to the enforcement of that law.

    ABOUT THE WRITER

    Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor, Salon.com, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. From 2003 to August, 2010, he was senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency. His photojournalism book — GROUNDTRUTH: The Third World at Work at play and at war — is to be published in 2011 by de-MO.org. He can be reached at benbarber2@hotmail.com.

    McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.

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