Commentary: Somali food aid may fuel war

Special to McClatchy NewspapersAugust 17, 2011 

War and famine are costly business — and sometimes that cost means paying blackmail.

The price of feeding two million starving Somalis may be that we are forced to give U.S. food to the Islamist fighters of the Shabab holding those starving people as hostages.

These Somali fighters, who claim to represent the world of God, are refusing to allow Western donated food to reach starving people at the edge of death due to a drought. They say we should simply give the Shabab the food and they will dole it out to the hungry.

The problem is that those Somali fighters will skim much of the food aid and turn the food they rip off from international aid into money — meaning guns.

In this way, the Somali famine this year threatens to become the latest of a series of humanitarian catastrophes that turned into long conflicts fueled on foreign aid — in Afghanistan, Rwanda, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, West Africa and Palestine.

Already the Somalis have understood the awful mathematics of death. The number of dead children has already reached 30,000. And as many as 500,000 more children may die without immediate aid.

The Somali militants allow lots of horrible photos of dying babies to be filmed and then shown to Western TV audiences. They know they can count on Americans to call their congressman and say "feed those starving kids now." The U.S. government has already pledged $500 million in aid to the famine.

The Somali militants are well versed in how to extort tens of millions of dollars from shipping companies through piracy. Now they are simply holding a gun to the heads of their own people and daring the West not to give food aid.

If we don't send food, we are committing a crime as ancient as time. Failure to save lives when one can do so is akin to murder.

But the Shabab have no intention of allowing Western aid workers to distribute food. Instead they will insist the food goes to them and they will handle distribution.

Food aid has been used before as a way to fund and feed a guerrilla war.

In 1994, after Hutu militias killed 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda, a Tutsi army seized power and ended the killing. More than a million Hutus fled to refugee camps in the Congo where the militias took control. UN and other aid groups found themselves facing the same choice they face today: withhold food from civilians or give food only to see it seized by murderous militias who intended to run a guerrilla war against Rwanda.

The United States also played that game before. We funded the food and other aid that kept five million Afghan refugees alive in Pakistan during the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1989). Thousands of those refugees became mujahideen fighters and walked into Afghanistan to kill the Russian occupiers. Without U.S. refugee aid, the mujahideen could not have driven out the Russians.

The U.S. also helped support 350,000 Cambodian refugees on the Thai border from 1979 to 1991.

When I walked through those camps, I was told by the foreign aid workers that each night guerrilla commanders drafted young men to slip across the border and attack Vietnamese troops who had thrown out the murderous Khmer Rouge in 1979. U.S. and other aid allowed the Cambodian guerrillas to rest, eat well, care for their wounds and harvest a limitless supply of fresh fighters — willing or not.

There is an old truism — all's fair in love and war. But throughout history, man has tried to establish some limits to what happens in war and especially to the civilian populations. World War II presented the world with the ultimate barbarity of Nazi anti-Jewish genocide in Europe — killing six million Jewish civilians.

After the war, in 1945, the U.N. Charter laid out principles on refugees and humanitarian aid. Six years later the General Assembly established the Office of High Commissioner for Refugees to care for Holocaust survivors and others displaced by World War II.

The founding documents of the UNHCR declare that a refugee is anyone who "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country."

Clearly the Somalis fleeing to Kenya and Ethiopia and even Yemen fear they will be denied food by the Shabab unless they accept the hardline Islamist religion.

Since it was created, the UNHCR has offered protection and assistance to tens of millions of refugees. Many were able to return home, others found places to resettle but some still linger, along with their children and grandchildren, in refugee camps in Lebanon and elsewhere.

In June, the UNHCR released statistics showing there were nearly 44 million people in the world who were refugees or displaced inside their own countries by war, famine, and other causes. This was up by 400,000 from the previous year. Afghans, Iraqis, Somalis and Congolese are the largest refugee groups. The new famine migrations from Somalia threaten to create another million or more refugees.

The 2011 UNHCR budget is $1.3 billion. The United States is the largest donor nation with $300 million, followed by Japan.

But how can we stymie the desire of the Shabab to corral U.S. foreign aid and use it to prolong the conflict?

There is always the use of force. However the United States, having lost 18 soldiers in the 1993 feeding mission in Somalia, would never send U.S. troops. Instead, the U.S., Japan and Europe should provide planes, water tankers, armored cars, uniforms, small arms and money to the African Union countries willing to end the famine, the piracy and the 20-year Somali anarchy.

While we dither over that possibility — as we did in allowing the Jews and the Tutsis and Darfurians to be killed — there are some things aid agencies can do.

Food should be supplied directly to families to be eaten in massive soup kitchens, so it cannot be stolen. Refugee camps should be moved away from the frontier to avoid intimidation, theft and smuggling into the rebel groups. Food aid could be left in a trail leading away from rebel-controlled camps to the safety of the interior of the host nation — UNHCR will have to negotiate such rights. And where food is available in markets but people lack funds to buy it, small vouchers can be distributed to poor families and redeemed from shopkeepers.

Any member of the Shabab or any other clan or tribe who blocks aid or prevents the hungry from migrating in search of food should know they will be prosecuted for genocide, crimes against humanity and murder.

There will be overwhelming pressure to supply aid inside areas controlled by Shabab — no matter that some of it gets to those militants. So we must devise ways to prevent that aid from fueling the Somalia anarchy for another 20 years.


Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor,, 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 He can be reached at

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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