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Diary from the field Somalia


By Josué Anselmo
In early November, after torrential rains struck the Horn of Africa, the Juba and Shabelle rivers burst, submerging vast areas along both valleys. The human toll was catastrophic – tens of thousands of people were left homeless, scrambling for overcrowded pieces of dry land and falling prey to diseases such as malaria, cholera and respiratory infections. An ICRC team set out to reach 4,000 people in Marere trapped by floodwater on a portion of dyke, with no access to drinking water, medical care or food.

Friday 28 November

We arrive in Mogadishu, the Somali capital, and immediately head south for the town of Jilib, where the Juba and Shabelle valleys meet. On the road out of Mogadishu, there is a burst of Kalashnikov fire close to the convoy. Fortunately, we are not the target; a man perched on the top of a truck coming in the opposite direction dives off to take cover. Our escort begins to get edgy and draws the convoy closer together. Somalia is still a conflict zone.

The ICRC team comprises a health delegate, who is going to assess the medical situation of the flood victims and hand out medical supplies, and myself, the ICRC’s spokesperson for the Somalia operation. Two independent journalists have joined our convoy in the hope of publicizing the plight of the flood victims to the outside world. As always in Somalia, because of the prevailing insecurity, we are accompanied by an armed escort.

 

 

 

Saturday 29 November

After another 22 hours’ drive, we are still 60km from Jilib. Suddenly, the road turns into a river of mud. Daunted, one of the Somali drivers refuses to go on. Under a lowering sky, in the middle of nowhere, we must find the means to persuade him. Knowing how little assistance has been delivered to the people in Marere and the desperate situation they are in, we feel we just have to reach them.

After some argument, the driver agrees and we resume our route, only to be stopped further on by a real river this time, stretching ahead of us for some 5km in a place where there was an asphalt road a few days earlier. We make camp for the night and decide to proceed on foot the following day. That evening, via a satellite phone, it is the head of delegation back in Nairobi that we have to convince that it is safe enough for us to go on.

In the night, the alarm is raised: a number of lions have been spotted close by. The floods have disrupted the habits of animals as much as those of people. The generator is started up to power a neon lamp to light up the camp, while eight armed men are put on guard to keep the lions at bay.

Sunday 30 November

At dawn, we set off on foot, carrying medicines, baggage and drinking water. We keep to the river bank, which is covered in dense foliage, which all of us fear may be harbouring crocodiles. At times we sink up to our waists in holes full of muddy water, but the boxes of medicines carried on our heads remain dry.

When we reach firmer ground, we find five trucks heading in the opposite direction, waiting to be pulled through the flooded stretch of road by tractor. The trucks are steel monsters, 5 metres high, on their way to Mogadishu. We requisition two of them in case one gets bogged down further on. And, sure enough, before long one of them is stuck in the mud up to its radiator. The second suffers a similar fate. We have no choice but to continue once again on foot.

Progress is slow: a stretch of dry ground, followed by a river, which we find a boat to cross, followed by more kilo-metres on foot and another boat across a lake formed by the floods. Then we hitch a ride on a jeep which takes us a further 20 km. At last, as evening approaches, we arrive in Jilib.

 
 

Monday 1 December

At 10a.m., travelling by boat, we reach the 4,000 people trapped by the water and distribute antimalarials, rehydration salts and dressings.

The medical situation is appalling. Malaria and respiratory infections are rife among the adults and conjunctivitis has taken hold among the children, already weakened by diarrhoea and malnutrition. The group consists mainly of women and children, dressed in rags. The old and the very young, being the most vulnerable, were the first to succumb.

I observe one of the small children, about two years old. His distended stomach is a sure sign of bilharzia, his emaciated limbs give clear evidence of malnutrition, and his eyes are gummed up by conjunctivitis. Like a tear, a fly runs across the child’s eyes. He has no strength left to brush it away. A woman gazes at her village, which is disappearing under the water a few metres further below. “That was my house,” she says, pointing to a protruding straw roof.

Nobody speaks in the boat as we make our way back, leaving the 4,000 people stranded behind us. It is a shared silence, not an oppressive one, and lasts over an hour – brought on by a feeling of helplessness, sadness and bitterness, but anger too. The problems of access to these people are so enormous; it’s easier to cope with a town under siege where the belligerents are identifiable. You negotiate a safe passage with the parties involved in the conflict and drive on through. Here, how can you negotiate with water?

Tuesday 2 December

The return journey proves no easier, but now that we have accomplished our mission, it doesn’t seem to matter so much. At one point we run out of drinking water and have to quench our thirst with water trapped in the folds of each other’s waterproofs, even as the rain chills us to the bone. Then we spend four hours in the wet, trapped just like the people on the dyke by floodwater and the approaching night, until a huge tractor tows us to safety, pulling our Land Cruiser along the surface of the water for two hours, unreal in the thick darkness.

As it happens, the worsening of the flood situation means that we are the last “road” convoy to reach the region for
several weeks.

 


Josué Anselmo
Josué Anselmo is an ICRC information delegate based in Nairobi, Kenya.



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