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.
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
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?
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
As it happens, the worsening of the flood situation means
that we are the last “road” convoy to reach the
Josué Anselmo is an ICRC information delegate based
in Nairobi, Kenya.
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