MOGADISHU, Somalia – A World Food Program handout of corn rations to Somalis trying to survive a famine turned deadly Friday after government troops opened fire, killing at least seven, witnesses said.
Residents of Mogadishu’s largest famine refugee camp accused government soldiers of starting the chaos by trying to steal some of the 290 tons of dry rations that aid workers were trying to distribute there. Then refugees joined in the scramble, prompting soldiers to open fire, the witnesses said.
“They fired on us as if we were their enemy,” said refugee Abidyo Geddi. “When people started to take the food then the gunfire started and everyone was being shot.”
The chaos underscores the dangers and challenges of getting help to a nation that has been essentially ungoverned for two decades and now has a severe famine sweeping through it. There are 9,000 African Union soldiers in the capital, but their main mission is to fight al-Qaida linked Islamists, not safeguard humanitarian aid.
Aid workers are puzzling over how to help the starving without helping gunmen who either prey on the refugees, compete for security contracts to guard the food, or steal it and take a share of the profits when it’s sold at market.
The situation echoes the 1992 famine that prompted deployment of a U.S.-led multinational force to safeguard the delivery of food to Somalia’s starving. That international intervention collapsed in 1993 after two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters were shot down and 18 servicemen were killed in one single battle in Mogadishu.
U.S. and U.N. officials acknowledge that some aid in Somalia is bound to be stolen during delivery.
“Will there be losses? Sure. Will there be some looting? Of course there will be. What we have to do is try to minimize it,” said WFP spokesman David Orr. “This is the highest-risk environment in the world … the safety of our staff and getting food into the right hands are our highest priorities.”
Friday’s food distribution was organized by Mogadishu’s mayor, and had been delayed two days as officials tried to shore up security arrangements. Orr told the Associated Press that the food distribution started smoothly at around 6 a.m. but degenerated a couple hours later.
“We got reports of trouble, looting. The trucks were overwhelmed by a mob of people. There were reports of some shots fired,” Orr said.
One of the camp’s refugees, Muse Sheik Ali, said soldiers first tried to steal some of the food aid, and that other refugees began to take the food.
“Then soldiers opened fire at them, and seven people, including elderly people, were killed on the spot. Then soldiers took the food and people fled from the camp,” he said.
Somalia Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali visited the camp after the violence and said he was “deeply sorry.” Ali said an investigation would be opened and promised harsh punishment for anyone found guilty.