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Somalia Famine Questions?: Ask AP Reporter Jason Straziuso Anything (Live Q&A)

Somalia Famine

The Huffington Post   First Posted: 07/28/11 05:06 PM ET Updated: 09/27/11 06:12 AM ET

At least six people died and 39 were wounded Thursday when al Qaeda-linked militants launched an attack aimed at famine relief efforts in Mogadishu, Somalia.

Of the casualties, 19 African Union peacekeepers died in the heavy fighting.

The U.N. fears tens of thousands of people have already died in the famine. Many have been forced to walk for days on end in hopes of reaching a refugee camp in neighboring countries. According to reports, women have also been forced to abandon their dying children during the treks.

In order for a famine to be declared, more than 30% of children must be suffering from malnutrition, two adults (or four children) must be dying from hunger each day for every group of 1,000 and the population must have access to below 2,100 kilocalories of food per day.

According to the BBC, the last time a famine was declared in Somalia was in 1992, and that because of insecurity, it seems to be the most affected country right now.

Today from 4 P.M. to 5 P.M, AP Reporter Jason Straziuso will answer any questions you might have about his coverage of the famine. If you want to ask Jason a question, leave a comment here or tweet it under the hashtag #somaliachat. Ask away!

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Sometimes it seems that Africa is always suffering from one hunger crisis or another. But this is a big one, and it’s going to last months. Crisis fatigue on this story will set in. But it will be important for the world’s reporters to keep writing about it a month or two months from now, because there are indications that the numbers of those suffering are only going to climb. Hopefully a solution will be found to reaching the 2.2 million Somalis in need in the area of al-Shabab control, but I think it’s going to be tough. The Somalia famine story has a lot of macro issues at play far above the important individual stories of those suffering without food, and I hope the world continues to pay attention in the weeks and months ahead.

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Question:

Do you struggle with the moral implications of covering humanitarian crises considering the many media criticisms that end up being levelled at the conclusion of such events? It seems that there are constant calls for increased coverage of such events so that they are not “forgotten,” but also criticisms that coverage can feed into “hunger porn,” simplifications of complex political struggles into simple matters of aid, and other concerns. How do you balance the immediate need to react to what must be an upsetting situation with the desire to portray the situation in a nuanced manner? I guess what I’m getting at is, how do you keep from being paralyzed by complexity and sensitivity of a situation like famine?

Answer:

Reporters everywhere must learn to keep their emotions in check and focus on gathering information. That’s the case whether talking to the relative of someone who has been injured or killed in the U.S. or if you’re in the middle of a famine zone. The story of that girl waving at me (mentioned below) got to me. But the overwhelming majority of the time you put on your reporter’s hat, look for an important or interesting story, go talk to right person, ask questions sensitively, and listen to what they have to say. Then go write the story. I’m going to leave Mogadishu soon -- whether tomorrow or next week it’s soon. All those suffering will stay behind. One solace to that is knowing that your work -- your stories -- may have helped bring attention -- and aid or relief -- to their situation.

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Quesiton:

Do you think that there has been a robust African response to the famine, or do you think that allegations of a delayed/insufficient response from other nations on the continent is warranted?

Answer:

I think the first thing to say is that Kenya has now accepted more than 440,000 Somali refugees and is allowing them to live in a refugee camp in Kenyan territory. This has caused huge political turmoil in Kenya but U.N. and U.S. officials often highlight what a gracious humanitarian response this has been. That camp, Dadaab, has been there some two decades now. That’s no small thing. A similar thing can be said of Ethiopia, which has taken in tens of thousands of Somali refugees as well. Uganda and Burundi combined have 9,000 troops here battling al-Shabab militants. And they’re sacrificing. I watched three this afternoon flown out on an emergency medivac jet to Kenya for treatment from today’s battles. I know that South Africa next week is flying up medical personnel and other aid. So I don’t think it’s fair to say Africa is not trying to help. Perhaps they are not donating as much money compared with headline grabbing contributions from bigger nations, but their national economies simply are no match compared to the U.S. or European countries.

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Question:

I’ve seen some people argue that the African Union’s battles with al-Shabab are not about protecting aid but about continuing an ongoing struggle for control of the nation. To what extent are you able to work out the politicization of famine aid while on the ground and necessarily dependent on others for security, mobility, etc?

Answer:

I think that’s a perceptive question that as an AP journalist I’m not going to be able to answer very completely, because we don’t offer personal opinions and I haven’t had a chance to ask any experts that question. What I can tell you is that the AU has been carrying out a concerted offensive against al-Shabab since January. I think it’s safe to say that today’s fighting is a continuation of that longterm strategy. But the AU also realizes that with the influx of tens of thousands of famine refugees, the situation on the ground has changed. The attention on the country is much higher, and everyone can see where the concern of the international community is. Messaging is part of every war commander’s tool kit everywhere in the world in this day and age. It is a new message we are hearing from the AU today but everyone would agree that they are right to be concerned about the plight of the thousands of new refugees.

In previous humanitarian crises in areas with an ongoing political/military conflict taking place, refugee camps have at times become extremely dangerous as targeted groups were attacked in confusing and hard to monitor conditions. Do you worry that the large influx of refugees into consolidated locales will prompt some sort of large scale attack by al-Shabab?

The AU force spokesman articulated that concern today. Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda said the AU fears that al Shabab could launch an attack near the camps or even in the camps. As a broad strategy, he said, al Shabab does not want to see people flowing to these camps because they are leaving al Shabab areas of control. So the AU is saying it’s possible al-Shabab could resort to something as drastic as a direct attack on one in order to dissuade internal refugees from traveling to these camps.

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Question:

Do you ever feel in danger of attacks like the al-qaida-linked one Thursday?

Answer:

Oh yes, and you’ve pointed out one of the major obstacles to solving this crisis. Al-Shabab -- the al-Qaida-linked militants -- control south-central Somalia and 40 percent of Mogadishu. There are 2.2 million people there that aid agencies can’t reach because al-Shabab won’t let them go in. Even in Mogadishu militants could be anywhere, even in the “safe” zones. So not only is reporting on this story extremely dangerous, but more importantly it’s dangerous for aid workers to get out and distribute food aid. It’s a huge double whammy. When I traveled around Mogadishu I’ve been with African Union troops from Uganda. If I were on my own, well, I probably wouldn’t last long. Not necessarily killed but most certainly kidnapped.

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Question:

What’s the food like that is available? What kind of food is out there?

Answer:

The World Food Program is flying in tons of Plumpy’nut. That’s basically peanut butter in a squeezable package. High calories, easy to transport. Gold for a hungry child.

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Question from: @daq08

"what's the easiest way to donate money/food/aid? "

Answer:

Perhaps the most direct way is to give to the World Food Program. It is the agency bringing in the most food, tons at a time. https://www.wfp.org/donate/hoa_banners

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Question from @JamaicanChickBK:

Jason what are the steps being taken to help the famine victims? Are NGO/GO's, UN or other African nations helping the gov't?

Answer:

Money is coming in, yes. The World Food Program says it has gotten $250 million in new donations but that needs that much again in order to fulfill the need. The World Food Program is flying in food now and it is being distributed by local partners, but from what I’ve seen there is not yet enough distribution on the ground. The fact that I was at this 2,000-person refugee camp in Mogadishu where people didn’t have any food and there was not any aid groups in operation is evidence of that.

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Question:

What has been the most difficult part of covering the famine?

Answer:

One child who waved at me. I’ve been around to a lot of difficult places in the world and I’m usually pretty stoic. But yesterday in a refugee camp a child who appeared in pretty bad shape, stuck her head up and gave me a wave when I stuck my head in her tent. This is what I wrote down in my notebook: in tents - old frail people on edge of death. young kids too tired to move. girl waved at a photographer (me) as flies circulated around her head. It put a lump in my throat when I wrote those words down. I think because her prospects are bleak. She looks in bad shape and there’s no help immediately avaiable. There’s no food in the camp. So I don’t know if she’ll make it. I had a daughter born seven weeks ago, so, it all starts to connect a bit too much.

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Question from JahKwasiAbahu:

How can we be of any assistance on the ground? Would like to get my hands dirty.

Answer:

While that attitude shows a strong spirit, you would have to find an aid agency advertising the need for physical help. You could not realistically travel into Mogadishu to help. But it might be possible you could go to the Dadaab refugee camp in northeastern Kenya if you found an agency that needed assistance. Otherwise I think aid groups would encourage you to make a monetary donation.

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Question:

How long do you think the famine will last?

Answer:

One of the scary elements to this crisis is that this appears to be only the beginning. The U.N. is preparing for this situation to last for months. The next rainy season -- if it happens -- isn’t until the fall. And of course food production will lag behind that. So more animals are going to die and more people will be forced to migrate to refugee camps or to Mogadishu.

20,000 refugees have arrived in Mogadisu this month alone, overwhelming the aid capacity here. And thousands -- probably tens of thousands -- more are on their way.

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Question from @CelineNYC:

Which companies are donation matching? I've been asking around & either no one knows, or no companies are.

Answer:

I have to admit that since I am in Mogadishu right now, I’m not really plugged into what U.S. or European companies are doing any sort of matching contributions. Sorry.

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Question from @charxthree:

What charities actually provide you benefits/which would you suggest to help in this famine?

Answer:

AP is directing readers to this website, which lists many charities doing work in the Horn of Africa.

http://www.interaction.org/crisis-list/interaction-members-respond-drought-crisis-horn-africa

In addition, you can give directly to the World Food Program, which is the biggest provider of food aid into Somalia.

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