Displaced in the Desert

The first rays of the sun cast a soft golden glow over Galkayo, a ramshackle city of tin hovels and tents in north central Somalia. The Muslim call to prayer is being broadcast over cracked speakers perched on top of a nearby Mosque and the dusty streets are almost empty as our car drives into the surrounding desert.

Our destination is the village of Do'ol, one of many settlements crowded with people who have fled the country's most devastating drought and famine in 60 years. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) is providing livestock, water and food to tens of thousands of displaced people in the region, which the lack of rain has turned into an arid wasteland.

Following close behind is a car driven by six heavily armed men--our bodyguards. Somalia is one of the world's most dangerous places for aid workers, several of whom have been kidnapped by ransom-seeking militia groups and pirates.

For three hours I see nothing but orange-colored sand and dry shrubs as we skip across the uneven terrain. When we finally arrive in Do'ol, a team of IRC workers is herding hundreds of loudly bleating goats into a small pen in preparation for medical checkups and de-worming. The deadly drought has killed thousands of goats, cows and other precious livestock. These animals are all that have survived.

"This is a catastrophe for people who are mainly pastoralists and derive their income from animals," explains my traveling companion, Farhan Ahmed, who manages IRC programs in Galkayo.

To prevent further loss of livestock, the IRC has built water troughs and vaccinated and de-wormed over 35,000 animals.

Some of the goats receiving treatment belong to 40-year-old Abdi Hussein Farah, a pastoralist herdsman from central Somalia. Farah has already seen more than of 100 of his goats die. His remaining animals were so malnourished that they stopped lactating. After trekking through the desert he built a rough shelter near Do'ol, where conditions are only marginally better.

"I only have a few animals left," he says. "Here they have a better chance of survival."

Since the onset of the famine, tens of thousands of Somalis have fled to neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia in search of help. Last month that escape route was shut off when Kenyan troops crossed into Somalia in pursuit of Al-Shabab militants who Kenya blames for carrying out kidnappings inside Kenya. Al-Shabab is also widely blamed for exacerbating the famine inside Somalia by forcing out many Western aid organizations, depriving drought victims of desperately needed food.

As a result of the fighting, hundreds of thousands of destitute people are now displaced inside Somalia, with little access to humanitarian aid.

Salado Ali Salat, 35, is one of them. She and her five children fled their home after her crops failed and then walked for days before reaching Hilmo, a small hamlet which has seen its population triple from an influx of displaced people.

When Salado reached Hilmo she learned about an IRC program that distributes livestock to displaced people. Salado was given five goats.

"I had no income before," she says, clutching one of the animals. "The goats give me milk to feed my children and sell in the market to buy rice."

The IRC also offers displaced people the chance to take part in a "cash-for-work" program designed to help people get back on their feet quickly by providing temporary jobs rebuilding roads, water supplies and health facilities.

Nearly 80,000 Somalis, including almost 20,000 displaced people, have received help through this program. The IRC has also built and repaired wells, hand pumps and pipelines in the region and trained community volunteers in hygiene.

"We want to be able to reach even more people but the fighting and lack of access to much of the country makes it extremely difficult," Farhan Ahmed says as we head back to Galkayo.

A long-term solution to Somalia's misery seems more distant than ever. In the meantime it is women, children, the disadvantaged and the displaced who are suffering the most. It is for them that the IRC will keep on digging wells and building latrines and improving the health of livestock that families depend on for survival.