BAIDOA, Somalia – This town was liberated from the control of al-Shabab (an Islamist insurgent group) five years ago. But “liberated” is a relative term. The security bubble created by the presence of United Nations and Ethiopian military forces reaches less than 10 miles outside of town, leaving just a short hike to terroristland. Women I met in line at a clinic had come from al-Shabab-occupied territory that morning. The insurgency forbids medical treatment from the government, so women must sneak in and out of town for prenatal care. If they are caught with their blue medical record cards, al-Shabab imposes fines or worse.
In sophisticated propaganda videos, the Islamist insurgency claims to having a working, parallel government, with schools and medical facilities. When I mentioned this to Somalis, they laughed. Al-Shabab is best at taxing movement and businesses, conducting targeted assassinations, and importing al-Qaeda bomb experts. Last year, a double bombing in Baidoa killed more than 30 people. In 2015, three fighters wearing Somali army uniforms breached the Baidoa green zone and killed several people across from the compound where I was writing this column.
Most of the men you encounter in the street are armed, and travel outside of town requires a small platoon of guards. The periodic gunshots you hear are disconcerting, but usually indicate weddings and other celebrations. “It means someone is happy,” I was told.
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The relative stability of the town attracts IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) fleeing from famine-like conditions caused by three years of inadequate rains, further complicated by conflict. More than 700,000 Somalis – well over half of them children – have left their homes due to the drought. At one IDP camp, I spoke with a woman who had all her food and money confiscated at al-Shabab checkpoints. I spoke with a woman who started her trek with six children and ended with four – the other two taken by cholera, which can kill within hours.
Somalia generally gets bad press, focused on starvation, terrorism or piracy. But it’s not a country comprised mainly of hungry, Islamist pirates. It is a country in the midst of re-founding itself. It recently elected a promising new president, Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo, who has Somali/American dual citizenship and once worked for the Department of Transportation in Buffalo, New York. But Farmajo is now under considerable pressure to produce tangible social and military results.
The Trump administration is correct to insist that, in cases such as this, hard power is foundational. There is no sustained development in a state of nature, the war of all against all. So American drones fly over Somalia and America helps train the Somali military. There are rumors that Farmajo may soon undertake a military offensive as a show of strength.
But any rational account of American interests must also include the well-being of the Somali people. More than 3 million Somalis – about one-fourth of the population – are in critical need of help. Poverty and despair do not cause terrorism, but they can contribute to the failure of states, which provides the chaos in which terrorism thrives. Somalia is exhibit A. And conditions are about to get worse. If the drought continues, hundreds of thousands more Somalis will flood places like Baidoa and tens of thousands of children will be at imminent risk of death from starvation.
The time-compressed disasters – events like earthquakes and hurricanes – tend to result in concentrated generosity. But a slowly unfolding nightmare is no less frightening. Across South Sudan, northern Nigeria, Yemen and Somalia, we are hearing, not urgent shouts, but gradually fading voices. This is one horrifying aspect of meeting severely malnourished children in Baidoa’s hot, crowded, reeking hospital ward. Some are too weak even to cry, and their quiet bleat may be the saddest sound I have ever heard.
There is little question that the already generous response of the United States and other donors will need to be stepped up even further. But those who find that statement ideologically objectionable – those who believe that our government shouldn’t respond in this fashion – can still show their generosity to private and religious groups doing frontline work in the region. (A place to start is the Hunger Relief Fund sponsored by PepsiCo, Google, Twitter and others at globalemergencyresponse.org. One of the groups, World Vision, in this consortium sponsored my visit.)
It is difficult to describe the scale of Somali suffering – a quarter of the population wrestling with hunger and despair. These people require more than a flash of empathy. They need empathy and action as sustained and implacable as the drought itself.
Michael Gerson’s email address is email@example.com.