On 'heartbreaking' visit to Somalia, UN relief chief urges safe passage for aid workers

Parents wait with their malnourished and dehydrated children in a corridor at Banadir Hospital in the Somali capital Mogadishu

13 August 2011 – The United Nations relief chief visited the capital of Somalia today, stressing that aid workers must have safe passage to those in need so they can save the lives of millions of people at risk from malnutrition or infectious diseases as famine grips the Horn of Africa.

On a one-day visit to Mogadishu, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos toured Banadir Hospital – one of just four locations in the war-wracked city where children suffering from acute malnutrition are being treated.

Ms. Amos described the scenes she witnessed in the hospital as heartbreaking.

“The children are so weak they can't lift their heads, while their mothers are in despair,” she said.

As many as 3.2 million people are estimated to be on the brink of starvation in Somalia, where persistent drought and ongoing conflict have led to famine being recently declared by the UN in five regions in the south of the country, including the area in and around Mogadishu.

The situation is compounded by a deadly outbreak of cholera, while the number of cases of acute watery diarrhoea has also spiked in the past two months.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which Ms. Amos heads, has warned that the famine is likely to get worse in the coming weeks. The number of acutely malnourished children in Somalia, currently at 390,000, could double within the next year.

While Somalia is the worst affected country, neighbouring Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti are also suffering. More than 12 million people across the Horn of Africa now face severe food shortages and require international assistance.

During her visit to Mogadishu, Ms. Amos – who is also the UN's Emergency Relief Coordinator – met with representatives of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), UN staff and aid workers with non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

She emphasized for the need for more safety and security for residents of Mogadishu, whose population has been swollen in recent weeks by the arrival of at least 100,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) fleeing other famine-stricken areas.

“We can save the lives of these children if we can treat them early enough, but we also need to get aid to areas outside Mogadishu where most of the people in desperate need are,” she said. 'That is why I am here. I want to make sure everyone understands the depth of this crisis.”

Mogadishu has been the scene of protracted fighting over the past two decades as Islamist militants battle with the TFG for control of southern and central Somalia, which has not had a functioning national government since 1991.

But the Al-Shabaab group vacated the city a week ago, and Ms. Amos said that while she was shocked by the amount of destruction she witnessed, she was also impressed by the level of activity.

“Normal activities like small shops were open and people were in the streets. It gave me hope.”

Tomorrow Ms. Amos heads to Kenya to visit Dadaab, the world's largest refugee camp with a population of around 380,000 people – most of them Somali.


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