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Saudi Aid to Somalia: A Well-Intentioned Disaster With PM-Somalia-Famine

August 7, 1992

MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) _ Last month, Saudi Arabia shipped 4,000 tons of food to the starving people of Mogadishu.

Aid workers wish that hadn’t happened: ″It was a disaster, a fiasco,″ explained Carl Howorth, the Somalia field director for CARE International, which is responsible for moving food from Mogadishu’s docks to the needy.

The problem was that the Saudi food included the most highly prized commodities in this starving city - sugar, wheat and powdered milk, all neatly packaged in 50-pound plastic bundles.

″It was looter-friendly,″ Howorth said. ″You could carry one of those packages off under one arm.″

CARE, the United Nations, the Red Cross and other humanitarian agencies have had huge problems delivering aid in Somalia because of thefts by clan militias and heavily armed bandits.

Truck convoys have been attacked, warehouses raided and feeding centers assaulted for the rice and beans that make up most bulk aid shipments.

Rice and beans are not favorite Somali foods.

Recognizing the problems the prized wheat, sugar and milk would cause, CARE’s Howorth refused to deliver it. The job was given to a committee of representatives from each of the two clans that have divided the stricken city.

The committee decided that half the Saudi food would go to southern Mogadishu, half to the north and the clans themselves would move it out of the Indian Ocean port.

″As far as we know, it was equitably divided, north and south,″ Howorth said. ″But we’re pretty sure it never got to the truly needy.″

″It’s been showing up in the black market and wherever it appears, it invites gunplay,″ Howorth said. ″Certainly it was well-meant, and maybe if it had come later after we’d saturated the city with other food, it wouldn’t have caused so many problems.″

Each of Mogadishu’s four hospitals treat dozens of gunshot victims each day, people wounded in assaults or by stray bullets fired by gangs seeking food.

″We know when there’s a ship in the port without even seeing it,″ said Brigitte Doppler, a French nurse for Medicines Sans Frontiers, or Doctors Without Borders. ″That’s when the gunshot victims start pouring in.

″The violence always increases when food is being unloaded and distributed,″ she added. ″But that Saudi shipment was the worst.″

Ironically, some of the Saudi food wound up in the kitchens of the aid agencies: their Somali cooks bought it on the black market.

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