East Africa Famine: SOS staff risk their lives in Somalia
'Everybody in Mogadishu knows SOS Children' is a statement you hear often in the war-torn capital of Somalia, a city where many international aid organisations have had to give up their work, but where SOS Children has been helping since the early 1980s.
The Somali capital of Mogadishu only has five tiny functioning hospitals with a total of around 2,000 beds - in a city where hundreds of thousands of citizens and refugees need help. One of those five places that assist people in need of treatment is the SOS Hospital, which opened in 1989. Nine Somali doctors and a large team of nurses and midwives work here.
Every month, 500 women give birth at the maternity ward, the only functioning one in Somalia. At least once a day, the personnel save a woman's life through a caesarean. "The pressure on our hospital has grown with more and more refugees coming to Mogadishu. But because the hospital is located in one of the most troubled areas, there are times when we have to close”, says Dr Abdullahi Hussein, who is a paediatrician and director of the SOS Hospital.
Putting their own lives at risk
Like all the other employees in the hospital, Abdullahi Hussein is Somali and has decided to stay in the country and help his fellow countrymen, although he has a medical degree from Italy and his family lives in England. He has worked for SOS Children since 2008.
"This is a place where I can really make a difference," says Abdullahi Hussein, who has experienced the worst consequences of the conflict in Somalia. On 3 December 2009 he participated in a presentation of diplomas for medical students which was attacked by a suicide bomber. Abdullahi Hussein was wounded and had to spend three months in a hospital in Saudi Arabia. But once he had recovered, he went back to Somalia again. "In Europe people are concerned with simple problems. Here it is for real. Life and death. When you do something here, you sleep better at night," says the paediatrician.
Acceptance from all sides
SOS Children always tries to employ local people. In Somalia, this local standing means that SOS Children is perceived as fully neutral. Therefore, we can work both in the government-controlled areas and in regions which are ruled by the Al-Shabaab Group. "Currently there is fighting around where SOS Children's Village and the hospital are located. But we have the promise from both government troops and Al-Shabaab that they will try to avoid hitting our facilities”, says Ahmed Mohamed, the Somali national director of SOS Children.
It is not a matter of discussion to move the hospital, Abdullahi Hussein says, because people know where the hospital is, and its a lifeline for many. "We just have the problem that the fighting makes it difficult for us to get to people with the ambulance," says the Somali doctor.
Help has arrived in the "City of Death"
The city of Baidoa, 350 miles inland, is one of the areas in Somalia that have been hit particularly hard by the famine. The area is inaccessible to many humanitarian organisations; it is therefore difficult to get emergency relief through. Here, SOS Children has opened a clinic for the starving.
Droughts are common in Somalia. Most people are farmers and keep livestock, either cows or goats. Farmers can get through a drought for six or twelve months. But after that, the food runs out. One by one, the animals die of thirst and hunger. Next in line are the people.
Around Baidoa in the heart of Somalia, people experienced the last major famine back in 1992. "They sat in their villages and houses and waited for help to come. But it never came," says Ahmed Mohamed. Ahmed saw the area at that time. A year before he had been hired as an administrative assistant at SOS Children, but when the civil war broke out and the famine struck shortly afterward, he was suddenly one of those responsible for coordinating emergency relief and also visited Baidoa.
"At that time the city became known as the 'City of Death'. When we arrived we saw people on the roads to the city and the villages around it who had used their last forces and dragged themselves along the road. And died there”, remembers Ahmed Mohamed, who since then has held many positions at SOS Schools, SOS Hospitals and the SOS Children's Village in Mogadishu.
For Ahmed Mohamed with his particular history it has a very specific meaning to reach out to many of his countrymen, who are starving today. Especially in Baidoa. To ask a man how things will continue who for so long has experienced turmoil, grief and illness seems obvious.
"This is the question I sometimes ask myself, too. I really fear that the drought here will never end. And I can hardly bear to go on and tell about everything we experience. People who die. It is as if the international community sees Somalia only when there is a crisis. But then we are again left to ourselves," says Ahmed.
One of the organisations that didn’t leave is SOS Children. Every day - whether it is during the dry season or not - hundreds of people come to the SOS Hospital. Mothers can get help from the maternity clinic and more than 80 orphaned children grow up in an SOS Children's Village. A class of nurses is trained at the SOS Nursing School each semester. And this in spite of the fact that the work might be suspended at any time.
Since the end of July, an average of 400 refugees per day have received medical care in Mogadishu. Now more and more people are waiting for help in Baidoa, the "City of Death". "Hundreds of patients are being seen to every day. Right now, this is the only medical facility in the two main camps in Baidoa, which accommodate about 8,000 families," Ahmed Mohamed says.