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Children line up in January 2012 to receive a meal at a food distribution center in Mogadishu for those displaced by the 2011 famine or war.
Associated Press/Photo by Ben Curtis (file)
Children line up in January 2012 to receive a meal at a food distribution center in Mogadishu for those displaced by the 2011 famine or war.

Hunger wars

Somalia | A new study shows Somalia’s recent famine killed more than a quarter-million people. Will Somali extremists continue to starve a generation of their own people?

A new report on Somalia’s famine of 2011 reveals stunning numbers: In less than two years, starvation killed an estimated 260,000 people in the war-torn country. Half of those victims were under the age of 5.

Let’s put those numbers in perspective. Many remember Somalia’s horrific famine in the 1990s: Images of starving mothers cradling tiny children with distended bellies were seared into the global consciousness, even before the age of the internet.

According to the new report, the Somali famine of 2011 was worse. Estimates show about 220,000 people died of starvation in the early 1990s.

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The horrific famine is one part of a complex picture for a country trying to emerge from the ravages of a 20-year war that killed, wounded, or displaced millions of citizens, and made Somalia one of the most dangerous places in the world.

Though the country has seen signs of progress, a major challenge remains: The Islamic extremists who perpetuated Somalia’s war and stoked the famine seem unwilling to give up without another deadly fight.

Somalia’s two decades of war began in 1991, when militants overthrew the country’s brutal dictator. Without a central government, the impoverished nation descended into vicious wars among rival clans and factions.

A major UN peacekeeping operation tried to hold back Somalia from the brink of self-destruction, but famine and war continued to ravage the nation. U.S. troops assisting the mission withdrew from the country in 1994, not long after the Black Hawk disaster left 19 American soldiers and nearly 1,000 Somalis dead.

From 2006 to 2011, Islamic extremists controlled the capital city of Mogadishu, and many rural areas. The extremists were members of Al-Shabab, an al-Qaeda affiliate determined to install an Islamic government in Somalia.

As a severe drought and massive food shortages began crippling the region in 2010, the militants delivered a fatal blow to thousands of Somalis: They refused to allow aid groups to deliver life-saving food to the most vulnerable populations.

Even in areas where food delivery was possible, UN officials admitted they didn’t take enough early action to help ease the famine that would kill 260,000 people by the end of 2011. Marthe Everard, Somalia’s country director for the World Health Organization, said the international community didn’t respond aggressively until they saw photos of starving children nearly halfway through the famine: “By then you are too late.”

Still, the country’s volatility made food delivery nearly impossible for many aid organizations. Some relief groups established camps across the border for those fleeing war and hunger.

By late 2011, African troops had driven out members of Al Shabab from Mogadishu. The country elected its first government since 1991 and inaugurated a president last year. Many displaced Somalis began returning to the country to try to reestablish their lives in their homeland

During a one-day conference in London on Tuesday, international donors pledged $300 million to help Somalia with security costs. (The United States pledged $40 million of that sum.)

Somali President Hassan Mohamud expressed optimism that the beleaguered country could move forward: “We have been given a chance and we will prove in the eyes of the world that we will deliver. We cannot afford to miss this golden opportunity. …”

But the gold is still mixed with plenty of dross: Though militants have lost control of the capital, they haven’t lost their zeal for fighting. On April 19, members of Al-Shabab staged an elaborate attack on the Supreme Court in Mogadishu. The five-hour barrage of bullets and bombs left at least 38 dead, including the nine attackers, and proved the group could still wreak havoc at the highest levels of government.

Three weeks later, the group warned Somali leaders against attending the one-day conference in London. Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr—leader of Al-Shabab—released a video claiming the international community wanted to replace Islamic law with Western traditions. He urged his followers to “permanently cripple” Somalia’s new government. A day later, a suicide bomber killed at least seven people in a military convoy.

Meanwhile, millions of Somalis are trying to recover from 20 years of war, famine, and death, while battling crippling poverty and dismal living conditions. While a new government attempts to build infrastructure and services from scratch, international development experts say it’s also important to prepare before a major disaster strikes again.

Justine Greening, the UK’s International Development secretary, called the report of 260,000 famine deaths in 2011 “a sobering reminder that Somalia’s famine was one of the worst disasters of recent times.”

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the political beat and other topics as national editor for WORLD Magazine. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.


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