Somalia (MNN) — The 2011 Somali famine killed an estimated 260,000 people, half of them under age 5, according to a new report to be published this week.
The findings more than double previous death toll estimates. According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), slow international community response eventually cost tens of thousands of additional lives.
Executive director of Baptist Global Response JEff Palmer says drought in late 2010 presented a food shortage. "On top of that, you have the civil wars, the infighting, the radical groups that are there, that are complicating people who are trying to get to the places where they can get help. Therefore, you have mass exodus in the country and mass exodus outside of the country."
"It's a natural disaster again, much like Mali, but complicated by this man-made humanitarian crisis that's going on," says Palmer. Militants from al-Shabaab also banned food aid deliveries to the areas of south-central Somalia that they controlled. In that way, they turned a food shortage into one of the worst famines in 25 years.
Not having recovered from the drought of 2009, what crops there were dried up with the new drought and livestock died off. With their babies and elderly suffering from malnutrition, and food prices skyrocketing, they were primed for disaster when the insurgency began.
The culturally self-sufficient Somalis fled. "Imagine if you lost most everything here in the States and you were trying to just provide for your family. On top of that, there's nothing but bad guys and rebels and folks that were coming and creating all kinds of chaos in your already-fragile existence. [It] makes it into a very complicated humanitarian crisis."
Some made it to refugee camps, such as Dadaab in Kenya, or got help through outside aid entering Somalia. However, Palmer says then they ran into the cultural dynamic of fear and mistrust. "The picture is: refugees come out and they go to refugee camps and they're provided for. Well, that happens to a few, but the majority of folks come out and they're looking for places, and they'll settle in the middle of nowhere."
Unwelcome, and having to share precious resources like water and food, the refugees were caught between a rock and a hard place. When the Southern Baptist feeding operations began, their workers were welcomed with celebration, Somali-style. Palmer says their partners committed to supporting at least two feeding sites in the Horn of Africa.
While many aid operations were disrupted by militant groups, he says, their teams were working under the cover of prayer. "Fortunately, we've not had any major crossings with them (al-Shabaab) in our distributions, in the places where we're working. God's been good and kept our folks safe up to this point."
Projects are longer term in scope. "We also have worked hand-in-hand with other organizations to provide water, which is a critical issue" in an arid climate. In the past few years, Southern Baptist world hunger
projects have totaled more than $250,000 in the Horn of Africa, helping
families re-establish their footing by providing food, start-up livestock, and
clean water projects.
Palmer points out that WHF projects help the poorest of the poor, the most neglected and marginalized, and some of the most lost people groups in the world. The drought-affected area of Africa's Horn is dominated by Islam. Traditional "evangelism" would not work in this context. However, he goes on to say that "the Gospel is all about Light. This area that we're talking about is very dark in terms of physical suffering. It's very dark in terms of spiritual suffering as well."
In the midst of these hardships, "People come and say, ‘Why is this happening? What is God doing?'' Those are keys to allow us to share a true simple story or a message of hope from the Gospel." Palmer says hope and love are manifested in the form of funding for food relief and medical aid, but it represents a deeper love. "In the midst of suffering, in the midst of losing everything, we see people turning to and looking to God look for answers. It's an opportunity for us to share about the One, True God."
To that end, Somalia's story goes on with hope for the future.