Keeping Hope Alive in Mogadishu – UN News Service

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OCHA Humanitarian Affairs Officer Ahmed Farah Roble listens to IDPs at an IDP settlement in Mogadishu, Somalia

23 December 2011 – It is a hot, dusty morning in Mogadishu, the war-ravaged capital of Somalia, and Ahmed Farah Roble is in a makeshift settlement for internally displaced persons (IDPs), listening to a mother tell him about her baby daughter.

Ahmed nods patiently, asks questions and listens attentively. He is in the camp to meet with its representatives, to learn more about their situation. Many have recently arrived from the country’s south, fleeing hunger and conflict. They have very little, and urgently need food and medicine, shelter and health care.

It is hard not to be affected by what he sees and hears, especially as the 45-year-old was born and raised in Mogadishu. As the longest-serving UN humanitarian affairs officer in the capital, Ahmed has heard many similar heart-breaking tales before.
“But it is painful, still. I can say that, before, this was a peaceful city. It was paradise. Now, these people living here have lost everything, their property, opportunities for education. There are not enough health services. There is no safe drinking water in some areas,” he says.

“I’m one of those who was here in the golden days, when the situation was good. These last 20 years, when the country was devastated by endless and continuous conflict, it is really painful for me.”

Ahmed Farah Roble and UNHCR staff see first-hand the conditions at IDP settlement in Mogadishu, Somalia.

For much of the past four years, through some of Mogadishu’s heaviest fighting, he was the lone man on the ground for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) – the part of the UN responsible for bringing together humanitarian groups to ensure a coherent response to emergencies.

The situation has been so dangerous that, until recently, OCHA was unable to deploy more staff to join him.

“It was not an easy task to work here then,” says Ahmed. “All of the humanitarian community was targeted, no matter whether they were international or national. You could be targeted, kidnapped and killed at any time.”

“It was a critical time, and even for me it was very difficult to get access to the people most in need.”

National staff members like Ahmed make up more than 90 per cent of humanitarian workers around the world, working on the frontlines. Too often, they bear the brunt of violence, as illustrated today with the deaths of two staff members of the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and a colleague working for a partner organization in central Somalia.

The dangers of working in Somalia, and restricted access for internationals, have led to a greater reliance on national staff, as well as local partners.

“International staff bring a wealth of technical experience to this crisis, but the role played by national staff is just as important,” says Marcel Stoessel, the head of OCHA’s sub-office in Mogadishu. “After all, nobody knows Somalia better than the Somalis – and without the local expertise of our national colleagues, international staff couldn’t do their jobs.”

“National staff speak the local language and often some local dialects as well, so they can more easily interact with people. They also understand the clan structure in Somalia, which is important if one wants to be successful in this humanitarian operation. They help us make crucial links with the government.

“Last, but not least, it’s much safer for them to move around Mogadishu than it is for international staff. People like Ahmed are our ‘humanitarian eyes and ears’.”

Ahmed’s family is in a neighbouring country for safety. For much of the time that he has been in Mogadishu, the city has been riven by a fluid frontline dividing the two sides – fighters belonging to the Islamist militant Al-Shabaab movement and troops belonging to the Transitional Federal Government (TFG).

Ahmed Farah Roble speaks with a Somali NGO representative while in the Mogadishu sub-office.

The violence worsened the already dire humanitarian situation for the city’s existing residents, and well as the many new people who sought help and refuge there after famine struck parts of the south in mid-2011.

Since Al-Shabaab’s withdrawal from the central parts of Mogadishu in August, the frontlines have been pushed back to the city’s outskirts – but the situation is still far from secure. The use of roadside bombs, grenades and suicide bombers is a regular occurrence, and on the rise.

“The scale-up of humanitarian aid has done a lot for the situation here. Malnutrition rates and mortality rates have dropped, and access is better in some places – so I have been able to visit various IDP settlements. But there is a need for more help,” Ahmed says. “I see it and hear it all the time.”

Heading back to his car to make his way to the OCHA sub-office is no easy feat. IDPs try to grab his attention with every step. Finally back at his desk, now populated with two new national colleagues and three international colleagues, Ahmed starts preparing a report on what he has heard and seen during his visit.

The report will inform OCHA and its partners about the humanitarian needs of that IDP settlement, allowing the humanitarian system to direct essential aid to its residents.

“I have the sense of a humanitarian. That’s a real driving force which helps me to forget everything, especially when I feel so far from my family, when I am doing this night and day. I’m just happy that I am doing a good thing.”

Duty station: Mogadishu, Somalia

I don’t know what the hell I thought when I knew I was definitely going to Mogadishu, Somalia, to help the United Nations with the coordination of humanitarian affairs there. I probably did not “think” in Eckhart Tolle’s sense, because at that time I was in the holistic retreat.

Reactions from friends were varied. The more informed ones asked for clarification whether I would be based in Nairobi and rotating into Mogadishu. The answer was: No, my duty station is Mogadishu, Somalia. They said anything from a soft “That’s going to be a challenge” to an outright “You have gone totally crazy”. 

I am now here since 20 days yes, it’s an enormous challenge, but no I haven’t gone crazy yet.

Amongst the unfortunate people of this world affected by conflict and other disasters, Somalis clearly rank last. That is if there is a rank to be found at all. For many aspects of poverty, “Somalia” has simply “no data”, so it shows up White instead of Deep Red on those maps. I have not seen yet a single house with no bullet holes. At least a generation seems lost. The security situation is still extremely volatile. Access to the vulnerable children, women, and men, remains our primary concern.

Coordination between the humanitarians seems like a boring job: Organizing meetings and filling out tables. But it’s far from that. Coordination is saving lives. By trying to ensure that gaps in assistance are filled, and trying to avoid duplication, resources are used more efficiently for those, who need it most. We also work with our partners in order to be prepared and if possible avoid future humanitarian crisis. Presently, for example, the October – December “Deyr” rainy season is a big concern. Disease outbreak is a distinct possibility given the overcrowding of camps, bad drainage, no functioning garbage collection, and sewage, which could infiltrate drinking water. Partners work with high intensity to distribute more plastic sheeting to the displaced people, to do mass health promotion campaigns, to chlorinate water sources, and stock up on medication if worst comes to worst.

 Being involved in coordination also means that you meet people from absolutely all walks of life, Somalis and foreigners.

Whatever you have planned for in Mogadishu, Somalia, your day will be different: Time goes by so quickly that when I look at my watch and its 5 p.m., I am often surprised and feel I have just got started.  Every day humanitarians are working into the evenings.  The needs of vulnerable Somalis are first and foremost in all of their minds. The environment is so difficult that even the basic things take an awful lot of time.

“Duty station: Mogadishu, Somalia”, means working and living under very strict security rules and living in a communal environment. It means I get up early and go to bed late. It means checking my Emails and answering my phones permanently, meeting staff and partners, maximizing the time I can spend on making this operation more effective and inclusive. I cannot overstate how much I admire our Somali staff and partners. For them, it’s not a duty station; it’s their home, their daily life.
Good thing I followed my instict before I went to Somalia. Some long-term humanitarian workers, like all professionals, have a tendency to think “been there, done that”. I will never think that again even when my tour in “Duty Station: Mogadishu, Somalia”, will be finished.