The frequent looting of relief aid at distribution centres in Mogadishu by local or state security agents seriously undermines efforts to help hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom have fled areas of Somalia in a state of famine, according to officials and aid workers.
"Looting of aid is a major problem, especially as it affects the most vulnerable families in Mogadishu, who rely on humanitarian support to survive,” said Marcel Stoessel, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Mogadishu.
“We have been working with the authorities in Mogadishu to improve the overall security situation in the capital. This is the best way to facilitate the safe delivery of humanitarian assistance to the most vulnerable," Stoessel said. "Obviously, we still need to do more.”
Stoessel did not discuss who was behind the looting but the government has acknowledged the involvement of its own agents.
Earlier this month, Transitional Federal Government (TFG) President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed warned that "soldiers and armed militia" would be dealt with severely if found to be responsible for looting food aid.
Security agents deployed in Mogadishu include TFG soldiers, poorly paid police and militias under the authority of the city's district commissioners. After the August withdrawal from Mogadishu of the Al-Shabab insurgency, such militia groups have grown in importance.
TFG spokesman Abdirahman Omar Yarisow told IRIN the government was serious about tackling the disruption of food aid.
"We have taken extreme measures, such as taking to military court those who try to divert the food aid to loot it. For example, recently the military court sentenced two district commissioners to 10 and 15 years’ imprisonment [respectively]," he said.
He acknowledged that people had been killed and injured when security forces opened fire during food distributions. "This is not acceptable and there are investigations currently under way and those who are responsible will face severe punishment."
In one such incident in early August, 10 people were reportedly killed when TFG troops opened fire during a scramble for food aid in the capital.
Looting "is becoming a daily occurrence and it is mainly done by people wearing government security force uniforms", said Mohamed Ilmi, a human rights activist in Mogadishu.
In one of the latest incidents [14 November] in the Tribunka camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs), Ilmi said, government forces who were supposed to protect aid distribution fired into the crowd, forcing them to run for cover, "they then took the food; fortunately there was only one injury".
Ilmi said on many occasions IDPs had been killed, "as happened in Badbaado camp a few days ago, where at least five were killed".
Halima*, an IDP, had just received her food rations on 14
She said the incident was not the first time they had
*Not her real name
He said the attacks bore the hallmark of an organized enterprise. "As soon as they chase the people, trucks come in to carry the loot and the food immediately ends up in the markets. It is as if they were hired to do it."
He said looting of aid meant for the displaced was becoming a "big business".
A civil society source, who requested anonymity, told IRIN the problem was that the government did not have much control over the "so-called security forces".
The source said since Al-Shabab's withdrawal, "young men with guns are roaming the streets. No one knows who they are or under whose control.
"Until the government removes the weapons from the hands of these young gangs, the situation will only get worse," the source said.
"Unfortunately they seem busy with other things, but if they don’t get the security situation right, it won’t be the IDPs alone who will suffer but all of us, including them."
Rape on the increase
According to Ilmi, the attacks were not confined to food raids. "There is a climate of fear in the camps and it has to do with women being raped and again unfortunately it is mostly men with uniforms," he said.
Ilmi said rape in the IDP camps was rampant. "I don’t know of many people who have been arrested for it."
He expressed concern about the lack of accurate information. "The women won't report it because either they are afraid of being stigmatized or attacked again by the perpetrators," Ilmi said.
He said social workers who tried to collect data were sometimes threatened or even attacked. "You cannot and won't find accurate data but I am sure the numbers are huge."
The civil society source told IRIN that rape had been a problem before in Mogadishu "but it has now reached an alarming rate. There are reports of rape cases in almost all the camps in Mogadishu."
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), there are 300 IDP settlements in Mogadishu.