The advance by African Union troops (AMISOM) on the insurgent-held Somali port city of Kismayo brings into focus a challenge often faced by humanitarian actors in conflict zones: how to help those in need without associating themselves too closely with warring parties, even those which enjoy international backing.
On 19 September, AMISOM Deputy Force Commander Maj-Gen Simon Karanja “appealed to humanitarian agencies to come to the aid of the people fleeing [Kismayo] to areas liberated by AMISOM and Somali security forces,” according to an AMISOM statement.
“We stand ready to facilitate any efforts to ease the suffering of the population,” Karanja said.
Kismayo is the last major stronghold of the Al-Shabab insurgency.
Humanitarians keeping away
UN Security Council Resolution 1772 mandates AMISOM establish “the necessary security conditions for the provision of humanitarian assistance.”
AMISOM has a Humanitarian Affairs Unit which, according to the force’s website, works with UN agencies and NGOs “to establish coordination mechanisms and the sharing of information.”
Many UN and NGO staff travel in conveys protected by AMISOM vehicles. AMISOM field hospitals, set up to treat its troops, have also served the civilian population.
But many aid workers remain leery of AMISOM and its humanitarian aspirations and have resisted rushing into areas where AMISOM and government forces have dislodged Al-Shabab. Such deployment by UN staff members is dependent on clearance from the UN’s Department of Safety and Security.
“The people who live in these regions have had no basic facilities, be it for health, education and water, but since [government and allied forces] have regained control….there have been few aid agencies covering the demand,” Mohamed Farah, a government spokesman, told Radio Ergo.
“We are calling again on the international community, international aid agencies and the United Nations to come to rescue these people,” he said.
Heads of state from the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development meeting in November 2011 issued a similar plea, to address the needs of “drought and famine-stricken communities in a more effective manner.”
|If in the name of your principles people die because of your way of operating, maybe it's better to leave and let other people do the job|
While security considerations may partly explain the unmet demand, humanitarian principles also come into play, according to Tanja Schumer, Focal Point for the Somalia NGO Consortium.
Only if principles such as impartiality are “preserved at all times, and with the support of the local communities, are we able to work and deliver aid effectively. The blurring or perceived blurring of humanitarian and security objectives jeopardizes the delivery of vital assistance to the Somali people,” she told IRIN.
“The perception that humanitarian actors are linked to political and/or military agendas, including support for AMISOM, or a stabilization agenda, directly endangers humanitarian staff and supplies, and in so doing further diminishes the capacity of aid agencies to assist a population in extreme need,” she said.
Asked about how civilians in Kismayo would be assisted in the event of Al-Shabab’s departure from the city, Russell Geekie, a spokesman for the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, also stressed the need for humanitarians to remain “strictly independent of political and security processes.”
“In line with humanitarian principles, contingency plans for Kismayo are based on civilians’ needs and would be implemented independently of any side’s military or political objectives. However, we do engage in regular dialogue with a wide range of actors to help reduce civilian casualties and suffering and to facilitate humanitarian access to those in need,” he said.
For one UN staffer, who worked in Somalia in the early 1990s with another organization, “what’s important is to keep your ethics - do no harm - but adapt your principles with the reality on the ground.”
“If in the name of your principles people die because of your way of operating, maybe it’s better to leave and let other people do the job,” he said.
But he added, “humanitarians risk being associated with foreign forces attacking Somalia. Al-Shabab can use this, making it harder for them to operate easily. It takes a long time to change such a perception.”
Speaking of his earlier experience in Somalia, which entailed dealing with clan-based warlords, he said, “The rationale was: do you want to save lives or not, and what is the price of that? It’s an old debate.”
A debate that is now “very fraught”, according to a UN official in Mogadishu. “Should people be denied assistance because they live in a war zone and are caught up in the politics of it?
“Kismayo brings all the issues to a point, because it’s a city, because it’s the lifeblood for so many people…If the water and sanitation systems stop working… the rains are about to start soon… There are IDPs [internally displaced people] there… do you ignore them?”
*This story was amended on 21 September 2012