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Somalia: a tale of two cities

With the world turning its attention away from the violence in Gaza, back to the turmoil in Syria and the rising floodwater here in the UK, there’s not much room left for the beleaguered country I’ve just returned from.

Hunger, war and drought have turned this nation into possibly the toughest place in the world to be a child. Flying into its ravaged capital, Mogadishu, looking down at the bright blue sea and the white sandy beaches, it’s hard to believe this is the case. But as the battle-scarred buildings come into view, the old familiar shiver of fear and expectation ran down my spine.

At least the burnt-out plane on the runway has gone now. I came here over a year ago on a Save the Children cargo plane full of life-saving emergency supplies and was intrigued to see the difference.

A country on the up?

I’d read how Mogadishu was now on the up, with investment pouring in, the diaspora returning and a new president and cabinet. Wearing flak jackets and helmets, protected by armed guards, the Somali capital is still far from safe – we did indeed see a frenzy of building activity, an army of workers renovating bullet-riddled houses, hotels and shops.

Property prices are going through the roof. Markets are now open. Restaurants are popular again. Somalis, always great entrepreneurs, are hustling and bustling in the various city markets.

At the beach we joined dozens of young boys playing football – back-to-back games for miles up and down the seafront in their Arsenal, Barcelona and Liverpool shirts. At the old port fish market local fisherman said business was good as they showed me their catch of giant tuna and lobster. But this is only one side of Mogadishu. It’s still a very dangerous place.

The heavy protection gear and armed guards are ample proof of that. The noise of gunfire and constant threat of improvised explosive devices is with you at all times. Our local Somali partner organisation CPD – recently lost a staff member shot randomly by a militia.

Our local Somali staff are very brave, risking their lives daily to deliver life-saving aid. For the poorest there are some slight and welcome improvements, but there is no boom.

Suban and Natesha

When I was last here it was the height of the famine. Since then, the food situation has eased and aid has helped save hundreds of thousands of lives. This was brought home to me when I met a mother and daughter who I had seen a year ago.

When I first met Suban and Nasteha, aged two, Nasteha was very ill from hunger and close to death. She had walked with her mother for over four days and was very severely malnourished. Before my eyes. our frontline health staff rescued her and rushed her to our clinic – a tent in the camp. She was pulled back from the brink and then taken to a bigger hospital, where after a month of intense treatment, she recovered.

When I met her again a few days ago there were big smiles and laughter all round. A shy little healthy girl beamed at me from behind her mother’s dress. I felt proud of our amazing local staff and partners who in the midst of great danger managed to save children like Nasteha. But for many displaced families life is sadly still a battle for survival.

The struggle to survive

The following day I met another mother and her daughter at a Save the Children clinic in a more remote camp on the outskirts of Mogadishu. Mulki had brought her daughter Yasmin, aged two, to be treated for diarrhoea, the second biggest killer of children in Somalia. She had fled the recent fighting in the Afgoye corridor, where thousands had been caught in the crossfire between different sides and had to flee for their lives.

Mulki had seen neighbours and relatives killed. Her husband had remained behind. She had given birth 13 days previously to a little boy, Zakaria, in a tiny shelter made up of sticks and plastic. She stoically told me how she and a heath worker had used the Save the Children birth kit – a scalpel, a plastic sheet, some soap and a tie for the umbilical cord. She was struggling to survive.

Some 370,000 other displaced people in Mogadishu face a similar struggle. Many are children. It’s hard to explain in words how vulnerable the children are in these camps. They are right on the edge. The difference between life and death is a thin red line of aid.

Staying the course

Outside the capital, Somalia’s poorest are still facing emergency levels of malnutrition and hunger, recovering from a terrible drought and famine. The most recent assessment shows the number of people in urgent need of humanitarian aid is expected to exceed 2.1 million in the coming months – down from 2011, but still high. We need to stay the course with these families and not pull the rug from under their feet just as they begin to recover.

We need a twin-pronged approach in Somalia. Continued humanitarian assistance for the poorest families, but also aid to help them plant crops again and rebuild their lives. This will take innovative strategies to transfer cash and other inputs into remote rural areas of Somalia, often cut off and inaccessible. We also need to make sure another generation of Somali children don’t miss out on education.

The international community deserves some credit for helping to avert the worst effects of famine last year. As we go forward, we must stay the course, helping those still facing humanitarian crises and ensuring we help families build a securer future, free from hunger.

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