Editors’ note

The violent inter-clan warfare in southern Somalia convulsed the southern region into a state of anarchy; creating a man-made famine and causing the displacement of many thousands of people. Although the United Nations was slow to respond to the disaster in the country the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and non-governmental humanitar­ian organisations such as Save the Children, SOS Kinderdorf, CARE, Concern, Medecins Sans Frontieres responded early. Their employees worked under difficult and dangerous conditions. Amid looting, kidnapping and armed extortion and in the absence of any formal security or police force, humanitarian agencies hired armed guards to protect themselves.7

By the time the UN responded, in April 1992, an estimated 300,000 people had died of starvation and hunger-related diseases, and as many as 3,000 people – mainly women, children and the old – were dying daily.8 A former administrator in USAID said:

By the middle of 1992 food had become the medium of exchange and a principal source of wealth in Somalia. Because food was so scarce – as a result of both drought and civil conflict – its absolute value had risen to an extraordinary high level… Thus food imported through relief effort became an enormously attractive objective of plunder by merchants, by common working people without a source of income, by organised gangs of young men and by militia leaders in need of the

wealth represented by food aid, which they would use to purchase more

weapons and to ensure the loyalty of their followers. (Natsios 1997)

Dahabo Isse worked with the ICRC as its Feeding Programme Coordinator from 1991 to 1993, becoming a well-known figure in Mogadishu and beyond. She was influential in ICRC’s decision to open soup kitchens whilst thwarting those who were intent on ‘diverting’ food aid to fund the war: ICRC reported that 980 open-air soup kitchens were in operation by November 1992, feeding 1.17 million people a day The system involved transporting food in small quantities so as not to draw attention to it, and cooking it immediately; cooked food being unmar­ketable by the thieves and warlords. Estimates conclude that the soup-kitchen programme saved the lives of as many as 1 million people between 1991 and 1993. (Ibid)

There were drawbacks with the programme. Many of the kitchens were located in areas held by General Aideed because that is where the affected populations were. This was of significant benefit to Aideed, drawing people into his area of political influence and control in their search for food. (Ibid)

Dahabo’s testimony illustrates the kind of intimidation a person with control of sought-after resources would have been under in Somalia at this time. She came from Aideed’s own sub-clan family and was seen to be involved in actions that undermined the diversion of food aid so that it reached the hungry not the warlords. These were two factors which Dahabo believes placed her in an untenable position vis-a-vis her own clan and the US-led UN operation in Somalia.

Dahabo’s testimony begins in late 1990. She had come under surveil­lance because she worked with a Somali non-governmental organisation involved in assisting people displaced from the civil war in the north west, and for associating with westerners. When she did not heed the warnings to end her activities and associations, supporters of the Siad Barre regime tried to assassinate her