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Somalia: ICRC's Red 444 provides lifeline for victims of conflict and drought

12-10-2009 Feature

In many parts of war-torn Somalia, air is the only route in for desperately-needed supplies and aid workers. The ICRC's Red 444 has made almost 500 landings in Somalia so far this year, delivering humanitarian aid to where people need it most.

©ICRC/P. Yazdi 
Somalia. Dusamareb Airport. Medical supplies for a Somalia Red Crescent Society clinic. 
©ICRC/P. Yazdi 
Kenya. Nairobi International Airport. Loading Red 444's backup aircraft, Red 484. 
©ICRC/P. Yazdi 
Somalia. Ground staff refueI the ICRC plane. 
©ICRC/P. Yazdi 
Somalia. Beletwein Airport (Hiiran region). A truck pulls away from Red 444 loaded with medical and relief supplies. 
©ICRC/P. Yazdi 
Somalia. Ground staff refuel the ICRC plane. 
©ICRC/P. Yazdi 
Somalia. Beletwein Airport (Hiiran region). Staff unload water/habitation and medical supplies. 
  The plane bearing radio callsign " Red-triple-four " touches down on a hot, un-tarmacked airstrip in central Somalia, in the middle of the parched bush. After months of severe drought, the heat is suffocating. Mirages shimmer in the distance as pilots and other staff transfer large boxes from the plane to a truck, for onward transportation to a Somali Red Crescent clinic.

Several times per week, the ICRC's white Beechcraft 1900c with the Red Cross under each wing takes off from Nairobi International Airport. Its precious cargo: medicine, surgical equipment, building materials, aid supplies and Red Cross/Red Crescent aid workers on their way to various parts of Somalia.

Two decades of armed conflict, an economic crisis and a chronic shortage of rain have exhausted the resources of the Somali population and make it difficult for parents to feed their children. As a result, many are dependent on aid.

Asha Mahmud and her three children live in a makeshift hut near Dusamareb, the capital of Galgadud in the central region. The ICRC is delivering a million litres of water to this dry area every week. The drought in the central region and the lack of security have aggravated an already appalling humanitarian situation. The shortage of water is having a severe effect on displaced families, as most have taken refuge in remote places far from water points and have to walk hours in the heat to reach those wells and boreholes that still contain water.

" We fled Mogadishu because of the fighting,” says Asha. " Now drought is the problem. The shortage of food and water is making my children very weak. Two of them are ill, and I had to take them to the clinic in Dusamareb. "

©ICRC/P. Yazdi 
Kenya. Nairobi International Airport. Loading water/habitation equipment for Somalia onto Red 444's backup, Red 484. 
  Dusamareb is one of 34 Somali Red Crescent clinics that the ICRC is assisting and supporting. Today, Red 444 arrives loaded with medicines for the clinic. " 85% of the cargo that the ICRC plane delivers to Somalia consists of medical and surgical supplies for medical facilities, including two main hospitals in Mogadishu,” says Pierre Alain Racine, the ICRC logistics coordinator for Somalia. " Sometimes we have to charter a second plane to carry all the medical goods.”

The ICRC supports two surgical referral hospitals in Mogadishu: Medina and Keysaney, which between them have treated more than 3,900 casualties since January 2009.

" Without the ICRC plane, it would be impossible to run the hospitals properly, and these are the only referral hospitals in Mogadishu " says Randi Jensen, the person responsible for hospital supplies. " We replenish both hospitals regularly and we can't imagine what we'd do without Red 444. Wounded patients can't wait for treatment, and surgeons can't operate without proper equipment and medicine. If we want to save lives, we have to act quickly.”

" The main challenge in flying to Somalia is security,” says William Mwadime. He has been managing the ICRC’s Somalia flights for the past six years. " We land in ten different locations in central and southern Somalia, so we're constantly assessing the security situation on the ground. This year we had over 100 rotations, landing in Somalia 462 times.”

The pilots and the ICRC delegation hold regular meetings. Pilots have the option of working for commercial operators, but despite the risk, they prefer to work for the ICRC. " We certainly take some risks in flying to Somalia and we're aware of that, but somebody has to do this job and I'm happy to be part of the ICRC's humanitar ian effort,” says senior pilot Ramesh Peshavaria. " I should add that in the 13 years that I've been flying to Somalia for the ICRC, I've never experienced an incident. You can rely on the ICRC network and field staff to make a reliable assessment of the security situation. In my opinion, the ICRC is well accepted and respected in Somalia. "

©ICRC/P. Yazdi 
Somalia. Red 444 takes off from an airport near Mogadishu. 
  ICRC delegates and field workers have great respect for these flying humanitarians. Faces light up when the ICRC aircraft appears in the Somali sky.

" The plane is a vital element of our humanitarian action in Somalia, " says one of the ICRC staff in Lower Shabelle region. " There was fighting in Kismayo and around the town over the last few days, so Kismayo Hospital has had to handle a sudden influx of casualties. Despite the tense security situation, the ICRC plane landed safely with surgical supplies, two war surgeons and a nurse from the Somali Red Crescent. Red 444 has made a huge difference. "