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Somalia: the everyday fight for survival

05-02-2009 Interview

Drought, floods and the effects of 18 years of armed violence and lawlessness have driven much of the Somali population into destitution. Mathias Frese has been working in Somalia for many years as the ICRC's coordinator for relief activities and livelihood support.


  Mathias Frese, ICRC's coordinator for relief activities and livelihood support    
     How would you describe the humanitarian situation in Somalia today?    
Watch the video inteview with Mathias Frese. 

The humanitarian situation has not changed much in recent weeks and months, and remains very fragile. It is hard to imagine the circumstances in which the people in Somalia have to survive: many are living in appalling conditions. The food security situation is critical and livelihoods are at stake. The population has practically exhausted all its coping mechanisms. The only thing they can still do to survive is to collect wood and sell it or become beggars. Many people have to skip meals; they do not eat three meals per day because they simply do not have the possibility.

Following many phases of displacement due to fighting and natural disasters, there are hundreds of thousands of households who do need external support now. The ICRC is helping many communities with food distributions. Last year, the global food crisis also affected Somalia. In this already very difficult situation, the food prices were increasing and Somalis could not afford to buy regular food for themselves. Often people who have been displaced seek refuge with their relatives or their clan. In the Somali traditional system, the host family has to support the displaced family but you can imagine what a burden this is on the host family.

 The ICRC carries out livelihood, water and habitat, medical and tracing projects in Somalia every year. How do you manage to respond in a timely and efficient manner to emergency needs despite the volatile security situation in Somalia?  

The ICRC implements many emergency relief interventions, which take priority over a longer-term approach with livelihood and production interventions. We analyse what is possible and feasible to achieve, with the same logistic and human resources setup as in less stressful times, but with the great help of our partners from the Somali Red Crescent Society.

We have been delivering food aid to nearly half a million people over the last five months. You can imagine the considerable logistical challenges this entails in such a volatile environment. Our pillars of strength in these operations are our Somali colleagues and the Somali Red Crescent Society, those who are on the ground, on the spot. In today's situation, it is difficult to maintain agricultural production support or veterinary interventions, which do play an important role. But if we do not have the possibility to work securely on the ground in Somalia, these kind of livelihood support projects have to be scaled down.

 You mentioned the Somali Red Crescent Society, what is your collaboration with this National Society?  

In most regions where ICRC is working, south and central, but also in the northeast of Somalia, the Somali Red Crescent is present with its volunteers. Cooperation with the National Society on every level and particularly for our large relief interventions is essential. Experts and volunteers of the Somali Red Crescent assist us in the initial needs assessment, play a key role in distributions, they reach out to the communities, and they are the cornerstone of all of ICRC's work in Somalia.

 You have been working with the ICRC for over ten years. You lived and worked in many different countries before you came to Somalia, what made Somalia so special?  

In fact, I have spent a number of years of my humanitarian career in Somalia. I have really learned to appreciate and respect the Somali people and their culture. Somalis might seem a bit rough at first glance. But the truth is, Somalis are open, friendly and frank with a good portion of humour. Somalis have such a vast nomadic culture and ability to live in very rough environments even under exceptional circumstances. Unfortunately, all these years of armed conflict and violence have overshadowed their very rich culture and destroyed many human values and ethics. I hope that the Somali people will find some peace and make their way back to the roots of their culture.