Hunger in a bitter battle of bullets and bullies

Hunger in a bitter battle of bullets and bullies WHEN the UN threatened to block relief supplies to Somalia unless its troops were deployed there, the warring factions in the drought-stricken, strife-ridden country, after rejecting the idea, capitulated. But even before the 500 UN soldiers arrived, local militia looted a part of the first UN food shipments.

Fierce fighting since the overthrow in January 1991 of Siad Barre, president for 21 years, has killed tens of thousands of people, driven people from their homes, destroyed the fragile agriculture system and made food delivery difficult and dangerous.

International aid agencies estimate that about 1.5 million people face imminent starvation in Somalia. The Red Cross reckons about a third of the country's nearly 6 million population is likely to be wiped out within the next six months if food availability does not improve.

One in six people in the country is a refugee and the entire population is dependant on food aid. Since May this year, the UN has sent 22,000 tonnes of food, a little over a third of the total earmarked for the country. The Red Cross has brought in 7,000 tonnes and smaller aid agencies have also contributed to keep up the 400 refugee kitchens in the country running.

Aid agencies in Somalia have criticised the UN for delays in shipping food, poor distribution mechanisms and the use of large ports that aggravates the problems of distribution. But last month, the situation reached a peak and the UN threatened to stop aid because of the looting and black-marketeering of food aid and the repeated attacks on relief teams by militia factions.

Some experts suggest flooding Somalia with so much food there would be no incentive to divert it or inflate prices. The Economist has urged that the world should take the grain out of Europe's surplus stocks; dump it on the beaches of Somalia; kick it from the back of a cargo aircraft and even turn it over to local leaders and avert your eyes. But the cycle of hunger must be broken.