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Saturday, August 1, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Starvation: Grim Story From Somalia -- Relief Efforts Hampered By Civil Strife

Where to help

World Concern is at 19303 Fremont Ave. N., Seattle, 546-7201. Mercy Corps International's local office is at 3713 N.E. Ninth St., Renton, 226-9365.

Guns and drought have combined to produce harrowing scenes of death by starvation in Somalia.

Fred Gregory, the executive director of World Concern, an arm of CRISTA Ministries in Seattle, says they are the worst he has seen in 26 years of relief work.

U.S. officials estimate 2,000 people a day are dying from starvation and related causes.

Gregory, who returned from the East African country two weeks ago, said an international relief effort has been hampered by civil strife between warring factions in the country, whose former president, Mohamed Siad Barre, was deposed last year.

"Droughts are manageable, but because of the sale and supply of weapons to a country like Somalia to the degree it has happened in the past, almost everyone is armed, and the traditional ways of arbitration or settling differences have been eliminated," said Gregory. "The elders are now insignificant because young men and young boys with guns do it themselves, with violence."

Gregory said two nurses returning from a World Concern feeding center in Somalia were ambushed last month in an attempted hijacking of their jeep. A Somalian worker with the nurses was killed by "young guys with guns," said Gregory. The two nurses, one of whom was Trisha Banke of Seattle, escaped unhurt, he said.

Gregory said he wasn't sure how the Somalian clans were getting their weapons, but he noted that during the Cold War Somalia was getting military aid from both the United States and the Soviet Union.

Gregory and Howard Berry, World Concern's information director, who also was in Africa last month, said world attention mostly has been focused on Eastern Europe recently and the drought and fighting in eastern and southern Africa have gotten less attention.

"It's a kind of forgotten place," said Gregory.

Berry said that relief agencies are running into a problem of public perception. "People thought we solved the drought problem in 1984 (when Ethiopia was hard-hit)," he said. Citizens gave generously then, and recall reports that money was misused, added Berry. He said World Concern was not among those criticized for the way resources were used in combating the African famine.

Berry, the former program director for World Concern in Africa, said he was in Ethiopia during the 1984 drought. He said the current famine in Somalia, as well as the drought in other parts of eastern and southern Africa, has the potential of being worse. He attributed that to the civil unrest in countries like Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia.

Berry said he was shocked by what he saw: "Every place we went there were walking skeletons."

In Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, World Concern operates five supplementary feeding stations. Berry said he saw one four-year-old boy there who weighed only 10 pounds. He put on 8 more pounds after getting regular mixtures of wheat, corn, sugar, rice and soybeans.

Not only are the very young and elderly at risk, older children and teenagers are also suffering from malnutrition, said Berry. And he said he and other World Concern workers are finding some families who seem to be practicing a form of euthanasia, believing that by letting an infant die their older children might have more to eat. Berry said workers are trying to get the word out that families should bring all their children to the feeding stations.

The New York Times reported last Saturday that relief workers are estimating that one-third of Somalia's 4.5 million to 6 million people face "imminent starvation."

Berry was a member of a United Nations technical team that in March worked out the details of a peace agreement and cease-fire with warring clans in Somalia to facilitate delivery of humanitarian aid. But Gregory, the World Concern executive director, said sporadic shooting still breaks out in the so-called safe passage corridors.

Gregory said the International Red Cross has had armed guards with their vehicles because of the fighting. The U.N. has sent in 50 unarmed observers to monitor the cease-fire.

UNICEF, CARE and the International Medical Corps are among other groups working in Somalia, said Gregory. Mercy Corp International, based in Portland and with an office in Renton, providesemergency relief in Sudan and Ethiopia.

World Concern is a Christian relief organization with workers in Somalia, Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and Mozambique.

"We believe you need to live out your Christianity by how you live out your own life and treat others," said Berry.

World Concern has been in Somalia since 1981, when it began providing emergency medical care to Ethiopian refugees. It later trained community health-care workers there and worked with Somalians to replenish shrubs and grass and plant trees. World Concern-trained Somalian workers presently are operating supplementary feeding centers in Jilib, a rural area south of Mogadishu, said Gregory.

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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