“What the Hell Is Happening in Somalia?” – Part 1

Ghedi, 13 years old, is trying to escape Mogadishu, the capital city of Somalia. Now, before I start Ghedi’s story, let’s get ourselves situated. Here’s Mogadishu relative to the rest of Africa:


You can see that it’s a coastal city, on the southern end of the Horn of Africa (that’s the pokey piece of Africa jutting out right below the Saudi Arabia.) Let’s zoom in on that a little bit closer:


Note that Kenya is just southwest of Somalia. That’s important because Ghedi, the hero of our story, is trying to get out of Somalia and into Kenya. Specifically, he’s trying to reach Dadaab, a refugee camp in Kenya, 445 miles away. The journey looks like this:


To put that in perspective, here’s the trip from Independence to Nauvoo, shown at the same scale:


That’s 257 miles, according to Google — just over half the distance that Ghedi will need to travel in order to reach Dadaab in Kenya. Or, to compare with the trek from Winter Quarters to Salt Lake City:


That trip is 938 miles — about twice as far as Ghedi needs to go.

So quick review:

  • Independence to Nauvoo — 257 miles
  • Mogadishu to Dadaab — 445 miles
  • Winter Quarters to Salt Lake City — 938 miles

But let’s get to the real issue: why is Ghedi (along with hundreds of thousands of others) trying to escape from his home in Somalia? Right now there are two very compelling reasons to leave.

First, Somalia is facing a drought. Not a “please be considerate and water your lawn only three times a week” kind of drought. This drought is consistently described by various news sources as the worst drought Somalia has faced in 60 years. And that’s saying something for a country that experiences drought every five or six years. So Ghedi is having a hard time finding anything to eat. And that certainly motivates a person to find new habitations.

Second: Al-Shabaab. Back in the summer of 2006, southern Somalia came under control the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). There was a lot of fighting, and by the end of 2006 the ICU had been defeated. At this point, the ICU fractured into smaller groups. One of these groups is Al-Shabbab, a fundamentalist group pushing to impose a strict Islamic law in Somalia.

Al-Shabaab has obtained significant power in southern Somalia since 2009.

Map showing territorial gains made by al-Shabaab since January 31, 2009, when the civil war with Sharif Ahmed started.

Map showing territorial gains made by al-Shabaab since January 31, 2009, when the civil war with Sharif Ahmed started.

Is that necessarily a bad thing? I mean, in a chaotic, lawless country, wouldn’t strict Sharia law be better than no law at all? Maybe. I’m no expert on Al-Shabaab or Somalia, so I turn to Wikipedia for a description of the group’s activities:

in the port of Kismayo, a young girl accused of adultery was buried up to her neck in the field of a soccer stadium packed with spectators, and then stoned to death; her family said that she was only thirteen years old and had in fact been gang-raped. This summer, in the ancient coastal town of Merca, the Shabaab decreed that gold and silver dental fillings were un-Islamic, and dispatched patrols to yank them out of people’s mouths.


The disturbing acts of violence … including beheadings and amputations and the pulling of gold fillings … are often committed by illiterate children rather than radical leaders. There has been little reporting in the West of the fact that a wide majority of al Shabab factions have actively cooperated with international humanitaritan relief efforts – if only for a fee.

I suppose the answer is, “It’s complicated.” But not really complicated. Because when thousands of people decide it would be better to trek out into the wilderness than to stay at home, that’s a pretty clear sign that things aren’t doing so hot.

So, I’ll leave you with that setting for now. We’ll come back to Ghedi next time and accompany him on his attempt to journey from the chaos of Mogadishu to the relative security of Dadaab.

13 comments for ““What the Hell Is Happening in Somalia?” – Part 1

  1. Julie M. Smith
    August 17, 2011 at 10:30 am

    Thanks for drawing attention to this issue. I was saddened by these pictures:


    (Hope I am not stealing your thunder from future posts.)

    Also, doesn’t it make you (the generic you) sad how rarely professional journalists set up the context and background of a current event in the manner that was done here?

  2. Dane Laverty
    August 17, 2011 at 10:45 am

    Julie, your link is perfect — feel free to steal my thunder on this as much as you’d like. What can we do to help? I’d hoped to get to that in this post, and I’ll get to it in more depth later…but for many of these people, later isn’t an option. So here’s your answer right now: https://secure.unicefusa.org/site/Donation2?df_id=3821&3821.donation=form1 .

  3. August 17, 2011 at 11:23 am

    I know there is a legitimate reason behind including al-Shabaab and perhaps you will but could you elaborate on why it is partly responsible? I don’t doubt that their style of governing, or lack thereof, has contributed to the famine, but you only share examples of their brutality unrelated to the famine. Have policies they have implemented worsened the conditions? I assume so, but am curious to learn more from you on this. I apologize in advance if you plan on going into greater detail on this point in a future post. Otherwise, this is a great primer into understanding the context.

  4. Dan
    August 17, 2011 at 11:32 am

    yeah, this particular famine, or at least its severity, is directly related to human activity. particularly war. this provides a good perspective. One of the things you missed, Dane, and I don’t know if you are going to cover this in the following posts, but when the US backed Ethiopians invaded Somalia in 2006, that caused tremendous harm to the country. To that point, under Islamic rule, Somalia was actually doing okay, relatively speaking. That war was highly destructive and pointless.


  5. August 17, 2011 at 11:34 am

    Thanks for this and for the UNICEF link.

  6. James Olsen
    August 17, 2011 at 11:34 am

    Dane, I’m grateful to you for this post and look forward to your subsequent posts. May we all mourn with those that mourn and do what we can to lighten burdens.

  7. Dane Laverty
    August 17, 2011 at 11:36 am

    Hans, good question. In writing this piece, I was treating the drought (and subsequent famine) as an entirely separate issue from Al-Shabaab, showing that each of them provides a distinct reason for leaving Mogadishu. But Al-Shabaab has also contributed directly to the famine through stopping outside aid from reaching the starving people: http://www.care2.com/causes/militants-stop-aid-from-reaching-dying-somali-citizens.html

  8. August 17, 2011 at 2:02 pm

    This opening to the story is just the start. The photos from Julie’s link really brings it home as to how extreme of conditions exist in Somalia. It’s extraordinary how different our lands can be from each others’. Keep writing. The next post will surely be inspiring.

  9. Crick
    August 17, 2011 at 3:47 pm

    And the last time we (I’m in the U.S.A.) got involved in Somalia, a benign humanitarian mission ended with memories of “Black Hawk Down”.

    For a decade and a half, this place appears to have been avoided by the international community. I pray for the children there.

  10. August 18, 2011 at 11:27 pm

    I gave money to your unicef link. It seems that Doctors Without Borders is active in the area, as well. Do you have any other suggestions of good organizations which are active there? I’m looking forward to the rest of this series. The problems seem so overwhelming that I have been tempted to close my eyes and turn away, because nothing I could possibly do would be enough. But I want not to do that. I want to do something, to do what I can, even though it will only help a little. At least I can help that little bit.

  11. Dane Laverty
    August 19, 2011 at 8:50 am

    Tatiana — first off, thanks for giving! I’d debated putting up links to other organizations as well, but my experience is that that just makes it more intimidating. There are many, many, many worthy groups working to help out; UNICEF just happens to be the one that I’ve picked as my target support organization for this series.

  12. August 19, 2011 at 10:18 am

    Crick (9), IIRC, that famine also led to one comedian here in the U.S. joking that those in affected areas should “move to the food!” Funny, yes. A description of what is happening, sure. But also stunningly insensitive.

    The stunning fact of our world today is that there is plenty of food to feed everyone worldwide. The problem is distribution, which is largely hamstrung from the fact that little or no profit can be made in distributing to the poor and that so many societies and governments create impediments to that distribution (sometimes even intentionally).

    In contrast, so many of the political issues we face in the U.S. seem silly, self-centered, and selfish. We obsess about keeping our wealth safe and getting more while huge portions of the world starve or struggle in abject poverty. Should we fiddle while Rome burns too?

  13. Stephanie
    August 19, 2011 at 11:46 am

    I hope that in your series, you will cover the rape of women and children refugees who are trying to escape the famine. I think that’s part of what is so horrifying to me. Your story is of a young man (really still a child), and it is tragic that he is walking that long distance to escape. But there are women with 5 small children walking, burying their children along the way, and then being raped as they reach the border. It is beyond horrifying.

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