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Aid Worker Diaries: Keeping hope alive in Mogadishu

23 Dec 2011


5 December 2011: OCHA Humanitarian Affairs Officer Ahmed Farah Roble and UNHCR staff see first-hand the conditions at an IDP settlement in Mogadishu, Somalia.
Credit: OCHA/Ari Gaitanis
Ahmed Farah Roble is the UN’s longest serving humanitarian officer in the Somali capital, but he is still personally affected by the plight of people struggling to survive conflict and famine.

It’s a hot, dusty morning in Mogadishu, the war-ravaged capital of Somalia, and Ahmed Farah Roble is in a makeshift settlement for internally displaced persons (IDPs), listening to a mother tell him about her baby daughter.

Ahmed nods patiently, asks questions and listens attentively. He’s in the camp to meet with its representatives, to learn more about their situation. Many have recently arrived from the country’s south, fleeing hunger and conflict. They have very little – and urgently need food and medicine, shelter and health care.

It’s hard not to be affected by what he sees and hears - especially as the 45-year-old was born and raised in Mogadishu. As the longest-serving UN humanitarian affairs officer in the capital, Ahmed has heard many similar heart-breaking tales before.

“But it is painful, still. I can say that, before, this was a peaceful city. It was paradise. Now, these people living here have lost everything, their property, opportunities for education. There are not enough health services. There is no safe drinking water in some areas,” he says.

“I’m one of those who was here in the golden days, when the situation was good. These last 20 years - when the country was devastated by endless and continuous conflict – it is really painful for me.”

For much of the past four years, through some of Mogadishu’s heaviest fighting, he was the lone man on the ground for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) – the part of the UN responsible for bringing together humanitarian groups to ensure a coherent response to emergencies.

The fighting was so severe and the situation so dangerous that, until recently, OCHA was unable to deploy more staff to join him.

“It was not an easy task to work here then,” says Ahmed. “All of the humanitarian community was targeted, no matter whether they were international or national. You could be targeted, kidnapped and killed at any time.”

“It was a critical time, and even for me it was very difficult to get access to the people most in need.”

National staff members like Ahmed make up more than 90 per cent of humanitarian workers around the world, working on the frontlines. Too often, they bear the brunt of violence. The dangers of working in Somalia, and restricted access for internationals, have led to a greater reliance on national staff, as well as local partners.

“International staff bring a wealth of technical experience to this crisis, but the role played by national staff is just as important,” says Marcel Stoessel, the head of the OCHA-Somalia sub-office in Mogadishu. “After all, nobody knows Somalia better than the Somalis – and without the local expertise of our national colleagues, international staff couldn’t do their jobs.”

“National staff speak the local language and often some local dialects as well, so they can more easily interact with people. They also understand the clan structure in Somalia, which is important if one wants to be successful in this humanitarian operation. They help us make crucial links with the government. Last, but not least, it’s much safer for them to move around Mogadishu than it is for international staff. People like Ahmed are our ‘humanitarian eyes and ears'.”

Ahmed’s family is in a neighbouring country for safety. For much of the time that he’s been in Mogadishu, the city has been riven by a fluid frontline dividing the two sides – fighters belonging to the Al Shabaab movement and troops belonging to the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). The TFG is supported by the peacekeeping forces of the UN-backed African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

The violence worsened the already-dire humanitarian situation for the city’s existing residents, as well as the many new people who sought help and refuge there after famine struck parts of the south in mid-2011.

Since Al Shabaab’s withdrawal from the central parts of Mogadishu in August, the frontlines have been pushed back to the city’s outskirts – but the situation is still far from secure. The use of roadside bombs, grenades and suicide bombers is a regular occurrence, and on the rise. Outbreaks of fighting still take place regularly. In early December, the city experienced some of the fiercest fighting in more than three months, as Al Shabaab forces attacked TFG troops.

“The scale-up of humanitarian aid has done a lot for the situation here. Malnutrition rates and mortality rates have dropped, and access is better in some places - so I have been able to visit various IDP settlements. But there is a need for more help,” Ahmed says. “I see it and hear it all the time.”

Heading back to his car to make his way to the OCHA sub-office is no easy feat. IDPs try to grab his attention with every step. Finally back at his desk, now populated with two new national colleagues and three international colleagues, Ahmed starts preparing a report of what he has heard and seen during his visit.

The report will inform OCHA and its partners about the humanitarian needs of that IDP settlement, allowing the humanitarian system to direct essential aid to its residents.

“It isn’t possible to express enough appreciation about what Ahmed did during these difficult times, both before and now,” Marcel says. “The team has grown this past year and Ahmed is truly a resource for all of us – a walking encyclopedia about Mogadishu. I particularly appreciate Ahmed's background and experience. I don’t take an important decision without consulting him.”

Ahmed smiles when he hears of Marcel’s words later in the day. He says he doesn’t have much time to discuss them as he has to finish his report ahead of a meeting. While he appreciates the comments, he is motivated by a deeper purpose.

“I believe that I need to work with these people who didn’t have the same opportunities as I did,” he says. “I was given advantages. The taxes people paid went to my education, so now I try to assist —it’s part of my moral principles.”

“I have the sense of a humanitarian. That’s a real driving force which helps me to forget everything - especially when I feel so far from my family, when I am doing this night and day. I’m just happy that I am doing a good thing.”

His eyes go back to his keyboard and he starts typing.

Reporting by Ari Gaitanis

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