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Al Qaeda-linked Al Shabaab has been driven out of parts of rural Somalia. But the crippling poverty hasn't gone anywhere.
RAS KAMBONI, Somalia — The main problem here last year was Al Shabaab, Somalia’s resident Al Qaeda affiliate.
Now it’s everything else.
“The main problems here are lack of water, medicine, education and food,” said Ali Mansour, an elder in the coastal town of Buur Gaabo. “We don’t take baths or wash our clothes. We live here like animals. Our children are all fishermen, not students.”
Since a local militia, backed by the Kenyan army, chased Al Shabaab militants from this part of southern Somalia in October, fear has subsided and security has improved. But little else has changed.
“Everything is from scratch,” said Abdi Raghe, co-founder of the African Rescue Committee, a local nonprofit. “There are no schools, hardly any boreholes for fresh drinking water and no hospitals.”
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International aid organizations are already stretched thin in the region and are unlikely to find the funding any time soon for a remote area like Ras Kamboni. Major aid groups, for example, were forced to issue an appeal on Thursday for more donations to help Somali refugees living in the Dadaab camp in Kenya, the world’s largest refugee camp.
“When we liberated this area we expected the international community to come and do something but they didn’t respond the way we hoped,” said Mohamed Farah, a regional military commander-cum-local official in Ras Kamboni, a town of 20,000 that also gives its name to the powerful local militia that helped evict Al Shabaab nine months ago.
While some support has slowly trickled in, residents say it isn’t enough. Last week a medical clinic funded by the World Health Organization (WHO) opened, offering free health care and drugs.
One of the first patients was 3-year-old Hodan, suffering since birth from a congenital hernia that will render her infertile if left untreated. The operation is simple enough for a trained surgeon but until last week there were none for hundreds of miles in any direction.
After the operation Hodan’s grandfather, Shair Bariow, carried her in his arms through the sandy streets of Ras Kamboni to a relative’s mud-walled hut roofed with palm fronds.
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Ali Kasim, an elder in Ras Kamboni, was grateful for the clinic but said much more help was needed.
“Security-wise things are good but on the side of livelihoods and social services we need support,” he said.
Kasim said that economic decay replaced development 21 years ago when the last government of Somalia collapsed in a hail of bullets.
The one thing that had kept communities afloat in Somalia’s south during this time was the charcoal industry, which boomed under Al Shabaab. Somali charcoal is exported to Dubai from the ports of Kismayo and Merca, which are still under militant control, bringing Al Shabaab millions of dollars in revenues.
A United Nations report in 2011 estimated that Al Shabaab makes nearly $50 million from commerce at the ports, with around $15 million coming from charcoal alone.
In February, in an effort to stem Al Shabaab’s cash earnings, the UN imposed an international embargo on all of Somalia’s charcoal exports.
On the beach in Buur Gaabo, the impact is clear. Huge stacks of charcoal sacks are piled up on the beach next to the town’s natural harbor. Each one is worth $4 locally and four times as much if they make it to Dubai. Local traders say the Buur Gaabo stockpile is worth millions of dollars.
“We understand there is an environmental impact but most of our capital is tied up in that charcoal in Buur Gaabo,” said Kasim, who claimed to own 15,000 sacks himself. “They should let us sell what is there and then stop the trade.”
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Omar Mohamed, a trader from Kismayo, makes the 24-hour journey by sea to Ras Kamboni every week with his two ramshackle sailboats. He brings all sorts of stuff: mattresses, pasta, sacks of rice, flour and sugar, dried fish, metal kitchenware, flip-flops and clothes. He used to return to Kismayo with sacks of charcoal but now leaves empty-handed, a loss that is costing him a third of his profits a week.
Mohamed said he had planned to smuggle “khat,” a herb that is chewed for its mild narcotic effect, back to Kismayo until he heard from a friend that Al Shabaab, which still controls the port, had caught a trader with bales of the plant, fined him thousands of dollars and set fire to both his boat and his cargo.
“People are under pressure,” he said of life in southern Somalia.