Thursday, August 15, 2013
For more than two decades, despite war and chaos and the murder of 16 of its aid workers, Doctors Without Borders has maintained its crucial medical aid to Somalia. But now a new wave of extreme attacks has pushed it into an unprecedented response: closing down all of its clinics and hospitals in the impoverished country.
The agency, also known as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), said the “last straw” came when it discovered that
some of Somalia’s official authorities were supporting or condoning the lethal
attacks on its aid workers.
In one shocking case, the convicted killer of two MSF aid workers was mysteriously freed from prison and
vanished into the streets after serving only three months of a 30-year sentence,
It is the first time in 22 years that the agency has shut down all of its
medical work in Somalia, and a stark reminder of how dangerously violent and
terror-prone the country remains, despite recent optimism that the country was
stabilizing. The sudden withdrawal of the famed relief agency will leave
hundreds of thousands of Somalis without humanitarian aid. Most have no other
source of medical care.
“It’s a massive and unprecedented decision, and incredibly painful,” said
Arjan Hehenkamp, a senior director of MSF’s global operations, in a conference
call with journalists on Wednesday.
Within minutes of the announcement, an MSF hospital in southern Somalia was
already attacked and looted by militants from al-Shabaab, an armed militia with
links to al-Qaeda.
Optimistic reports this year, including on CNN, have claimed that Mogadishu
is enjoying an “economic renaissance” and attracting foreign tourists with its
new-found stability. Oil companies, including at least one Canadian company,
were negotiating deals for Somalia’s oil resources.
But those reports soon seemed very premature. In June, militants attacked a
United Nations compound in Mogadishu, killing 22 people. A car bombing killed
three people at the Turkish embassy in Mogadishu last month, and several
government officials have been assassinated in recent weeks.
MSF is famous for enduring severe risks in the world’s toughest and most
dangerous war zones, long after other relief agencies have given up. But it
announced on Wednesday that it is shutting down its activities in Somalia after
a “series of extreme abuses” – including the killing of two staff in Mogadishu
and the kidnapping of two Spanish MSF aid workers who were abducted in a refugee
camp and held hostage for 21 months in southern Somalia.
With about 1,500 staff in Somalia, the agency is one of the biggest providers
of medical care in the war-torn African nation. It helped more than 620,000
patients last year alone in a dozen towns and cities across Somalia, and it has
given care to a further 300,000 Somalis so far this year.
The closure is “one of the hardest decisions MSF has had to make in its
history,” the agency said in a statement. It is the first time in 22 years that
the agency has shut down its medical work in Somalia. But it had already been
forced to use armed guards to protect its staff in Somalia – a precaution that
it does not take in any other country.
The decision to withdraw from Somalia was not only because of the extreme
violence, but also because the attacks were increasingly supported or tolerated
by civilian authorities, MSF said.
Civilian leaders in Somalia are playing a role in “the killing, assaulting
and abducting of humanitarian aid workers … either through direct involvement or
tacit approval,” it said in the statement.
In some cases, it said, the attacks have been supported or condoned by the
same armed groups or civilian leaders with which MSF has to negotiate promises
of security for its humanitarian work.
“Ultimately, civilians in Somalia will pay the highest cost,” said Unni
Karunakara, the international president of MSF, in a statement on Wednesday.
“The armed groups’ targeting of humanitarian aid and civilian leaders’
tolerance of these abuses has effectively taken away what little access to
medical care is available to the Somali people.”
He said the “risks and compromises” for the MSF staff have become too high
for the agency to accept.
“In choosing to kill, attack and abduct humanitarian aid workers, these armed
groups and the civilian authorities who tolerate their actions have sealed the
fate of countless lives in Somalia.”
In a conference call with journalists later, Dr. Karunakara said the
withdrawal will leave “huge gaps” in health care.
But some of Somalia’s leaders were “turning a blind eye” to the attacks on
MSF aid workers, and they weren’t respecting MSF’s independence and
impartiality, he said.
“We have now reached our limit,” he said. “We cannot work in such a volatile