Tuesday, March 11, 2008

STRANGE BEDFELLOWS: WFP AND THE ARMY IN OGADEN

‘I have no intention of jeopardising WFP’s good relations with the government of Ethiopia’, Ms Ingeborg told Abshir. She threw her hands wildly, in frustration. Then, she switched on the intercom in front of her. Gazing at the big map of ‘Somali region’ hanging from the wall, she summoned Captain Shimelis.

Shemelis was employed by the World Food Program -Jigjiga, three months ago. He is an ex-fighter of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. She passed the field report submitted by the balding Abshir to the captain. ‘Please go over it and look for inconsistencies or inflammatory remarks’ she told him. She was not finished; ‘when you are done with it, I will disseminate to our partners’.

A little earlier, she shook her head in disgust, as she read few lines from Abshir’s report. ‘The food security situation of the region is worsening. Nearly one million people are facing acute food shortages. Twice that number is in dire need of water.’ The report said.

It was a scathing field report. ‘Food is neither delivered to distribution sites, nor distributed to the intended beneficiaries. In most districts, it is hoarded in army stores. And it is the army commanders who decide who gets it.’ Although this is a flagrant violation of the UN’s core humanitarian principles, Ms. Ingeborg was unfazed. ‘After all, who else is in a position to deliver the food?’ She openly tells the humanitarian fraternity, in meetings.

Deep inside, she fumes;’ why would I have to put my work on the line for ‘these people’? Last night, she watched the news on the BBC. She saw the burning of effigies of world ‘leaders’ and of her country’s flag. By a crowd of overzealous ‘ignorant’ Muslim ‘fanatics’. They were, protesting over the ‘Danish’ cartoons’, depicting Prophet Mohamed as a ‘terrorist’.

She hates all ‘intolerant rabbles’ that are hell-bent on destroying the ‘liberal’ democracies of the ‘heaven’ continents. She is a staunch ‘defender’ of the ‘freedom of speech’. But few yeas back, she was against the release from jail of the British holocaust denier, David Irving. There is no double-standard or hypocrisy here. The two issues are ‘distinctively different’. To her.

Ms Ingeborg knows the ‘people’ she is supposed to feed in Ogaden, are not different; than the ‘rowdy’ Moroccans ‘wrecking havoc’ all over Scandinavia. Or the ‘terrorists’ elsewhere.

WFP field monitor Abshir reported that food aid is being used by the Ethiopian army as a weapon of war. That statement desiccated what was left of her little ‘patience’. Not only did she tell him ‘it is not your business’, but she warned him ‘to watch his words’. She never went out to the field to assess and see for herself, but why would she? The trusted Shimelis won’t ‘lie’ to her. And he told her, the army is the most ‘reliable’ deliverer and distributor of food.

Far away, in the village of Gasangas, Lieutenant Takle was tired. He just finished a gruelling three hour supervision of the food distributions. Of the total five hundred quintals that arrived, fifty were given to the ‘community’. The names of the recipients were supplied by the district administrator. Takle approved the list after ensuring that a) they are not supporters of ‘anti-peace elements’ b) they fought the rebels recently.

Hence, when Basra-a destitute mother of three, angrily demanded food, she ‘crossed the red line’. Takle ordered her arrest. She was taken to the army camp. Few days later, the district head informed Takle, that he sold the rest of the food. They shared the ‘loot’.

Ingeborg recalls the firm direction she got from her boss in Addis Ababa: ‘work with the government’. Abshir never understands what that is supposed to mean. But for Ingeborg, it is not in her; to indulge in ‘elaborate definitions’. She took it literally.

Yet, just for curiosity, she asked her boss, ‘what modalities do we have in place at Addis Ababa level to ensure the government trusts us?’ she heard his reply; ‘we have agreed to hire four of their intelligence people as WFP staff.’ Ex-combatant Shimelis owes his job to that decision.

Her boss, Mr. Hamad el-Nur, knows what is going on with the food sent to Ogaden. He also knows that speaking out, would result in his immediate expulsion from the country. He is not happy with what is happening to his ‘Somali shaqiiq’s (brothers)’. But, first things first; his job is more important.

When he met Ato Simon Machale of the Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Agency, Mr Hamad was told to keep up the good work. Ato Simon said, ‘we are pleased with the conduct of the humanitarian operations in Ogaden. Many thanks to you, for the exemplary professionalism your organisation displayed’.

Ingeborg is already thinking of moving on to ‘new challenges’. That is what she told a friend over a dinner sometime ago. ‘My time here, in Somali region, was intriguing and enchanting’ she says. Adding, ‘I have no regrets.’

‘How ironic!’ Abshir says. Under her watch, the WFP in Jigjiga has gained reputation for compromising on its mandates, and collaborating in the ‘food warfare’ of the government; he thinks. He knows, lately, some locals made adaptations to the ‘We feed People’ motto of his office. They say it stands for ‘We Fight People’-with food, of course!

He derisively admits; ‘one ‘good’ legacy of Ms Ingeborg is that all ‘ludicrous distractions’ from work is stopped’. For instance, the early departure of local staffs for ‘Friday prayers’!

The following note was on Abshir’s diary. ‘In my entire life, I haven’t witnessed such an abominable dereliction of duty and profanation of the dignity of WFP’s lofty ideals. When the war is finally over, and the dust settles, the criminal ‘failure’ of WFP to assist needy population in Ogaden, will fill history books.’

The part about ‘history books’ is not his words. It is what the father of a malnourished boy, told him in Fik.

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