JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — As Somalia’s drought and famine worsened in recent months, the al-Shabab militia in the south seized families’ crops and stock and imposed taxes that made it almost impossible to survive, according to a report released Monday by Human Rights Watch.
It banned international humanitarian agencies as “infidels” and told the desperate population to depend on God instead. And it stopped many hungry people from fleeing the country for survival.
“I think they wanted the people to die,” one refugee from the al Shabab-controlled Sakoh district told researchers with the rights group in an April interview in a Kenyan refugee camp after fleeing the country.
“The impact of al-Shabab’s total prohibitions on food aid in areas under its control has been devastating for affected communities,” the report said.
“No humanitarian aid is accepted by those guys,” said DS, another refugee, from Afmadow district in southern Somalia. “They say, ‘These are infidels who are distributing food and we don’t want anything from them.’“
“They were telling people to just depend on God and forget about depending on the agencies,” said TF, from Bay province, who was interviewed at a Kenya refugee camp. He fled Somalia after nearly all of his 40 goats and 20 cattle had died of starvation.
The refugees were identified by their initials for safety’s sake.
Al-Shabab, which controls much of southern Somalia, announced last month it was lifting a ban on food aid, but it later backtracked.
“Al-Shabab has violated international humanitarian law by prohibiting food aid to many areas under its control. It has banned about 20 humanitarian organizations, whom it accuses of pursuing religious or ideological motives,” the report said.
It offers a chilling picture of a desperately hungry population in the grip of the region’s worst drought in decades, caught between ruthless armed groups, fighting for control. Al-Shabab, Somalia’s weak transitional government, militias allied with the government and African Union peacekeepers are all guilty of serious abuses, according to the report. Those incidents include killings, recruitment of children to fight, illegal detentions and indiscriminate attacks.
The government has launched attacks in recent months to expand its control.
The United Nations has declared famine in five regions of Somalia and has predicted the crisis will worsen in coming months. The world body, humanitarian agencies and Human Rights Watch have demanded that al-Shabab provide access for humanitarian agencies, particularly in the south, where the famine is biting hardest.
The hunger crisis was worsened by al-Shabab’s predatory “taxes” in the south, where it demands zakah, a Muslim religious duty to give alms, according to Human Rights Watch.
“If you have goats, they take your goats. Whenever the corn is ready, they come,” said DS, the refugee from Afmadow.
Other families suffered because women were denied the right to work, under al-Shabab’s radical interpretation of Islam.
Human Rights Watch interviewed Somali refugees in Kenya camps in April, and humanitarian groups, and Somali, Kenyan and U.N. officials in May and June.
Some refugees described the plight of family members who had repeatedly tried to flee drought-stricken areas but were blocked by al-Shabab.
Any vehicle laden with refugees and their belongings was turned back, said one refugee, JK. Another refugee, identified as KF, said: “We were arrested several times by al-Shabab and they were refusing that we cross into Kenya. They told us, ‘As teenagers you cannot leave the country. Who is going to defend the country?’ We pretended we were going back to Bula Hawo, and then took [back] routes.”
In some cases, humanitarian aid in Mogadishu, the capital, was blocked by soldiers of the transitional government, the report said.
“Theft and blockage of food has exacerbated food insecurity in an already tense, drought-affected and increasingly resource-scarce environment,” the report said, adding that the agencies still operating were overwhelmed or hindered by violence.
It also cast light on the suffering of civilians in recent Mogadishu fighting, with refugees accusing the al-Shabab of using civilians as shields, by firing on government positions from residential areas. Counterattacks by troops caused indiscriminate civilian casualties.
“Al-Shabab doesn’t let people go when an attack is coming, because they want to be with them and use them as a human shield. You don’t know who to blame. Do you blame al-Shabab for hiding among the public, or the government for hitting back at the same place from where they were fired on?” said one refugee, Ol, from Mogadishu.