In the village of Baidoa street traders sell their wares behind colorful shop fronts, young boys sporting British premiership football shirts greet the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) troops – they talk about their favorite teams. Small groups of boys, no older than 10 years of age, shuttle up and down the main street in the village with donkeys to the main water source in the village.
It is difficult to believe that this was once known as “death city” when, after the collapse of the Somali state in 1991, its people were subjected to dreadful atrocities at the hands of individuals loyal to the former dictator Siad Barre. In a seven-month period between 1991 and 1992, 150,000 people lost their lives in the region as food supplies were looted and wells poisoned. The orgy of death was only stopped by the intervention of an American-led, United Nations-sanctioned multinational force charged with creating a safe environment for the conduct of humanitarian operations in the southern half of Somalia.
Following the withdrawal of international forces from Somalia in the aftermath of the Black Hawk Down incident, Baidoa was fought over by various armies and militia. In February 2006, the Transitional Federal Government relocated from Nairobi and set up base in Baidoa, inside a grain warehouse that had been temporarily converted. Three years later, in January 2009, the city again changed hands following a seven-month siege by the al-Qaeda affiliated terror group, Al-Shabaab. It would be another three years before the city was re-taken by Somali national forces with the aid of Ethiopian troops on 22 February 2012.
Currently, Baidoa is watched over by African Union troops, who begun deploying there in April 2012. Based in Doynunay, 27km from Baidoa, 1,050 Amisom troops help the Somali and Ethiopian forces protect the city residents from Al-Shabaab. They will soon be joined by an additional 1,500 troops currently advancing from the market town of Afgoye, on the Shabelle river, with the aim of connecting the Middle and Lower Shabelle regions to the Bay and Bakool regions.
Today the city is a very different place. On 23 February, exactly one year on from Al-Shabaab being driven out of the city, Baidoa is set to host an important conference. Bringing together more than 500 traditional elders from the six regions of Somalia, they hope to open a discussion and move one step closer to forming a unified administration. “The international community needs to wake up to how much Baidoa has changed, how peaceful it is here, but yet how the humanitarian situation in the region still needs to be addressed. Baidoa has come a long way but there is still more to be done,” says Abdi Hoosegow, a former advisor to the Somali Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who has recently returned from the UK where his family still live.
At the Baidoa Regional Hospital, in a pretty, tree-lined quadrangle, local men and women busy themselves building a new unit for the hospital to add to the current 18 departments which include a casualty department, laboratory, pharmacy, under five’s unit, antenatal and an operating theatre. The hospital also runs an outpatient therapeutic programme supported by the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) and implemented by a local NGO, BRH, and community members from Baidoa. The hospital receives on average 60 patients a day where, commonly, treatment for malaria, typhoid and salmonella is administered – other serious cases are seen to by the Amisom doctor at the Baidoa base camp. The hospital has but a handful of qualified nurses and, despite the hustle and bustle and number of clearly marked departments, there is only one qualified doctor who carries out surgical operations. The hospital director, Omar Bile, of the World Health Organisation, says that the facility desperately needs resources to secure pediatricians and gynaecologists.
We meet the governor, Abdi Fatah Mohammed Ibrahim, known as “Geesey” – he fled to Ethiopia in 2009 during the Al-Shabaab years only returning after the city was liberated last year. He is pleased with improvements in the security and peace in the city and is grateful of Amisom’s efforts but he feels there is more to be done. “What we need is more support from the UN, Amisom and the international community so that we can address the humanitarian situation. It’s not just a case of providing food and water, we need to reinstate these people back into their communities and return them to their farms, so that they can give back to the region,” he says. He also believes there is a role for the diaspora community who should return to the region and start to invest in order to help address the humanitarian problem.
He hopes the elders’ conference will focus some international attention on Baidoa and bring increased assistance for the city’s long suffering people. DM
David Bass is a senior information officer in the press and media team at the AU/UN IST, a United Nations contracted capability that provides strategic communications support to the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom). Prior to joining the AU/UN IST, Bass was a communications adviser to the British Foreign Office, the office of the British Prime Minister David Cameron at No. 10 and Nato Headquarters in Brussels during the Libyan civil war. He studied law at Durham University.