by John Boonstra

As reported by Reuters, the violence in Somalia, according to a high-ranking UN official, has generated a humanitarian emergency eclipsing even that of Darfur:

High levels of malnutrition and the difficulties of delivering aid make Somalia the world’s most pressing humanitarian crisis, the U.N. refugee agency’s representative there said on Tuesday.

More than 1 million people have fled their homes in Somalia, which is convulsed by fighting between Ethiopian-backed government forces, Islamist insurgents and an assortment of warlords.

“I’ve never seen anything like Somalia before,” Guillermo Bettocchi, representative of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said during a visit to London.

“The situation is very severe. It is the most pressing humanitarian emergency in the world today — even worse than Darfur,” he told reporters, referring to the war in western Sudan, which has driven 2.5 million from their homes.

A bomb attack which killed three foreign aid workers in Somalia on Monday underlined the difficulty in delivering aid in the anarchic country that has been wracked by clan violence for 17 years, he said.

Fifteen percent of the population suffer acute malnutrition while health services are very limited and sanitation, water and shelters are extremely poor, Bettocchi said.

While a remarkably broad grass-roots constituency has propelled Darfur to the forefront of US media attention — at least relative to other enduring African conflicts — the ongoing chaos in Somalia has been relatively ignored. Lacking the moral impetus of “the g-word,” Somalia’s humanitarian disaster has not galvanized US activists as has Darfur, which can be easily oversimplified and digested as genocidal “Arab” militias attacking black “African” civilian victims. Somalia’s diverse array of armed groups and history of instability foster an impression that this conflict is particularly intractable.The images many Americans retain of Somalia are scenes from the movie “Black Hawk Down,” which recounts the story of the 18 US marines killed and dragged through the streets of Mogadishu in 1993. That debacle set the stage for US inaction during the frantic Rwandan genocide of 1994, and it has left a persistent bad taste in the mouths of American politicians considering taking action in Somalia.

Despite this deterrent, the US has quietly involved itself in supporting Somalia’s transitional, Ethiopian-backed government, even providing military aid to Ethiopia’s counter-offensive against Islamists a year ago. The US should back up its interest in combating terrorism in Somalia by fully supporting the United Nations’ efforts to improve the country’s dire humanitarian situation. While Somalia lacks Darfur’s admittedly grim prospects for speedily deployed UN peacekeepers, the UN — through the World Food Program, OCHA, and other agencies — has provided valuable food and medical care for displaced Somalis. Unfortunately, operating in an environment of utter insecurity, with only a beleaguered African Union force for protection, these humanitarian programs require continued support and enhanced security to fulfill their crucial missions.

Humanitarian crises should not be compared to one another, of course, and the scale of the disaster in Somalia does not diminish the urgency of responding to the atrocities in Darfur. Nor should the sheer enormity of the dangers faced by an entire region deter the world community from concerted action to improve each scenario. DR Congo, we mustn’t forget, remains one of the deadliest areas of the world, and Kenya’s recent political violence has exploded into something far more sinister

Four years ago, Darfur was characterized as “the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.” This mantle has since passed, but it would be a true tragedy to allow the crises in either Darfur or Somalia to continue to languish — whether on the front page or under the radar.

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