In September, Somalis kidnappers kill a British tourist and his wife; later they kidnap a disabled French tourist, who subsequently dies; then in October they abduct two Spanish aid workers. In reply Kenya, whose economy depends heavily on tourism, sends hundreds of troops into southern Somalia in pursuit of an al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Shabab, which it blames for the incursions. Al-Shabab denies involvement but warns of retaliatory attacks in Nairobi, a warning to take seriously since al-Shabab’s killing of 76 people in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, in July 2010. The U.S. embassy in Nairobi warns against gathering in places favored by Westerners, and sure enough overnight Sunday to Monday, around 3am, a grenade is thrown into a Nairobi nightclub, injuring 12 people.
In Somalia itself, the Kenyan army claims significant advances, though in truth it has yet to meet concerted resistance and, at times, becomes bogged down in mud. Further north in Mogadishu, al-Shabab displays what it says are the bodies of 70 Burundian soldiers from an African Union force protecting the official government in the capital. (The A.U. admits to losing 10 men.) The U.S. says Kenya’s invasion initially took it by surprise but quickly backs it, seeing it as a chance to re-double its own long-running missile and drone campaign against al-Shabab. The six-nation East African regional grouping, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), also supports Kenya. In particular Ethiopia, which invaded Somalia in 2006 and stayed to fight al-Shabab and its allies in a bloody two-year occupation, says it may join in on the ground. Ethiopia’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister Hailemariam Dessalegn declares: “The long term goal is to eradicate al-Shabab from Somalia. This is the proper time. The process shows al-Shabab is coming to an end.”
Such is the anatomy of the start of Africa’s latest war. What’s missing? Some analysis and debate, perhaps. Many commentators predict Kenya’s initiative will fail. (See here, here and here.) Kenyan nationalists, on the other hand, furiously defend the incursion. (Particularly in the comment section of a blog I write for TIME, here.)
But something’s still absent. See if you can remember what it is. What’s the other thing happening in Somalia right now? Here’s a hint: it’s already killed many more people than war ever will.
More than three million people in southern Somalia are currently enduring the world’s worst famine for several decades. Our extraordinary ability to forget that catastrophe amid the excitement of conflict is more confirmation of the lackluster response the disaster has elicited. As of Oct. 24, three months after the U.N. declared a famine, the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) says the relief effort is still $626 million short of the $2.421 billion it says it needs. Tens of thousands of Somalis have already died. As long ago as early September, the U.N. warned the grand total may end up being three quarters of a million.
What’s worse, the new fighting can only exacerbate the famine. Many aid agencies consider the dangers of operating in a war zone unacceptable. In addition, those doing the fighting in southern Somalia have a history of blocking aid. Why is it that although all East Africa is currently facing the worst drought for 60 years, it’s only in southern Somalia that crisis has become disaster?Because while emergency aid operations have improved dramatically in the last few decades, to the point where 9 million of the 12.4 million East Africans in need of assistance are being reached, most aid groups simply aren’t allowed into southern Somalia. From one side, they are blocked by al-Shabab, whose more nihilistic members reject any Western assistance. From the other, they face similar obstacles from the U.S.-backed official Somali Transitional Federal Government, whose members have told TIME they want to starve al-Shabab into submission. The U.S., the world’s biggest aid donor, has also played its part. Until August Washington withheld all American aid from southern Somalia out of concerns that al-Shabab was sustaining itself by stealing it, either to feed itself or to sell. Realizing that was helping create a famine, the U.S. relaxed some of its restrictions in August – but too late, say aid groups, to save hundreds of thousands.
The manner in which a new war is now obscuring southern Somalia’s famine is a breath-taking demonstration – if any more proof were needed – of how our political and strategic concerns outweigh our humanitarian ones. In Somalia’s case, collateral damage has escalated to collateral catastrophe. You can still find occasional warnings about how Somalis are dying at record rates. The extraordinary thing is how hard you’ll have to look.