DOLO, Somalia (AP) — The U.N. will airlift emergency rations this week to parts of drought-ravaged Somalia that militants banned it from more than two years ago — a crisis intervention to keep hungry refugees from dying along what an official calls the "roads of death."
The foray into the famine zone is a desperate attempt to reach at least 175,000 of the 2.2 million Somalis whom aid workers have not yet been able to help.
Tens of thousands already have trekked to neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia, hoping to get aid in refugee camps.
Some — like Isaac Bulle and his family — have nearly nothing left.
"I hope we can cross to Ethiopia, but if we can get help here, we will stay here," said Bulle, who traveled with his two wives and 14 children for 25 days by donkey cart to reach this border town. "Our aim is just to get food. Not to leave the country."
Restarting the aid effort is a huge challenge for the World Food Program, whose workers were previously banned from the region by the al-Qaida-linked militant group al-Shabab. Fourteen WFP employees have been killed in Somalia since 2008. New land mines have severed a key road to Dolo. A landing strip has fallen into disrepair. Old employees must be found and rehired.
The new feeding efforts in the four districts of southern Somalia near the border with Kenya and Ethiopia could begin by Thursday, slowing the flow of tens of thousands of people who have fled their homes in hope of reaching aid.
The Bulle family is parked under the thorny branches of an acacia tree one river crossing from refugee camps in the Ethiopian town of Dollo Ado. They sleep on two tiny straw mats, although the youngest are bedding down on the rocky sand.
Bulle once had 50 cattle, some goats and grew sorghum. But the rains stopped two years ago, and food supplies stored in a cellar lasted the family a year. Then the animals began to die, forcing him to pack up.
When asked how much money he had, Bulle pulls out a thick wad of Somali shillings — bills that add up to the equivalent of only 80 cents. His only sign of wealth is a wristwatch.
His whole family survived the journey with no one getting hurt, killed or left behind.
U.N. worker Abdi Nur said that although Bulle was "clever" to pack just enough food to make it, he pointed to the farmer's young children gathered under the acacia tree.
"The kids are getting thinner. You can see," Nur said. "They are getting malnourished."
Nearby, hundreds of women with small children lined up over the weekend to register for the food distribution.
At a separate, less-organized site in the center of Dolo, a scrum of crying children and women in bright scarves pushed, pulled and shoved to register for this week's food distribution.
Dolo is the kind of sleepy African town where little children don't wear pants. Craggy sticks form fences between mud huts. Although a wide, muddy river flows here, the rocky and sandy soil supports little vegetation.
The U.N. says two regions of Somalia are suffering from famine and that 11 million people are in need of aid. But as of Aug. 1, the U.N. is set to declare all of southern Somalia — including Dolo — a famine zone.
In Rome, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said a coordination conference would be held Wednesday in Kenya.
The U.N. is pressing its efforts to gather $1.6 billion in aid in the next 12 months, with $300 million of that coming in the next three months.
Ertharin Cousin, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N.'s Rome-based food agencies, told reporters she didn't immediately know if the U.S. would boost its contribution on top of what it has already given.
Last week, the U.S. pledged an additional $28 million in aid for the drought crisis on top of more than $431 million in emergency assistance to the Horn of Africa this year.
New aid will reach Dolo this week. WFP is sending 5 tons of high energy bars by emergency airlift Thursday. More food will follow by land.
The WFP halted its operation in southern Somalia in January 2009 after al-Shabab forced it out. After the militants were driven out of some areas in an offensive this year by the African Union force — with an assist from allied militias and Ethiopian troops — the front line has moved back far enough that WFP can re-enter. It hopes to set up 70 distribution points in four districts — that is, if the local authorities who have given permission to the WFP to enter don't change their minds.
WFP executive director Josette Sheeran visited hunger zones in Somalia and Kenya in the last week. She recounted how refugee mothers told her they had to leave children behind to die on the road because they were too weak to walk farther, underscoring how urgently aid is needed inside militant-controlled areas.
"We feel an imperative to try to get closer however we can. Humanitarian aid at scale cannot get into hard-core areas of (militant) control, but you build up the ability for people to come out in different directions and get the aid they need," she said.
But if the refugees are dying before they can reach the food, "this is a new dimension to the problem. ... These are becoming roads of death," Sheeran said.
Yves Van Loo, the International Committee of the Red Cross spokesman for the Somali delegation, said his group has not had trouble distributing aid because it highlights its neutrality when it seeks permission to enter a region.
WFP officials, though, admit the difficulties they face in Somalia, and say some corruption of food aid could take place. Stefano Poretti, the Somalia country director for WFP, says there are enough controls in place to ensure it "will reduce the risk of misuse."
Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, who traveled to Dolo on Sunday with Sheeran, said the move into the wilds of Somalia "will not be a perfect humanitarian operation." But he added that the images of children slowly deteriorating required world governments to act now.
Al-Shabab indicated in early July it would let banned aid agencies back, but changed course last week and even denied that a famine is taking place.
The militant group, Bulle said, has created many problems for the people in southern Somalia. The group has raised taxes so much that many businesses closed. Bulle moved his family at night, to avoid militants' checkpoints, he said.
Feisal Noor, a Somali soldier, manned a heavy machine gun on a pickup truck at another hunger site near the border crossing to the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya.
He told an Associated Press Television News reporter that al-Shabab militants "are the enemies."
"They are not ready to assist the civilians, but now since we destroyed them ... we have now come to see that the people are in a very bad situation," Noor said. "So people need to be assisted and need to be given relief from both sides."
AP Television News reporter Khaled Kazziha on the Somali border near Dadaab, Kenya, Tom Odula in Nairobi, Kenya, and Frances D'Emilio in Rome contributed to this report.
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