Martino Diez, of the magazine Oasis, interviewed Giorgio Bertin, Bishop of Djibouti and Apostolic Administrator of Mogadishu, about the situation in Somalia
What events have led to the famine in Somalia, what is happening?
The famine is the direct consequence of the lack of rain. According to statistics a similar situation had not been recorded for 60 years. All the countries of the Horn of Africa live off nomad livestock-raising and agriculture; it is enough for one or two seasons of rain to be ‘missed’ to make the populations extremely vulnerable, considering that they live on support, day by day. It is a question of mentality, without forgetting the international macroeconomic system which in fact punishes the weakest. For the next six months, even if the October-November rains come, supplies will continue to have to be sent to the people hit by famine.
Is this situation limited to Somalia or does it concern the whole of the Horn of Africa? The famine concerns not only Somalia but the whole of the Horn of Africa. Somalia, and in particular south central Somalia, is the worst hit region as added to the natural calamity there is also the ‘human’ calamity, that is, a country that has been living for twenty years without a state, without a real authority and often in continuous armed conflict: all these factors combined explain the dramatic situation. Even Djibouti has been hit by drought. The difference is that in Djibouti there is a state that can organise the aid and plan for the future. Moreover, while south central Somalia lives mainly off livestock-raising and agriculture, Djibouti lives off services: agriculture is practically inexistent.
Can the Church and the Catholic NGOs operate in the area?
The Church is not able to work in too direct a way: generally we do it through ‘friendships’ and local organisations. A more direct and open presence on our part in a stateless country in the grip of a conflict instigated by radical religious movements is neither opportune nor possible. For this reason I have advised the various Caritas centres to work on behalf of the Somalis in the refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia besides continuing what they already do in northern Somalia.
People do not understand why Somalia is stateless…
I remember the title of a book written by a Somali professor: Somalia: a nation searching for a state. If I understand this rightly it means that Somalia is made up of an essentially nomadic people which during the colonial occupation found itself within state structures. Following independence and the unification between the Italian and British parts in 1960, there was a first ‘republican’ period until 1969 followed by a ‘socialist-revolutionary’ one, which did not succeed in forming a modern state and creating a mentality that went beyond private interests or the clans. In my opinion this explains the typically ‘nomad’ difficulty in creating a state which is able to serve a national community. According to me, this difficulty does not mean impossibility. Perhaps the bitter experiences of these twenty years of civil war and now of famine could help the Somali mentality to evolve and give rise to a state which takes into account the typically Somali tradition and at the same time is open to the values shared by today’s world.
The Somali Church has been the victim of harsh persecution leading to the martyrdom of a number of people. What is left of the Christian presence in Somalia?
For me persecution means something organised by power. For this reason I have rarely used this word when speaking of our martyrs of Somalia. It is the lack of state and therefore of an authority that has allowed fringe groups or individuals to use religion to kill various people. Let us not forget that other Somali Muslims have also been killed for similar reasons.
The physical Christian presence has been reduced to practically nothing, even if there is still a small number of Somali Christians, who are forced to practise their faith in secret. Our presence at this time is felt above all in humanitarian action: the Church accompanies the Somali people as far as it can and with what means it can at the moment. For me this means being a ‘shepherd’ who accompanies the Somali nomads and their flocks towards better pastures: life together, the sharing of resources, the respect for the rights of persons and the various human groups…Accompanying them in this way means not only giving material aid, but above all bringing this drama to the attention of the world. It is the Somalis in the first place, together with the international community, who must be more assiduously committed to finding a solution. The Pope has spoken on various occasions about this over the last five years, inviting men of good will not to leave Somalia alone.