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Flooding kills 130 Somalians; 300,000 homeless

Nov. 12, 1997

Three weeks of rain attributed to El Niño; malaria, dysentry and cholera expected to follow

Associated Press

Rain steadily beat down on the Juba River, day into night into day, until the winding waterway burst its banks and flooded the lush green valley in southern Somalia. Mohamed Abdirisak said it took just five days of rain for the Juba to flood his house and cut his hometown in two. The 50-year-old agronomist was among as many as 300,000 others without homes or food Tuesday.

At least 130 people have drowned since the flooding began three weeks ago, aid workers and local officials said. Those trying to survive on dry patches of land amid the swirling waters have to contend with crocodiles and other creatures.

Entire villages have been submerged, roads washed away, bridges destroyed and towns cut off from all communications except by air.

With chocolate-colored mud dripping from his bare feet, Abdirisak shook his hand at the endless mass of brown water all around him.

'There used to be my house, just left of that tree,'' he said Tuesday, pointing to branches sticking out of the water. There was no sign of a house.

The Juba Valley is the breadbasket of Somalia, producing sorghum, a staple crop in this nation of 7 million. The calamity could not have come at a worse time: nearly all of the freshly planted sorghum and the reserves just harvested have been destroyed.

Abdirisak waited Tuesday for one of two plastic boats provided by the United Nations to carry him to other side of the river, where flood victims have set up a sprawling refugee camp.

He and others stranded reeled off the horrors of flooding: they've killed a 13-foot-long snake; a crocodile killed a man in the flooded marketplace; others have fought aggressive hippos for patches of dry land.

At least 23 people have drowned in Bardera alone. A doctor at the camp said he was tending to 150 cholera victims, and feared more will appear. There is no clean water, meaning that residents are drinking contaminated water that will bring dysentery. In the meantime, malarial mosquitoes were breeding by the thousands in the muddy water.

'It's a mess,'' said Bill Coudie, a U.N. Children's Fund worker. 'The problem is longterm. People have lost homes, crops and livestock. They'll need support to get back on their feet.''

Aid workers said such heavy seasonal rains haven't been seen in Somalia in 30 years and speculate they could be the result of the periodic weather pattern known as El Niño, which is warming ocean currents in the Pacific and provoking weather changes throughout the world.

When the last such disaster struck in 1961, Somalis could rely on their government and army to rescue them.

Now, six years into a civil war, there is no central government and the estimated one million people in the Juba Valley depend on the mercy of the world to provide helicopters, boats and food.

The same faction leaders who forced a U.S.-led peacekeeping operation to pull out in 1995 now are appealing for outside help.

In 1992, troops of Operation Restore Hope moved in to protect convoys of relief food for the starving people of the Juba Valley from looting by militiamen working for faction leaders.

The absence of a central government and ongoing clan warfare in the center and south of this East African nation make distribution of food aid difficult even when the weather is dry.

'Our people have been killed in fighting; now it's the floods killing them,' said Gen. Mohamed Siad Hirsi, leader of the faction that controls much of the area now under water.

'We need help urgently, and I'm giving my personal assurances that the airport and seaport will be absolutely safe from any bandits,' he said from in his headquarters in Kismayo, where the Juba flows into the Indian Ocean.

But foreign governments and donors haven't been as forthcoming as aid agencies had hoped.

So far, not a single government has responded to a request for helicopters. The European Union was expected to announce a major donation for Somali operations on Wednesday, and the U.S. government gave 50,000 prepackaged ready-to-eat meals to be air-dropped to flood victims.

The Red Cross delivered the first planeload of shelter material to Bardera on Tuesday.

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