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Somali villagers flee arid lands

NOBODY IS left in the village of Matano, southern Somalia. The absolute stillness of two hundred abandoned homes is arresting. Some doors swing open, offering window on the evidence of flight. Clothes, pots, beds, and water carriers left behind speak of a comprehensive and fearful exodus.

But the devil that stalks this village, and hundreds of others, is not fighting and social chaos; it is drought. Water catchment holes are bone dry, food stores are empty and the rain-fed fields of sorghum are nothing more than dry stalks. "Migration is the very last option," says Roger Carter, the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (Unicef) officer in Bardera, capital of Gedo region, "If they don't get more help now, there'll be a major tragedy."

Tens of thousands of people in the southern regions of Bay, Bakol and Gedo are fleeing to towns in search of help.

They are threatened by one of the most devastating droughts on record - and, not least, by the fact that international aid agencies are reluctant to help them.

"In terms of assistance, Somalia is seen as having `original sin'," says Lyn Geldof, information officer for Unicef, referring to the ultimately disastrous international humanitarian and military intervention in 1992 by the United States and the United Nations, which failed to stop the conflict and resulted in killings of expatriate aid workers, soldiers and journalists.

Last month, Unicef's Somalia representative, Gianfranco Rotigliano, visited donors in Europe to sound the alarm on the possibility of a full-scale famine, but says he was sent away "with a pat on the head. I felt stupid," he says.

Drought has followed hard on the heels of massive flooding last November, which destroyed houses and farms, killed livestock and brought disease. Now, with a devastated infrastructure and almost nine years without a central authority, Somalia has nothing in reserve to cope with another disaster.

But trying to prevent yet another emergency is seen as "crying wolf", complain concerned aid workers and - despite expensive early-warning systems and monitoring - it is still likely that money will only come along with the images of starvation and death.

Moving international assistance into the country is seen as "opening a can of worms", says one food officer. The country is run by a whole web of rival well-armed clans, and to introduce food aid for any group would trigger a nightmare of demands and negotiations.

Now, a little assistance is being overseen by a few international and local staff in Bardera. Unicef distributes every two weeks bags of "Supermix" - dry cereal - meant for children under five. Without any other rations, everyone eats it. The condition of many children deteriorates, even if they are in one of the mushrooming camps for the displaced.

Present help "barely meets 10 per cent of the needs", says Abdinasir Zobe, the local food security officer of the UN's World Food Programme. Even the arrival this week of a sole truck carrying more supplies is not all good news; coming from the Kenyan border, the rest of the convoy had been delayed by hungry villagers en route demanding a share of the food.

Aden Mohamed, 30, with a family of five, including twins aged 10 months, admits he is surviving on Supermix. "We know it is for the children but we have nothing else." When the rations run out, the family has one cup of sweet tea a day. The family walked for seven days to get to Bardera, leaving behind most of their belongings, and have built a tiny temporary dome hut next to the banks of the River Juba. Mr Mohamed tried to find casual labour at one of the irrigated maize farms on the river bank, but found himself among thousands of others willing to work for less than the price of a cup of tea.

Bardera has become "a relatively safe haven", says a Unicef officer, Roger Carter. But it is becoming rapidly over-burdened by the exodus from the villages, which sees 10 to 12 new arrivals every day. With a functioning local authority, it is one of Somalia's more successful regions, with the breakaway northern territories of Somaliland and Puntland.

Townspeople now see local militia "more as protectors than looters", says Mr Carter. Local radio stations act as a telephone and banking system, allowing businessmen to make out-of-town money transfers - even to relatives abroad. Generators and satellite dishes have provided evening entertainment, with public video parlours offering international news, soap operas and the sport.

But the stresses of disaster are already evident - fighting in the displaced camps between townspeople and villagers during distributions; rising prices in the markets; and the daily struggle to find firewood and shelter as more people arrive.

"It's like crossing an invisible line," says Ms Geldof. "One day it's bearable, the next day it's a disaster."