Chance for the children

The United Nations security briefing was succinct. ''Where you're going is classified high risk but not at unacceptable levels,'' the security manager said.

We are sitting in the searing heat of Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, the unrecognised independent state of Somalia. We are repeatedly told Somaliland, home to nearly 4 million people, is stable compared with neighbouring Somalia and its capital, Mogadishu.

The UN security officer went on matter of factly as we swatted flies away from our camel steak burgers in the Ambassador Hotel.

''In Somaliland there is moderate risk of kidnapping, a high threat of violent inter-clan clashes and there is intelligence that the al-Qaeda-aligned terror group al-Shabaab is regrouping here, or travelling through on its way from Yemen into Mogadishu.

''Neighbouring Puntland is considered lawless and home to pirates now moving inland due to US drone attacks on the coast. Separatist fighters in Somaliland's Khatumo region want to break away from this already fractured and fragile state.''

Welcome to Somalia - one of the world's most dangerous and divided countries, a failed state that has not had a proper government since 1991 - a country whose 10 million population is destitute.

Somaliland, which declared independence from Somalia in 1991, has a functioning government, of sorts. Just don't expect much after lunch when men head off to chew the intoxicating khat leaf.

Despite the relative calm, security is tight and curfews strict. We travel in convoy with heavily armed police for protection along roads built by previous colonisers now long gone, whether back to Britain or Italy, or the former Soviet Union. Now the roads are laid by the Chinese.

We are told we will be fine, then told that in 2009 co-ordinated suicide bombings in Hargeisa killed 29 at the presidential palace, Ethiopian consulate and UN offices.

Early last year the situation worsened when droughts ravished the Horn of Africa, encompassing Ethiopia, Somalia and Djibouti. Millions, mostly from Somalia's south central region, fled across the borders into Kenya and Ethiopia. The UN estimated 3.2 million people were on the brink of starvation in Somalia alone while an estimated 12.4 million in the region were in a dire situation.

Famine and drought are common on the Horn, but last year's drought was considered the worst in 60 years. Crops failed, herds died and yet again the region was in crisis.

In August last year, international aid agencies ramped up their campaigns. Australia's then foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, committed the government to doubling every dollar the public donated. Eventually Australians gave $3 million to UNICEF's Horn of Africa appeal. The Australian government gave $1.2 million to UNICEF and a total $11.2 million to other Australian NGOs, charities and agencies.

Last month, Australia's UNICEF officers checked on where that money went. Over a week we travelled to numerous sites in Somaliland, where UNICEF relief efforts focus on combating infant mortality and helping with nutrition, sanitation and emergency food distribution.

Somaliland is a dry, hot land of rubble, rocks, thorn bushes and cactuses. Orange termite mounds rise from a carpet of scrub, and aqal, Somali huts, dot the arid countryside like bubble wrapping. Traditionally these dwellings were made from bush materials. Now these shacks are colourful patchworks of worn modern materials such as cardboard, old T-shirts, sheets and jeans torn apart. They are intended to provide shade or cover on the vast open terrain. Herds of camels and goats graze where they can, and enjoy the right of way on the roads.

From Hargeisa we drive three hours north-west to Berbera, a port town on the Gulf of Aden. Berbera is even hotter than Hargeisa.

The port is Somaliland's major earner. It is from here that millions of head of its cattle are exported, mostly to Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Aid agencies such as UNICEF bring in necessities like mosquito nets, blankets and basic medicines.

We watch workers unload sacks of grain. There is also an impressive inflow of consumer goods, such as flat-screen TVs, washing machines and car parts. Cigarettes appear to be the most popular item transported.

The head of the UNICEF mission in Somaliland, Ettie Higgins, explains that the region's lack of basic infrastructure, not security threats, are the biggest hindrances to aid workers.

''Our biggest challenges are mostly in the rainy season, with bad roads throughout the year that become even worse,'' she said. ''In some of the most hard-to-reach places it takes two days of driving off road to get there.''

This does not stop UNICEF visiting those regions, she added, but the problems inflated already massive logistical costs and delayed response times.

The following day we head south-east to Ainabo, and to visit the UNICEF-supported Red Crescent, the Islamic arm of the Red Cross. This runs post-natal clinics and first aid, vaccination, health and hygiene courses. There is a strong focus on training women who take their new skills back to their communities.

One of the Red Crescent stars is Kaltun Hussein Dahir, who said the organisation's 100 mostly volunteer midwives were encouraging mothers to breastfeed their newborn babies.

''The 'first milk' is critical for the baby's development but there are cultural factors that really make this message difficult,'' she said. ''Some families give camel's milk instead. Grandmothers that never immediately gave their children milk from the breast have a lot of sway in the family and because they did not do it they don't want new mums to do it.''

Dahir's major concern is the region's 95 per cent rate of female genital mutilation.

''It's hard to change men's mind but it's also hard to convince older women, too,'' she said. ''Women actually do the procedure. We are retraining them, trying to find them another job to do, but really it's a long way to go.''

A bit out of town we see the UNICEF-funded program run by Swiss NGO Medair that provides nutrition bars when food is urgently needed. Grebrand Alhema explains that hundred of assessments are made every week. High-calorie peanut-based ''plumpy nut'' nutrition bars are provided mothers of children deemed at risk.

Those running the program are, generally, happy with the results. Women are visiting its centres, sometimes walking for two days to reach them, and health workers are charting their babies' growth.

''We are saving lives,'' Alhema said. ''But, of course, we would like to see the weight gain coming at a higher rate. We explain the plumpy nut bars are for a specific child but other kids in the family want to eat them, too. It's sweet and tastes good, so others want a bit. It's up to the mother to make sure it gets to the right one.''

He acknowledges that providing the bars is a short-term fix.

''This is where the drought really caused the problems,'' he said. ''Crops failed and cattle died. There has been some good rains lately. But it will take two to three seasons to get the cycle going again to get back to acceptable levels.''

The Ainabo mayor, Sheikh Kalif Ismael, a businessman famed for regularly appearing on Somali television, is thankful for the UNICEF visit, the work of Red Crescent and Medair. As ever, more can be done.

''Our biggest problem is a shortage of water,'' he tells us. ''We need more wells.''

Then we see a UNICEF-funded water project that appears to be a success. Community leader Ali takes us on a tour tightly gripping a book that on closer inspection is a ''dictionary of accounting terms''.

We learn, however, that a particular family, living nearby has control of the taps and charges a nominal fee for their use. Such enterprise is usually encouraged but the project was supposed to assist everyone in the neighbourhood. The aid workers said they were trying to rectify the problem.

In Burao, immunisation rates are low and there has been a measles outbreak. It is quite a different story in Ainabo, where they have seen several preventable deaths and the religious leaders accept the agencies' immunisation programs.

Outside Burao, in the Koosar settlement for ''internally displaced people'' 7000 live in a vast shanty town in shacks made of aluminium. Originally, its residents had fled war and inter-clan fighting between 1988 and 1996 and went to eastern Ethiopia to live, but returned to Somaliland to make a home in the desert.

At a UNICEF maternal health clinic in Koosar, women line up patiently with their children for the most basic of services.

Sahra Abdi, originally of Mogadishu, is 30. She has five children.

''My husband died last year and getting food for the family is tough,'' she said. Koosar had been their home for the past 15 years. ''It's too dangerous, so we can't go back.''

Fatima Sulakha, 25, has four young children, each needing shots. ''I am happy to be in Somaliland, as it is our country,'' she said. The two women said UNICEF had improved their lives and they wanted to ''tell Australia we are very thankful''.

Aid work is not easy, especially in a place like Somaliland. During our visit Somalia's president, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, survived an ambush attack outside Mogadishu. It was the second attempt in recent times.

In the same period Somaliland newspapers reported that the family of their nation's president, Ahmed Mahamoud Silanyo, was linked to an alleged $5 million funding scam.

The World Bank at the end of May reported that $130 million in UN aid for Somalia, including Somaliland, in 2009 and 2010 had simply vanished. The world has spent billions over the past 20 years on Somalia with little result.

There are good news stories. The opening of a $17 million Coca-Cola plant in May, between Hargeisa and Berbera, is the country's most recent and biggest private investment.

Improved economic and political stability has also inspired much of the Somaliland diaspora to return, keen to build businesses and homes. While some resentments exist between those who stayed during tough times and those returning cashed-up, new houses, hotels and shops were regularly and proudly pointed out.

The UNICEF Australia's Tim O'Connor says aid alone is not the answer to Somalia's problems.

''But aid is a crucial part of the solution,'' he said. ''We've seen firsthand how the support of Australians for UNICEF is reaching people and communities with life-saving interventions in health, nutrition and clean water.

''By working with local partners and communities and combining UNICEF's international expertise, many, many children now have a chance of a better future.''

Ilya Gridneff travelled in Somaliland with the assistance of UNICEF.

The story Chance for the children first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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