If the past is anything to go by, TVs the world over will show heart-wrenching pictures of malnourished Somali babies with distended kwashiorkor bellies; of flies feeding on their eyes; of mouths sucking at milkless breasts. Environmental experts will pontificate on the recurrent droughts in Somalia. Aid organizations will canvass the world’s rich to find the funds to feed the starving. Governments will make promises they won’t keep. What has been a tributary of refugees leaving Somalia and entering neighboring Kenya will become a flood. This will be channeled into refu­gee camps, which will overflow with rivers of human misery.

A couple of years ago, I was visiting my good friend Abdullahi Mohamed Shirwa, a respected civil society leader based in Mogadishu. He wondered aloud if the country would continue to exist, given the prevailing circumstances. A week ago, I received a call from him. He described the situation as “disastrous, almost beyond repair.” He asked: “Why are our people being left to die, starving — decade after decade?”

Nearly 170,000 Somalis have arrived in the refu­gee camps since January, according to the United Nations. Yet the suffering humanity fleeing the famine is indicative of the catastrophe awaiting an even larger multitude of Somalis. I am talking about those who have stayed behind, those from whom death harvests its daily dividend. After all, they are in worse need, desperate for help that they are not likely to receive. This is because humanitarian agencies are not allowed to reach these unfortunates. Access is being prevented by al-Shabab, the al-Qaeda-linked hard-line religionists who claim divine sanction — and who are declaring death on the cut-off hordes.

In a way, the current situation in Somalia is much worse than the one in 1992. During the famine then, warlords held the nation hostage. Millions of Somalis were caught in the middle, and hundreds of thousands died of hunger. In response to the crisis, the United States sent in the Marines to to do “God’s work,” as President George H.W. Bush put it. But that intervention was a half-measure, and the unfinished mission led directly to the calamity we’re living today.

The U.S. military action in Somalia resulted in the deaths in 1993 of 18 American service members; thugs supporting the warlord whom the Americans were hunting dragged corpses through the dusty alleys of Mogadishu. Humiliated, the United States withdrew. Al-Qaeda claimed credit for the attack and went about the business of recruiting terrorists nearly undisturbed, and was able to launch attacks on the U.S. Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya five years later.

By withdrawing, the Americans played into the hands of the disrupters of peace, ultimately privileging the terrorists. The United Nations rewarded the warlords with undeserved honor, describing them as leaders instead of treating them as criminals. The warlords were invited to a series of national reconciliation conferences to form a government, and Somalis equated this bizarre turn of events to the notion of entrusting a flock of sheep to hyenas. Only a fool thinks that no harm will come to his sheep.

After the United States left Somalia, the rest of the world stood by, leaving the warlords to profit from their criminality. Al-Qaeda strengthened its presence in the country. Foreign vessels entered Somali waters and engaged in illegal fishing, which caused piracy to balloon into an ugly reality. Somalia lived on mortgaged time, leased out to criminals of one sort or another, an ideal world for terrorists to flourish.

If we had had foresight and acted upon it; if the Marines had disarmed the warlords; if the U.N. Security Council had issued arrest warrants for the warlords early on, stopping them from prolonging the failure of the state; if the Security Council had dealt with the warlords — who had denied millions of starving people access to food — decisively, in the same way it dealt with the genocidal regimes in Serbia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Sudan, then al-Qaeda would not have established a secure base from which to plan terrorist attacks. Our country would not have been hamstrung by the enormity of our problem, nor would it have become the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.

For two decades, many alliances known by different names and belonging to different interest groups, all of them harmful to Somalia, have collaborated to destabilize the country. The Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen has said that famines are easy to prevent and that they often disappear with the establishment of a multiparty democracy, a free press and an active political opposition. These elements of a democratic society can guard against famine or mitigate its disastrous consequences.

We don’t have any of that in Somalia. Instead, we know that the recurrence of droughts stems from political collapse — the failure of the governing class to deal with impending catastrophes, which often take years to materialize.

By the time drought is upon us, it is often too late. On my last visit to Somalia in February and March of this year, one could already see terrible times coming, a rainless season on the horizon. People were studying the arid desert winds for signs. Many people I spoke to couldn’t help forecasting a famine. The word, in fact, was on everybody’s lips in Galkayo, in the central region of the country. There, the wells had dried up, and wars were being waged over the right of the nomads to water their beasts.

To date, the world has taken only piecemeal steps to deal with the Somali people’s plight. So far, none has worked. It is time that the Security Council referred Somalia to the International Criminal Court for an in-depth investigation, as happened with other recent humanitarian disasters in Sudanand Libya, for example. Only the high-profile nature of such a prosecution could ensure that justice is done and Somalia can become a governable country.

The alternative is for the international community to prepare to return to Somalia in 10 or 20 years. Then, humanitarian agencies will have to negotiate for access to millions of starving Somalis with some new group of criminals bent on the physical elimination of their people, knowing that, as in the past, they can pursue their goal with impunity.

Nuruddin Farah, a Somali-born novelist, divides his time between Cape Town, South Africa, and Minneapolis, where he holds the Winton Chair in the college of liberal arts at the University of Minnesota. His novel “Crossbones” is forthcoming in September.

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