REBEY, Somalia — Near a dried-out reservoir on the edge of this village is a dilapidated mud hut. The family that lived there until last month went so far as to strip off its straw roof and feed the material to their emaciated cattle. When the animals died anyway, the family disappeared.
Half of Rebey’s 80 families have abandoned their homes, fleeing a drought that has decimated their livestock and withered two years of harvests.
But cruel weather is not the main reason hundreds of thousands of people in rural Somalia are on the brink of starving to death. Rebels from the extremist al-Shabab group are blocking vital aid from reaching villages, compounding the effects of the poor rains.
Mohamed Ibrahim Hasan, a traditional chief in Rebey, said the deadly combination could spell the end for his lifelong home.
“If the rain is bad again this season, that’s it, this village is finished,” he said. “Or, if al-Shabab comes here to fight, then we will not be able to get the aid from outside that is keeping us alive.”
That aid agencies can still reach Rebey makes it an exceedingly rare and lucky village. Al-Shabab, an Islamist group that pledges allegiance to al-Qaeda, holds sway over most rural areas in drought-ravaged southern Somalia and opposes the presence of international aid groups, accusing them of colluding with its archenemy, the Somali government.
Without access to food, roughly 160,000 people from across the region have walked, sometimes for days, to disease-ridden camps in government-controlled cities where aid is available. Those who are too weak to make the journey are left at home to teeter on death’s edge.
Just six years ago, a famine swept these parts, and more than a quarter of a million people died. It is no coincidence that the worst-affected regions then, as well as now, are where al-Shabab has triggered mass displacement.
The militia is weaker and fragmented now, in part because its obstructionism during the last famine cost the group what popular support it had. But it has still mustered recent attacks on U.N. aid agencies such as the World Food Program. Thirteen aid workers were kidnapped by al-Shabab and other local militias in April, the highest monthly total since 2011.
Since the previous famine, government-allied militias together with African Union troops have regained control over Baidoa, a city near the epicenter of the drought. U.N. agencies and African Union troops share a heavily fortified compound next to the city’s airport.
Aid workers from private groups such as Save the Children and SOS Children’s Villages travel with truckloads of hired gunmen when they venture into the camps of displaced people in Baidoa or visit hungry towns nearby. U.N. staff often move in bulletproof vehicles with military escorts. Somali aid workers can travel with greater ease, but their association with aid groups makes them targets for al-Shabab.
“If they caught me, they would kill me — it’s that simple,” said a Somali employee of Save the Children, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of security concerns.
Al-Shabab does not just target aid groups, however. The rebels often retaliate against people who flee to Baidoa’s camps, saying they may be divulging details about the militants’ whereabouts to authorities. Many villagers, therefore, are reluctant to return to their homes when conditions improve. Aid workers worry that Somalia’s displacement crisis may thus prove intractable.
“If they go back to their villages, they would have to answer to al-Shabab,” said Edmore Tondhlana, who coordinates the United Nations’ drought-relief operation in Baidoa. “[Al-Shabab] will ask: ‘Where were you? Who did you speak to?’ They think that you have become a government informant. They can kill you.”
Baidoa is a refuge, for now. The displaced can check in at a government hospital, or fill up jerrycans at a water tank, even if the scattered camps are crowded and makeshift, and perfect breeding grounds for diseases such as cholera. Humanitarian agencies provide cash for people to buy food and materials for shelter.
Aid workers are scrambling to improve conditions in the camps, but they often must weigh their security against the needs of the displaced as they decide whether to travel outside their guarded compounds.
“The U.N. is al-Shabab’s most valuable political target right now,” said Roberto Mendoza, a Honduran who is head of security at the U.N. compound in Baidoa. He regularly prohibits U.N. aid workers from leaving the compound because of threats of attacks. Frequently, al-Shabab rebels creep close enough to Baidoa to engage the African Union troops stationed there, resulting in aid missions being postponed. In mid-May, al-Shabab took villages just miles south of the city, forcing planes to alter their flight paths.
“We’re doing the best we can,” Mendoza said. “But al-Shabab’s biggest strength is that they are underestimated. We can’t allow ourselves to have a false sense of safety.”
These frequent lockdowns mean that aid workers are delayed in providing services such as pit latrines, which could help prevent the spread of disease. Still, chances of survival in the camps are far higher than in the forsaken villages.
With the holy month of Ramadan beginning, fighting around Baidoa is expected to intensify. Al-Shabab and other extremist Islamist groups subscribe to a belief that God bequeaths military victories upon his most fervent followers and grants them double the rewards in paradise should they be “martyred” during Ramadan.
“Fighters we have captured are telling us that their brothers will attack Baidoa, and even the camps, during Ramadan,” said Hassan Hussein Mohamed, the head of the Southwest Special Police Force, the main unit of Somali security forces fighting al-Shabab near Baidoa.
A day earlier, Mohamed said, nine of his men had been killed by an al-Shabab car bomb just outside Baidoa.
“Nine, God bless them,” Mohamed said. “We are fighting with no logistical support, no medicine, no protective gear and no salary.”
The war with al-Shabab has been grinding on for more than a decade. A U.S. campaign of drone strikes targeting the group has intensified in the past few months. The militants have been pushed out of most of southern Somalia’s urban centers, but they have simply retreated and regrouped in the countryside.
Hasan, the chief in Rebey, said that until now his village’s proximity to Baidoa gave him a sense of protection from al-Shabab. But he too fears the battles that could occur with the onset of Ramadan.
“If they start a big fight and prevent us from getting aid, then that is our fate,” Hasan said with a shrug. “But are we not all Muslim? People here are already starving. Please, God, show us mercy.”