UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres urged the international community to rapidly increase aid to displaced Somalis during a landmark visit to the capital, Mogadishu.
"We are seeing here a deadly combination of conflict and drought and the misery is out of proportion to what is being done," the High Commissioner said on Wednesday during a visit to a settlement for internally displaced people (IDP) located on the grounds of the city's crumbling cathedral. They have fled drought, famine and fighting.
"The whole humanitarian community needs to scale up assistance to reach people wherever they are in Somalia," added Guterres, who was making the first visit to Mogadishu by a UNHCR chief since the 1990s.
For most of the approximately 400,000 displaced people in and around Mogadishu, aid is hard to come by and survival is a daily struggle. In the past two months, more than 100,000 Somalis, mostly livestock farmers, have fled to the capital from the drought-scorched regions of Bay, Bakool and Lower Shabelle.
During his visit, Guterres saw large numbers of Somalis camped in different parts of the city and in urgent need of lifesaving aid.
At the cathedral site he met families who had been waiting for days or weeks to receive assistance. Surviving on donations from the local population, they live a hand-to-mouth existence and many are in poor health.
At the Maajo settlement on the city outskirts, the High Commissioner visited during a UNHCR distribution of plastic sheeting and cooking utensils. One visibly exhausted woman said she had left her land in Lower Shabelle nine days earlier to seek aid in the capital after all her livestock had died because of the drought.
Clutching a two-year-old boy, she told Guterres that she had left her five other children behind with her mother. "I am very worried about them," she said, "I left our last bit of food behind, but I think now it is finished."
Speaking to journalists who accompanied him to Mogadishu, Guterres pointed to the "enormous difficulties of access and capacity" for humanitarian aid workers trying to help the needy amid insecurity.
"My main worry is if there is not enough assistance the humanitarian tragedy we are witnessing will get worse," he said.
The UN estimates that one in three Somalis is in urgent need of humanitarian assistance and a third of all children living in south-central Somalia are malnourished.
Escorted by the African Union (AU) peacekeepers, the UNHCR delegation passed buildings destroyed by warfare or damaged by bullets, rockets or artillery shells. But there was also a lot of life on the streets and many shops doing a brisk business – encouraging signs of a city attempting to recover after years of conflict and chaos.
The security situation has improved in central Mogadishu since the withdrawal earlier this month of Al Shabaab militia forces to the outskirts.
Somali Foreign Minister Mohamed Mohamud Hajji claimed that the city was fully under the control of the Transitional Federal Government and AU peacekeepers, "but we need more support for the whole country."
In a meeting with High Commissioner Guterres, Somalia's President Sharif Ahmed expressed concern about the spread of diseases such as cholera in IDP settlements. The leader of the transitional government cited the need to "immediately feed the displaced and aid the people we can't get to.”