WASHINGTON and MOGADISHU —Fadumo Abdi has been hungry for months now. She’s already lost one child to starvation and she doesn’t know if her surviving children will make it to the end of the year.
Having recently relocated to a camp for internally displaced persons, or IDPs, near Mogadishu after fleeing the drought-and war-ravaged areas of south-central Somalia, Fadumo has lost almost everything. She came to the capital hoping to find steady work, to figure out a way to ensure her children have a future.
“When we arrived here, there were no services or support,” Fadumo, a slender woman draped in a dark green hijab and brown dress, tells Rolling Stone during a visit to her camp. “The only help we got was from fellow IDPs, who gave us sticks and sheets to assemble a makeshift tent. But that was all.”
“Getting access to food and water for my children is out of the question,” she adds.
Perched on a wooden stool in that tent, Fadumo has little time to worry about current events elsewhere in the world. She has her hands full trying to keep her two sons – eight-year-old Imran and seven-year-old Ahmed, who sit beside her on a torn mat that covers only a portion of the dirt floor – alive. It’s already been more than a day since their last meager meal, often just a few scraps of food shared by her neighbors in the camp. In any case, she’s never been outside of Somalia.
Fadumo doesn’t know that Russia recently pulled out of a key humanitarian agreement to allow grain and other foodstuffs to trickle out of Ukrainian ports. She doesn’t know that the resulting reduction in food shipments, volatility in commodity markets and rising prices for wheat mean even less humanitarian aid for millions of refugees around the globe.
“More than 80 percent of food imports in Somalia and East Africa were already coming from Ukraine and Russia even before the war,” Shashwat Saraf, the regional emergency director for East Africa at the International Rescue Committee (IRC), tells Rolling Stone by phone from Nairobi. “Over the past year, Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya are coming out of one of the worst drought periods in years. The dependence on food imports has only increased since the war in Ukraine started.”
But the amount of food aid being delivered has been decreasing.
Fadumo and people like her – from Sudan, to Yemen, to Afghanistan, to Haiti – are caught in the crossfire of the invasion launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin, their lives endangered by it as surely as any resident of Bakhmut or Zaporizhzhia.
Fadumo and her children may die in Somalia, casualties of the war in Ukraine.
At the beginning of the war, Russia seized three of Ukraine’s five biggest ports – Mariupol, Yuzhny and Berdyansk – and attempted to seize the other two: Odesa and Chornomorsk, only miles apart on Ukraine’s southwestern Black Sea coast. That attempt failed, and port facilities in Odesa oblast, or province, remain in Ukrainian hands. But with the beleaguered Russian Black Sea Fleet essentially unchallenged in open water, the only safe passage through the blockade for commercial vessels has been with Russian cooperation.
Ukraine was the world’s third-largest exporter of corn and fifth-largest exporter of wheat in 2021, according to data from the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service, which monitors global food trade. Since the invasion, the country’s total agricultural exports have plummeted 65 percent, with some exports – like planting seeds and dairy – collapsing entirely.
But Ukrainian farmers are still working. Harvests continue to roll in: agriculture accounted for 41 percent of Ukraine’s exports before the war, and employs 14 percent of the country’s workforce. Millions of tons of Ukrainian grain have accumulated in silos around the Black Sea.
Enter Turkey, which controls access to the Black Sea via the Bosphorus, and whose President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has shrewdly sought to position his NATO-allied country as the go-to honest broker between Moscow and Kyiv.
Amid dire warnings about the humanitarian impact of the loss of Ukraine’s food exports on global markets, a flurry of diplomacy coordinated by Turkey and backed by the United Nations resulted in an agreement last July known as the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which allowed third-party ships to load food and fertilizer in three Ukrainian ports – Yuzhny, Odesa and Chornomorsk – and deliver it overseas.
The first vessel to sail under the deal – the World Food Program-chartered Brave Commander – headed for the Horn of Africa from Yuzhny in mid-August, loaded with Ukrainian grain seized by Russia. As wheat is the primary crop used for humanitarian aid, it carried 23,000 tons of it to Ethiopia. Further vessels followed, from both Ukrainian- and Russian-controlled ports. By the time Russia pulled out of the deal, approximately 32.8 million tons of food, including corn, wheat and sunflower oil, had been shipped out of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports over one year.
The food shipments – 57 percent of which went to developing countries, and included 725,000 tons purchased by the WFP for emergency aid in countries like Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen – “helped reverse spiking global food prices,” which dropped 23 percent from their peak in March 2022, according to the UN.
Now, the grain in Ukrainian facilities is no longer being loaded onto ships, and commercial vessels are largely avoiding Ukrainian ports. After withdrawing from the Initiative, the Russian Ministry of Defense released a statement saying “any ship sailing to a Ukrainian port would be regarded as a combatant carrying weapons.” Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense followed with a statement in kind, saying any ship traveling to a Russian or Russian-controlled port in the Black Sea would be subject to attack.
Although few commercial shipping companies are willing to risk their crews and their ships navigating a blockade without security guarantees, on July 30th three merchant vessels appeared to do just that. The Israeli, Greek and Turkish-Georgian registered vessels sailed to the Danube port of Izmail, on Ukraine’s border with Romania, with their automatic identification systems announcing their registration and destination. The Russians did not stop them.
In the days following the suspension of the grain deal, Russia began carrying out a systematic series of strikes against agricultural infrastructure across Ukraine, targeting grain silos and freight facilities with advanced cruise missiles and drones.
Odesa was the particular target of wrath, with a succession of nightly attacks damaging and destroying hundreds of buildings across the city and port.
“It started the first night after the end of the grain agreement,” says Julia Gorodetskaya, a writer who currently lives in Odesa, having relocated from New York City shortly before the invasion last year. “It was quite quiet here for some time. After that there were four nights of hell.”
The Russian strategy is the long-term degradation of Ukrainian agricultural production. Using waves of drones and long-range ballistic and cruise missiles to saturate Ukrainian air defenses, the Russian military has destroyed processing plants, grain silos, shipping facilities, and transport nodes.
“Our farmers work at their own risk these days – they have to farm in minefields, and for what?” Julia asks. “For nothing. Because those bastards are sending those missiles to destroy it all.”
After the suspension of the Grain Initiative on July 18th, EU officials were quick to reassure Ukraine that they will be able to make up for the lost shipping capacity out of Black Sea ports with alternate routes, overland through Poland to Baltic ports, or via rail and Danube riverboat to Black Sea ports in Romania and Bulgaria, or Aegean ports in Montenegro and Croatia.
But Ukraine’s existing shipping routes and infrastructure can’t be replaced easily. It takes 1,500 tractor-trailers to carry the cargo equivalent of a single supramax freighter ship. Adding an extra 1,000 miles of overland transhipment per ton of wheat increases inefficiency and drives up costs, and there’s nothing to stop Russia from targeting the alternative routes where trucks, trains or riverboats load grain in Ukraine.
In fact, it already has, striking grain shipment facilities in the town of Reni, on the border with Romania, on July 23rd. After the blockade runners made their way into Izmail, that port was subjected to a wave of air attacks, which targeted grain silos. The Ukrainian defense ministry said 40,000 tons of grain were destroyed.
“The thousands of tons of grains that were damaged would have been enough to feed approximately 66 million people for a day,” said Denise Brown, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Ukraine, after a visit to the site of the attack.
One of Moscow’s key demands to keep the grain deal going was to reconnect its largest agricultural bank, Rosselkhozbank, to the SWIFT international financial transaction network, from which it is banned under current sanctions. Russia needs hard cash to prop up its economy and continue the war in Ukraine, and food exports to a hungry world are a ready source of funding.
In fact, Russian grain exports are booming. “Russian wheat exports are forecast to hit a record 45 million tons in 2022-2023, up 36 percent from the prior year,” according to a report from international trade researchers at the USDA.
In the wake of the deal’s suspension, wheat and corn futures spiked around the world – meaning food prices will increase, which also means more cash in Russia’s pockets.
“That’s the other really cynical part of this. Russia could have 47.5 million tons of wheat to export this year,” says Jacob Shapiro, a geopolitical analyst who specializes in global risk to supply chains and agriculture for Cognitive Investments. “Maybe they just want to drive the price up to get hard currency.”
The subsequent attacks on Ukrainian agricultural and port facilities also reduced the amount of food making its way out of Ukraine, further driving up prices. Again, this means more cash for Russia. And the dismantling of Ukraine’s economy is a Russian military goal in-and-of itself. There’s no viable military solution that will open the doors to Ukraine’s ports. There is only diplomacy.
But negotiations are at an impasse, with Western countries refusing to lift the ban on Russian banks using SWIFT, and Moscow refusing to budge. “As soon as the Russian part of the agreement is fulfilled, the Russian side will return to the implementation of this deal immediately,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
Meanwhile, with Putin deaf to pleas about 48 million people on the brink of starvation in Africa from international aid groups and the United Nations, pressure can only come from key economic partners like China, whose food imports from Russia have actually increased since the war began, and which will not be pleased at having to spend more money for less imported food.
Other than peace breaking out, experts believe Turkey holds the key to unlocking Ukraine’s ports. How much pressure Erdoğan is willing to exert – and whether Putin will listen to him – is unclear. But the Black Sea is the linchpin to Moscow’s maritime trade in petroleum and agricultural products with Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
“This is Russia’s primary strategic challenge. They don’t have other options for access to the open oceans,” Shapiro added.
And there is one country that controls the Bosphorus.
“Turkey is the wild card,” Shapiro says. “They have all the leverage.”
In a phone call with Putin on Aug. 2nd, Erdoğan reportedly told his Russian counterpart that the grain deal must be reinstated. The two leaders also agreed to meet in Turkey “soon.”
Meanwhile, Russia continues targeting Ukrainian food supplies. As the wave of attacks continued, Julia recorded a video of herself telling the Russians to “Go fuck yourselves, instead of Odesa.”
The phrase went briefly viral across Ukraine.
In September, the UN announced that “famine is at the door” in Somalia.
“People are already dying,” said Martin Griffiths, the Emergency Relief Coordinator for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, in a statement released after visiting IDP camps across Somalia.
“I repeat: This is a final warning to all of us. The situation and trends resemble those seen in 2010-2011, in that crisis,” Griffiths said, referring to a famine that killed more than 250,000 people, mostly children. “Except now they are worse.”
Over the past year, the worst regional drought in 40 years and an increasingly unstable security situation has forced hundreds of thousands of Somalis to pour into IDP camps in search of assistance, even as the war in Ukraine sapped the resources of aid groups, diverted donor dollars, and reduced the amount of essential food aid being delivered to humanitarian crises around the world.
In Somalia, Washington is central to humanitarian relief efforts.
“The United States is the single largest donor of humanitarian assistance to Somalia, with the U.S. government’s total contribution of approximately US$1.7 billion since the beginning of fiscal year 2022 representing more than two-thirds of all humanitarian funding for Somalia to date,” a spokesperson at the aid agency USAID tells Rolling Stone.
But efforts to provide humanitarian aid go hand-in-hand with efforts to stabilize the country. Washington has spent more than $3 billion over the past decade to provide security assistance to the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS), which since its creation in 2012 has been at war with the extremist group Al-Shabaab. The US has supplied the FGS with tons of small arms and ammunition, military training and advisers, intelligence and air support in an effort to defeat the group.
In 2019, at the peak of a years-long air campaign against Al-Shabaab, the US and FGS conducted at least 60 airstrikes and drone attacks against alleged militants, reportedly killing hundreds – including, in several cases, civilians.
Meanwhile, Al-Shabaab continues to control wide swathes of countryside, and has demonstrated that it still has the ability to strike, even in the heart of government-controlled territory.
“There was a lot of optimism when the new government [FGS] was established,” says Dr. Tricia Bacon, a counterterrorism researcher at American University, who focuses on Al-Shabaab. “Now there is political infighting and corruption. The FGS clears territories held by Al-Shabaab, but can’t offer governance.”
By comparison, Al-Shabaab governs the territories it runs “like the most effective mafia you can imagine,” Bacon says.
She adds that the U.S. has no appetite for the kind of concerted “nation-building” that would be required to root out Al-Shabaab. “The U.S. has been conducting airstrikes for years, and they – and the FGS – claim to have killed thousands of fighters. But the estimates of the group’s size remain the same.”
“There’s such an emphasis on the military piece of it, but it just doesn’t produce any real progress.”
This ongoing instability has a direct impact on deliveries of aid, not only making it exceedingly dangerous for aid workers to try to reach many areas in need of assistance, but also by jacking up food prices.
Essential food items such as bread, rice and cooking oil remain unaffordable for many families and individuals affected by the drought, particularly those languishing in camps. Feeding a family of three or four on less than a dollar a day – as Fadumo is attempting – is impossible.
“Taxation by al-Shabaab and other non-state actors drives up the costs of food staples, passing on the costs to consumers as goods move through the country,” the USAID spokesperson says. “The result of this unofficial taxation is that even in the more accessible areas of Somalia, prices increase by an estimated 30 percent, while less accessible areas may experience a 100 percent increase in the price of food and other essential goods.”
Compounding this challenge is the fact that many aid programs designed at alleviating malnutrition and hunger take the form of support programs which provide cash or vouchers to families, allowing them to purchase essential items on their own.
“We do quite a bit of cash-support programs, to allow families to directly purchase their own minimum expenditure basket,” Saraf, the IRC emergency director, says. About 80 percent of the aid is intended to cover food costs, he says. So when food prices go up, “it means we have to increase our cash assistance to each family, which means we have to reach fewer families.”
Now, the collapse of the Black Sea Grain Initiative only makes things worse.
“Any fluctuation in global markets where the situation is so dire can have a very big impact,” says Alyona Synenko, the regional spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross, speaking from Nairobi. “It makes a huge difference in Somalia, where a rise in price can be the decisive factor between having a meal and not having a meal.”
“Any instability will impact that person in the camp in Baidoa [home to the largest concentration of IDPs in Somalia] more than anyone else,” adds Sharaf, the IRC emergency director. “They have nothing to do with the war in Ukraine.”
Fadumo Abdi says she first fled her home in Janaale in March of 2020, after numerous airstrikes damaged infrastructure, destroyed livelihoods and took lives. Janaale had become an active conflict zone, and a target of US airstrikes against Al-Shabaab.
“It was a difficult time. Many people died.”
“My husband was in Mogadishu battling an illness at the time and could no longer support us,” she says. “Besides, whatever support we got, it would be of no use in warding off airstrikes.”
That’s when Fadumo made the decision to leave Janaale and make her way to Kurtun-Waarey, a farming town about 30 miles to the southwest, where some of her relatives had previously resettled.
Kurtun-Waarey shared many similarities with Janaale. It was also administered by Al-Shabaab, and was an agricultural town home to countless farmers and their families.
Then, last year, the drought came.
“We were staying with family members in Kurtun-Waarey that had sympathy for us because of what we experienced in Janaale,” Fadumo says. “But once our relatives lost their crops, we could no longer be a burden.”
So she had to flee for the second time in two years.
She made her way to Mogadishu with her three children – aged four, seven and eight – to try to reunite with her husband, who she says was now bedridden with his illness and wasn’t able to help with the journey. This brought even more anxiety and uncertainty. After two days of trekking by foot, Fadumo and her children were able to reach the government-controlled town of Afgooye, just 15 miles west of Mogadishu.
“Upon reaching Afgooye, we were able to get a ride from good samaritans that took us to a squalid IDP camp outside Mogadishu,” Fadumo says.
She has been there ever since.
The outskirts of Mogadishu now host numerous IDP camps, with hundreds of thousands of people calling them home. With her husband ill and three children dependent on her, Fadumo began to look for work and pick up odd jobs on her own.
“If I’m lucky I get to clean clothes and sweep floors for other families,” she said. “Sometimes I make a dollar a day. It’s not a lot, but it allows me to put something in my children’s mouths from time to time.”
But Fadumo would soon learn it wasn’t enough. After four months at the IDP camp, the young mother noticed her youngest child, four-year-old Yonis Abdullahi, had begun withering away from malnutrition.
“He started to get sick. Then his body started thinning, and that’s when his ribs became visible,” she says. “I knew he was dying, but there’s nothing I could do about it. I couldn’t afford to feed him or get him the medicine he needed.”
“I blame myself,” Fadumo adds, as she begins sobbing.
Since Yonis died, Fadumo has fallen into a deep state of depression. She knows she is not able to get enough food for her two surviving children.
“We’ve been hungry since arriving last year. I don’t know where our next meal will come from, or which one of my children will die next.”