Woman Cries with Her Dying Child

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Woman Cries with Her Dying Child

Famine in Somalia


By: Andrew Holbrooke

Date: August 1, 1992

Source: © Andrew Holbrooke/Corbis.

About the Photographer: Andrew Holbrooke is a professional photojournalist based in New York. A graduate in film and television from the Tisch School of Arts, New York University, he has worked in troubled areas of the world, focusing on the hardships people face there. His work centers on natural and man-made disasters, political and social developments, and related themes. Holbrooke's work has been published in many international publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Life, Time Magazine, Newsweek, and the U.S. World Report. He also has won many prestigious and distinguished photojournalism awards in his career.


Somalia is coastal country located in East Africa, a region that is also called the Great Horn of Africa. Initially colonized by the Italians and later the British, Somalia obtained independence in 1960. However, ever since the late 1960s, Somalia has been in political turmoil.

Following the assassination of Abdirashid Ali Shermarke—elected president in 1967—in a presidential coup in 1969, the country was taken over by a dictator, Mohamed Siad Barre, who remained in power until 1990. According to a report published by the Human Rights Watch, the devastation in Somalia has its roots in the twenty one-year rule of Siad Barre. The report points out that Siad Barre destroyed all independent institutions, making it difficult for moderate leaders to emerge. Moreover, his grip on power was ensured by his encouragement of regional feuds and manipulations of clan loyalties.

In an armed battle that started in the Somali capital of Mogadishu in December 1990, rebels forced Siad Barre to flee. Ali Mahdi, leader of the United Somali Congress (USC)—a prominent group that led the rebellion, and a previous opponent of Siad Barre came to power. However, due to stern opposition from General Mohamed Farah Aideed—leader of another faction of the USC—the country slid into a volatile battle for power. Civil war eventually broke in late 1991.

Political analysts state that the following years are considered to be the worst in Somali history. Famines, wars, and other crimes erupted. The food and medical situation in Somalia was visibly affected because of the ongoing war in the country. There were reported cases of Somali civilians suffering from severe malnutrition. The country faced acute water crisis due to lack of central electric power or water supply.

Moreover, because of frequent droughts, Somalia has historically been subjected to famines. According to Historical Survey of the Incidence of Drought in Northern Somalia, at least ten significant droughts occurred between 1918 and 1975. Droughts have also occurred in the periods between 1979 and 1980, 1983 and 1986, and 1989 and 1990. Shortage of food, water, and day to day living supplies along with frequent drought situations in the region have added to the burden of the Somali civilians. Reportedly, thousands of people have died due to starvation since the early 1980s.

The primary source is a photograph by Andrew Holbrooke taken during the 1992 famine that took the lives of more than 300,000 people. The photograph depicts the plight of a helpless woman begging for food.



See primary source image.


Various policies enforced by Mohammed Aideed and the ongoing civil war crippled the state of agriculture and consequently the economy of Somalia in the 1990s. The extensive internal refugee problem created by the destructive civil war also devastated the Somali economy. Between 1991 and 1992, at least 350,000 Somalis reportedly died from disease and starvation. These events are considered extremely significant in Somalia's history as they ravaged the country. In modern times, no other country has reported such high number of deaths.

Somalia started receiving international aid. Led by the United States and supported by United Nations Operations in Somalia … UNOSOM I …, operation Provide Relief began in August 1992. However, media reports indicate that nearly eighty percent of the food was stolen by warring clans, and in many cases, was exchanged for weapons from neighboring regions. Consequently, the relief efforts proved to be inadequate.

In short time, another major coalition effort known as Operation Restore Hope was launched by the United States to restore humanitarian and relief activities in Somalia. However, in an event that took place in October 1993—later known as the Battle of Mogadishu—eighteen U.S. soldiers lost their lives and seventy five were wounded. Operation Restore Hope wound up in March 1994 as a result of continuing causalities and failure to accomplish designated objectives. The popular Hollywood movie "Black Hawk Down" is based on these incidents.

The events in Somalia have also given rise to an international refugee situation. Many Somalians have fled the country and have sought asylum in neighboring nations as well as other western countries. According to a 1996 consolidated UN report, up to 400,000 Somalis became refugees in the neighboring countries of Kenya, Ethiopia, and Djibouti during this period.

Since the early 2000s, a few Somali refugees have returned back to the country. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) states that 11,633 Somali refugees were repatriated to Somaliland and Puntland areas during 2005. However, no significant changes have been observed by the UN independent expert on Human Rights in Somalia, in the situation of residents living in various settlements. As of 2006, these overcrowded settlements have poor sanitation and offer little or no access to employment and education. Moreover, malnutrition, drought, floods, ethnic fighting, the Indian Ocean tsunami, and the displacement of more than 400,000 people have intensified the country's already poor human rights situation. Besides, it is administered by a transitional government called the Somalia Transitional Federal Institutions (TFI), headed by transitional Federal President Abdullah Yusuf Ahmed.

In April 2006, Christian Balslev-Olesen, the United Nation's Acting Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia, declared that to prevent a famine in 2006, Somalia needs emergency funding of 326 million dollars. According to Balslev-Olesen, more than two million people out of an estimated population of nine million are on food aid, and more than ten thousand could die from starvation each month. Further, there are very few channels to deliver aid effectively. The continuing looting, extortion at roadblocks, and kidnappings has prevented relief and humanitarian efforts.



Peter D. Little. Somalia: Economy Without State (African Issues). Indiana University Press, November 2003.

Web sites

Country Studies US. "Somalia." 〈http://countrystudies.us/somalia〉 (accessed April 28, 2006).

Human Rights Watch Publications. "Somalia No Mercy in Mogadishu." March 26, 1992. 〈http://www.hrw.org/reports/1992/somalia〉 (accessed April 28, 2006).

Reuters. "Somalia needs $326 mln to ward off famine, UN says." April 4, 2006. 〈http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/N04222464.htm〉 (accessed April 28, 2006).

U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. "World Refugee Survey 2004 Country Report." 〈http://www.refugees.org/countryreports/〉 (accessed April 28, 2006).

U.S. Department of State. "Somalia." March 8, 2006. 〈http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2005/61592.htm〉 (accessed April 28, 2006).