Trade stopped months ago when Kenyan soldiers came here in pursuit of al-Qaida-linked militants. Now thousands of unsold bags of charcoal are stacked 15 high, and fishermen are prohibited from going too far from the white sand shore.
That has left Somalis in this small seaside town dependent on handouts from the Kenyan military, which again asked aid agencies to step in during a rare food distribution Wednesday.
The Kenyans clearly realize that the ultimate success of their mission in Somalia depends on improving the lives of residents. But equally clear is that they did not plan on having to do it all themselves.
“Unless the humanitarians can help these people now, it might jeopardize our operation,” Maj. Solomon Wandege said.
Kenya sent troops into Somalia last October after a string of kidnappings and attacks on Kenyan soil. Yet what was originally touted as a punitive raid has become a long-term military commitment.
Kenyans have worried for years that insecurity in the failed state of Somalia would spill across into northern Kenya. They used the kidnappings as a reason to cross the border and advance into al-Shabab territory alongside a Somali militia the Kenyans had largely trained and recruited.
Rains, or politics, quickly stopped their advance and for now Bur Garbo is as far as they have pushed along the coast.
Residents in this town of mud and stick houses earn a little cash fishing or selling charcoal to Arab traders at around $2 a bag.
Now the Arab dhows have been replaced by Kenyan navy boats and the fishermen are not allowed to go too far from shore. Al-Shabab insurgents are waiting just across a creek, and the Kenyans are wary of boats going too far out. Wandege said they have exchanged fire perhaps 10 times in the two months that he has been in charge of the town.
On Wednesday, the Kenyan soldiers unloaded dozens of bags of rice and tea, and women came forward with plastic bags to collect some rations. A fighter from the pro-government Somali militia sifted through the bags, picking large clumps of mold out of one and throwing it on the ground.
“Before (food) came from Kismayo, but now there is no boats,” explained town elder Abdullahi Omar Bulgas, as his associates nodded their henna-red beards around him. “It was worse, but now it is more worse.”
Many Kenyan soldiers expressed their frustration that international aid agencies were not quicker to move into areas declared to be safe. The need is immediate and overwhelming, and the Kenyan military is not equipped to cope.
However, the head of the United Nations' Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for Somalia said it's not their job to go in after military operations.
“We're not in the business of winning hearts and minds,” Kiki Gbeho said. “We assess and the most vulnerable is who we target. Sometimes we have to make hard choices but that's the job.”
When a Kenyan army medic began seeing a few patients in a dilapidated house whose crumbling walls were slowly caving in, the area was rapidly swamped with scores of would-be patients.
“I have never seen a doctor in this place,” said 27-year-old Sokorey Ahmed as she jiggled a sleeping, sweaty infant against her chest and used the other arm to press against a sore stomach. “I can never remember seeing one.”
She would only have been 7 years old when Somalia's last central government dissolved into bloody clan warfare.
“We don't even have enough malaria medicine to give these people. Sometimes we go to their house secretly to give medicine instead of being here because then they all come,” said Wandege as he looked over the robe-clad women and children lilted up patiently in the sun.
“It is a real headache for us. Let's move from here. They are going to think we can help them.”
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