A year ago, the road between the market town of Afgooye and the capital of Mogadishu was just another typical Somali byway, lined with overgrown cactuses and the occasional bullet-riddled building. Now it is a corridor teeming with misery, with 200,000 recently displaced people crammed into swelling camps that are rapidly running out of food.
Natheefa Ali, who trudged up this road a week ago to escape the bloodbath that Mogadishu has turned into, said Monday that her 10-month-old baby was so malnourished she could not swallow.
Look, Ms. Natheefa said, pointing to her daughters splotchy legs, her skin is falling off, too.
Top United Nations officials who specialize in Somalia said the country had higher malnutrition rates, more current bloodshed and fewer aid workers than Darfur, which is often publicized as the worlds most pressing humanitarian crisis and has taken clear priority in terms of getting peacekeepers and aid money.
The relentless urban combat in Mogadishu, between an unpopular transitional government installed partially with American help and a determined Islamist insurgency, has driven waves of desperate people up the Afgooye road, where more than 70 camps of twigs and plastic have popped up seemingly overnight.
The people here are hungry, exposed, sick and dying. And the few aid organizations willing to brave a lawless, notoriously dangerous environment cannot keep up with their needs, like providing milk to the thousands of babies with fading heartbeats and bulging eyes. Many of these kids are going to die, said Eric Laroche, the head of United Nations humanitarian operations in Somalia. We dont have the capacity to reach them.
He added: If this were happening in Darfur, there would be a big fuss. But Somalia has been a forgotten emergency for years.
The officials working on Somalia are trying to draw more attention to the countrys plight, which they feel has fallen into Darfurs shadow. They have recently organized several trips, including one on Monday, for journalists to see for themselves.
The situation in Somalia is the worst on the continent, said Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the top United Nations official for Somalia.
That situation has included floods, droughts, locusts, suicide bombers, roadside bombs and near-daily assassinations.
United Nations officials said the recent round of plagues, natural and man-made, coupled with the residual chaos that has consumed Somalia for more than a decade, have put the country on the brink of famine. In the worst-hit areas, like Afgooye, recent surveys indicate the malnutrition rate is 19 percent, compared with about 13 percent in Darfur; 15 percent is considered the emergency threshold.
The officials, in making the comparison, were not trying to diminish the problems in Darfur, where more than 200,000 people have died from violence and disease since 2003. But they said they were concerned that the crisis here was increasingly urgent.
Unlike Darfur, where the suffering is being eased by a billion-dollar aid operation and more than 10,000 aid workers, Somalia is still considered mostly a no-go zone. Just last week, a Somali aid worker and a guard were shot to death at an aid distribution center in Afgooye. United Nations officials estimate that total emergency aid is under $200 million, partly because it is so difficult just getting food into the country.
Pirates lurking off the coast of Somalia have attacked more than 20 ships this year, including two carrying United Nations food. The militias that rule the streets typically teenage gunmen in wraparound sunglasses and flip-flops have jacked up roadblock taxes to $400 per truck. The transitional government last month jailed a senior official of the United Nations food program in Somalia, accusing him of helping terrorists, though he was eventually released.
United Nations officials now concede that the country was in better shape during the brief reign of Somalias Islamist movement last year. It was more peaceful, and much easier for us to work, Mr. Laroche said. The Islamists didnt cause us any problems.
Mr. Ould-Abdallah called those six months, which were essentially the only epoch of peace most Somalis have tasted for years, Somalias golden era.
Somalias ills have always come in waves, starting in 1991 when clan-based militias overthrew the central government and the country plunged into anarchy. That fighting, like the fighting today, disrupted markets, kept out aid shipments and led to rapid inflation of food prices. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people starved.
The United States tried to come to the rescue in 1992, sending thousands of soldiers to Somalia to assist with humanitarian operations.
But American troops abruptly pulled out after Somali militiamen shot down two Black Hawk helicopters in Mogadishu in October 1993.
After that, the United States and much of the rest of the world basically turned its back on Somalia. But in the summer of 2006, the world started paying attention again after a grass-roots Islamist movement emerged from the clan chaos and seized control of much of the country.
The United States and Ethiopia, Somalias neighbor and rival, quickly labeled the Islamists a threat and accused them of harboring terrorists from Al Qaeda.
Inside Somalia, the Islamists were very popular, at least initially. But then they overplayed their hand and declared a holy war against Ethiopia in December 2006, which provoked a crushing Ethiopian response. American military commanders funneled key satellite imagery to Ethiopian troops as they rolled across the Somali border; American planes bombed fleeing Islamists. One American official said the operation was considered an antiterrorism success.
The transitional government arrived in Mogadishu at the end of December. It has struggled ever since against an insurgency that is a mix of Islamist fighters, rival clans and profiteers who have made a fortune as a result of the anarchy, whether by importing expired baby formula or renting out former government land.
Those criminals are our biggest problem, said Abdi Awaleh Jama, an ambassador at large for the transitional government.
The African Union promised to send 8,000 peacekeepers to help. But because of the focus on building a 26,000-strong force for Darfur, only 1,600 Ugandans have arrived. Clearly, some of Somalias problems are not the governments fault. Neither is the drought-flood-drought cycle that has left an impenetrable crust of rock-hard silt over Somalias fields, causing the worst cereal harvest in 13 years.
But most Western diplomats agree that unless the transitional government reaches out to Islamist elements and becomes more inclusive, it will fail like the 13 transitional governments that came before it.
This government doesnt control one inch of territory from the Kenyan border up to Mogadishu, said a Western diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing diplomatic protocol.
Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, the warlord turned transitional president, recently forced out the prime minister and is looking to replace him with a leader who can bridge clan divides.
This is basically the last chance, the Western diplomat said.
But the people in Afgooyes squatter camps do not have a lot of faith. We want the Islamists back, said Mohammed Ahmed, a shriveled 80-year-old retired taxi driver.
Mr. Mohammed said he was not especially religious. But,
he said, at least we had food.