Somalia: Without a #tag

Will the world only pay attention to starving Somalis when their famine trends on Twitter?

Refugees from Somalia continue to arrive at the world’s largest refugee camp – Dadaab – in hopes of getting just one meal per day [EPA]

I have recently returned from a trip to Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp. I was asked to join Al Jazeera’s Director General on this trip in order to help create greater awareness about the situation through “new media” tools. Having read about the stories coming out of Somalia and looking through a ton of photo galleries and videos, I thought that I had somewhat prepared myself for the trip.

I could not have been more wrong.

For the first time in my life, I now know what it means when people say “words cannot describe what I have seen”. It was tough – very tough. The people who make it to Dadaab are the “lucky” ones – others have perished on the side of the road.

The stories that were told were devastating … parents having to decide which child to leave behind so that they could make sure the fittest would be able to make it to camp. Imagine having to leave your weakest child behind, on the side of the road, to die. That’s it, left for the vultures. The lucky ones will die before and at least get a burial.

Another told a story of how his baby had to breast feed from his dead wife so that they would have enough strength to go on with the journey.

I felt ashamed to call myself a human being.

There are countless more stories like this, they have been told over and over and over. The thing that has hit me most about this is that it is not new: Dadaab has been around for over 20 years. Famine and drought are known to occur in these places, yet year after year people die of starvation. Why?

As I sat down on my comfy hotel bed back in Nairobi, only an hour flight away, realising the cruel irony of having a rain shower in the bathroom was a bit too much too handle. We are all living so close to this disaster.

In 2011, with all our technology and knowledge, we are still not able to stop people from dying of starvation? That is hard to believe. How have we, as humanity, failed these people? We have tons of donations, although it is far from enough, but often our donations go without a sense of purpose and attachment to the story. Sending aid does not deal with the core issues that exist. People will get the aid today, but what about tomorrow, next month, five years from now? 

I met people standing in queues to just get one meal for the day; people who are fighting for the right to live. For human dignity. For just a chance. That is all they want, a chance at life.

Looking into the eyes of children you usually get a sense of joy, a sense of optimism that can defeat anything. But when I looked into the eyes of some of the children in the camps they looked defeated, worn out – like life had taken its toll on them. I am talking about children who are not older than three. They are still the lucky ones.

I have seen babies who are malnourished, children without the strength to even stand; the skeletal structure of a living human. This is Dadaab. This is our problem.

Yet, the story goes mostly unnoticed. Once in a while people will talk about it in the media, there will be hype for a bit, and then the search for a new story moves on and we forget that the old story has not ended. In fact it has grown to proportions beyond anyone’s imagination.

The power of social media?

With the world of social media, everyone likes to talk about how technology can overthrow governments and change the world. How it can mobilise people around a cause almost instantaneously. How we always know what is happening, at any time, anywhere in the world.

Not this world.

When people have not eaten for weeks, have just enough cloth to cover a bit of their body, the last thing that they are going to do is start a revolution with a #tag to get the world’s attention by telling their own story. They need us to do it for them. They need us to be the ones to show the world what is happening.

As I type this, the trending topics on twitter look something like this:

•Jesus Montero
•Lou Holtz

I do not actually think that I have ever seen Somalia trending on twitter. Ever.

Will the world only pay attention when it makes it to the top of the trending topic list? When it gets its own special #tag? When it becomes “cool” to join the cause? Maybe if Lady Gaga were to visit Somalia it would trend? Maybe she could take her meat dress with her and put it to good use?

What is happening in the world is real. The stories coming out of Somalia are not some movie. Visiting Dadaab felt like I went to a different planet. I still cannot believe that a couple of hours away from me, someone is about to die because they do not have enough to eat. It is just so real – a realness that is disturbing, that is uncomfortable – one that is easy to pass on as not our problem. Because if we acknowledge it, the sheer weight that falls on our shoulders to make a difference becomes frighteningly unbearable.

I type this while I am sitting at home, with my fridge stocked, countless restaurants to get food from and with the luxury of eating to enjoy the taste of the food.

Where did it all go wrong? How can we, as humanity, sit back and let this continue? We have all seen the videos. We have seen the pictures. We have heard the stories. What are we going to do about it? At the very least let us tell the world what is going on. Be the #tag the people in Somalia need us to be, for the sake of our humanity. If we cannot even get #somalia to trend, then I am scared for what the future holds for us as a human race.

If only we paid as much attention to the African Summer as we did to the Arab Spring.

Riyaad Minty is head of Al Jazeera’s social media department.

Follow Riyaad on Twitter: @Riy

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