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Jeffrey Gettleman: On Reporting Somalia's Crisis.

New York Times correspondent Jeffrey Gettleman will receive a George Polk Award this week for being the first to report that the militant Islamist group al-Shabab had prevented starving people from leaving Somalia. He details how he got the story.



April 4, 2012

Guest: Jeffrey Gettleman

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Jeffrey Gettleman, is receiving a George Polk Award for foreign reporting tomorrow. The award cites his stories on the famine in Somalia and his documentation of conflicts in some of the most dangerous regions on Earth: the new state of South Sudan in Central Africa and the Horn of Africa.

In Somalia, while reporting on the famine, Gettleman and photographer Tyler Hicks, which whom he shares the Polk Award, were the first to report that the Shabab, the militant Islamist group controlling much of the country, was blocking off escape routes to prevent people from fleeing famine zones and was diverting rivers to secure water while others starved.

Gettleman is the East Africa bureau chief for The New York Times. Last July, the U.N. officially declared that Somalia was in a state of famine. Just recently, in February, the U.N. reduced Somalia's status from famine to humanitarian emergency.

Our discussion, like Gettleman's reporting, will include descriptions of brutality and suffering. Jeffrey Gettleman, welcome back to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on getting the George Polk Award. And you're getting this award for being the first reporter to learn that Shabab militants had prevented starving people from leaving the country. And you don't have that article with you, do you?

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: I don't, no, but I remember it pretty well.

GROSS: OK, so it was headlined: Somalis Waste Away As Insurgents Block Escape From Famine. And I'll just read the opening paragraph: The Shabab Islamist insurgent group, which controls much of southern Somalia, is blocking starving people from fleeing the country and setting up a containment camp where it is imprisoning displaced people who are trying to escape Shabab territory.

How did you find out that this militant Islamist group, the Shabab, which is connected to al-Qaida, was trying to prevent people from escaping the famine?

GETTLEMAN: Well, I've been covering Somalia now for almost six years, and I have a number of sources there. I have a pretty good network that helps me stay on top of what's happening in the country. This famine we saw coming months away. There was a really bad drought last spring and summer, and people began to flee the drought-inflicted areas of Somalia beginning last I think it was May or June.

And as people were escaping from these drought areas, they were telling us stories of how there was no food, how there was no water, their livestock was dying and how the administration in their areas was punishing the people.

One thing we've got to remember about the Shabab. They are vehemently anti-Western. They're against Western music, Western haircuts, Western movies. They were even banning bras, women from wearing bras, saying that bras were un-Islamic.

So when this drought happened, and the famine began to take shape, the Shabab started by not allowing people to get access to Western food aid. The Shabab banned Western agencies from operating in their territories. That's how anti-Western they felt.

So I started working in refugee camps in Kenya, then I went to Mogadishu, to where people were gathering, and they just had these horrific stories about how they were starving to death, watching their children die of malnutrition and starvation and measles and malaria and a lot of other diseases that are connected to being malnourished, and the Shabab was still refusing to allow any aid in.

And then it got worse. The Shabab wasn't allowing anybody to leave. We heard a number of accounts like that. The Shabab were even blocking rivers and diverting the water, what little trickle of water there was in these areas, the Shabab was diverting it to their backers who were commercial farmers. There's not a lot of agribusiness or commercial farming in Somalia, but there's some, and the Shabab were essentially taking what little water there was and using it for, you know, raising money, and people were dying because of that.

So it was like this perfect storm. You had this horrible drought, you had a country that's very inaccessible to begin with, and then you had a vehemently anti-Western militant group that was making matters even worse.

GROSS: So it was different from other droughts in that respect because you had people intentionally making it worse?

GETTLEMAN: That's right. I mean, every famine that's happened in Africa in the last 20 years, just about every famine has been connected to a conflict. There are droughts year after year, but when they actually blow up into famines, that's because there's some bigger problem; there's displacement, there's conflict, there's an inability to bring in aid.

We saw this in Ethiopia in 1984, 1985. This happened in South Sudan in the early 2000s. It's pretty common that when there's a famine, there's a conflict related to it.

So we knew that this was shaping up into a serious problem, but we didn't quite understand the extent of how the Shabab's policies were aggravating, you know, this natural disaster until we started talking to people who were emerging from these Shabab areas who had escaped.

And some of the people, you know, they had these crazy stories where they were telling us they were trying to take minibuses out from a Shabab area to the government-controlled part of Somalia, which isn't, you know, maybe we're talking a journey of 20 miles or something like that. And the Shabab were boarding the buses and pulling people off the buses and saying: You're not allowed to go to the government area, we have our own camp for you.

And it ends up that that camp was basically this giant prison where they were warehousing starving people, giving them a little food but not nearly enough, and countless people died in those conditions.

GROSS: There's a picture by the photographer Tyler Hicks, who you were traveling with in this - on this story, and I should mention, too, he's the photographer who was with Anthony Shadid when Anthony Shadid died on assignment in Syria.

But along with your story ran a photograph from Tyler Hicks that got a lot of attention. Would you describe the photograph?

GETTLEMAN: Sure. It was a very simple photograph, quite straightforward but very dramatic, of a young child curled up on a hospital bed dying from starvation. You could see every rib on this child's body. The eye sockets were sunken. This child had been reduced to skin and bone. And the picture just, you know, presented that, taken from above, looking down on this kid curled up.

And we saw dozens of kids like that, and I was with Tyler, and we were among the first journalists to get to this hospital in Mogadishu, which was becoming a warehouse for starving people who had fled these Shabab areas, and they were coming into this hospital seeking help. And it was terribly upsetting because they're just - the help wasn't there.

There was, you know, very few IVs. There wasn't any nutritional supplements. There were very few doctors. The lights didn't work. There really wasn't any trauma facilities for people that were, you know, in such bad condition that you couldn't feed them. They needed to be put on IVs and hospitalized, and there just wasn't the space for that.

S there was this big room on the ground floor of the hospital where all these people would bring their children, and while we were in that room, a girl died right in front of us. Her father had motioned to me. We were standing in the middle of the room, and just picture, you know, 30 or 40 crude metal cots with people curled up on them and families camped out on the floor and a few babies crying, but most of them are actually pretty quiet.

And this man thought I was a doctor, I think, because again, we were among the first journalists in here, and people weren't used to seeing, you know, outside observers. And this man frantically was motioning to me. And I asked my translator, I said: What's going on? What does he want? And the translator went over to him and asked him what was wrong, and he said: My daughter just died.

And we watched him carefully unhook the IV that had been attached to her arm and close her eyes and wrap her in a blanket and put her in his arms. And she was a 3-year-old child that was the size of, you know, maybe 20 pounds, the size of a 1-year-old in the rest of the world. And he trudged out of the hospital with this, you know, light bundle in his arms, tears coming out of his eyes and was looking for a place to bury her. And we saw this whole thing happen, you know, right in front of us.

GROSS: That reminds me of something that you wrote, which is: No matter how bad it is, Somalis aren't numb to suffering. They are not grief-proof. Because you almost think if somebody's been exposed to so much death and starvation that you become numb to it, and you say no.

GETTLEMAN: That's exactly - that's exactly what I took away from that. And when I wrote that, I was thinking of this experience that I had witnessed, that we associate Somalia and this part of Africa with so much suffering and disaster and famines and war and civil war and poverty, and even with the people who are surrounded by that, it's still devastating for them to go through this. And they still grieve. They still suffer. We can see it.

And it was - what's so troubling in a situation like this famine is that it's the scale of it. This is happening across, you know, hundreds of miles all over the place, Thousands are dying, and we don't even know to this day the extent of how bad it was.

The famine has been declared over. The rains were OK late in the year. Some aid finally did get in by other organizations. Turkey sent a lot of humanitarian aid. Some Arab countries sent a lot of humanitarian aid. Their relief supplies were allowed in because they were Muslim, and that was considered OK.

So, many, many lives were saved, but, you know, many people were wiped out, and it's just - you know, these people are incredibly helpless. Like that family we saw of the little girl who died, they had sold everything they owned for bus fare to get to Mogadishu in the hope that there would be help there, and there wasn't.

And then when the girl dies, the father was walking through the streets of Mogadishu, where there is plenty of food. There are pyramids of oranges and bananas on the street and sacks of flour and rice, you know, just about everywhere you look on these busy streets. There's no famine in Mogadishu, it's in the hinterland. And he's trudging past, you know, this abundance of food because - and he didn't have enough food to feed his child, and now he has to find a place for her to be buried.

GROSS: You know, let me say that one of the things I really like about your writing is that you not only vividly describe the humanitarian crisis, the suffering, but you also explain why it's happening. You know, I think it's really easy to read the international section of the newspaper, whatever the newspaper is, and go: Oh, another drought, another famine in Africa. Is it Sudan? Is it Somalia? Is it Ethiopia? Oh well, you know, on to the next article.

Do you know what I'm saying? It's - I think we've just become so accustomed to these massive droughts and famines that it's almost easy to just, you know, move on. But in your articles, you explain why this is happening, and I think once you understand that, it becomes even more vivid because you understand how it could have been prevented or at least how so many deaths could have been prevented.

I mean here's just, like, a small example of what I mean. The Shabab - this al-Qaida affiliate - in your articles about the Shabab, you describe, you know, how they prevented people from fleeing the drought and forced many of them into the Shabab internment camps. You even add that the Shabab have prevented people from getting vaccinations because they see it as a Western plot to kill African babies. So what impact was that having on the human suffering during the drought?

GETTLEMAN: Well, it was like one thing after another in this famine. You know, they started by not allowing Western groups to help the people, and we have to understand even though there were other aid agencies from the Muslim world, from Turkey, from Qatar, from Saudi Arabia, they don't have the experience or capacity that the U.N. has and that CARE, Save the Children, these big, you know, billion-dollar aid groups have.

They've done these famines now for decades, and when there's a crisis, those are the people who have the most expertise. So they weren't allowed in. So the Shabab started, you know, started creating this crisis by blocking all these groups.

Then they wouldn't let people leave their areas. And then, in the middle of this, they refused to allow any vaccinations, and even before the famine broke out, they had passed these, you know, draconian rules saying we're not going to allow any Western groups to vaccinate the kids.

So these children were exposed and were perfectly vulnerable to catching all these opportunistic diseases that are associated with famines. And that's what happened, like measles. You know, there's always outbreaks of measles when kids are malnourished, and they're stressed, and they're on the run, and they can't, you know, they can't get medical care. And that's exactly what happened. You know, we think that thousands of kids died from measles.

GROSS: Well, if you're just joining us, my guest is Jeffrey Gettleman. He's The New York Times East Africa bureau chief. And he and photographer Tyler Hicks are getting a George Polk Award Thursday for their reporting from Somalia on the famine. Jeffrey, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more about your reporting. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jeffrey Gettleman. He's the East Africa bureau chief for The New York Times. And he's getting a George Polk Award tomorrow along with photographer Tyler Hicks for their reporting from Somalia, reporting on the famine there and how the radical Islamist group the Shabab helped contribute to that famine and make it far worse than it would have been just from the drought.

I'm wondering what kind of discussions you had with photographer Tyler Hicks when you were covering the drought and famine in Somalia about how graphic to get. For instance, the photograph that you describe of a dying child starving to death, with all his ribs showing, his stomach bloated, you know, lying - it looked like he was lying on the floor of the hospital, just lying on a patterned cloth. And your descriptions of the suffering were pretty vivid in your article. Did you talk to each other about how graphic to be to get the point across and where to draw the line?

GETTLEMAN: You know, it's funny. I don't think of it as graphic. And other people have used that word, and we took a lot of criticism for that front-page picture. That picture that Tyler took in the early days of the famine we put above the fold very prominently on the front page of The New York Times, and a lot of people said it's graphic, it's too disturbing, it's insensitive.

And our point was, you know, this is - it's supposed to be disturbing. What's happening is disturbing. Is it graphic? I mean, graphic almost connotes a sort of gratuitous, sensationalist approach to depicting something. We didn't feel that. We didn't - we weren't trying to, you know, exaggerate or even be especially dramatic. It was - our approach with the way I was doing the writing and how Tyler was shooting the pictures was to be, you know, to be very unjudgmental and just try to, you know, not so much understatement but just be very straightforward. Here's what it looks like to stand in this hospital in Mogadishu, in the middle of a famine, that people are just trudging in here with their kids and the kids are dying, you know, in front of all of our eyes.

GROSS: Let me just read an excerpt of what you wrote on August 1st of 2001, reporting from a hospital in Somalia, the Benadir Hospital: Every morning, emaciated parents with emaciated children stagger into Benadir Hospital, a shell of a building with floors that stink of diesel fuel because that is all the nurses have to fight off the flies.

Babies are dying because of the lack of equipment and medicines. Some get hooked up to adult-size intravenous drips. Pediatric versions are hard to find. And their compromised bodies can't handle the volume of fluid. Most parents do not have money for medicine, so entire families sit on old-fashioned cholera beds with basketball-sized holes cut out of the middle, taking turns going to the bathroom as diarrhea streams out of them.

It's - I think it's a verbal snapshot of what you saw.

GETTLEMAN: It is, and just even hearing you read it kind of makes me upset again. You know, it's hard on us to step into these places and, you know, just write our stories and pack up and then leave. I'd like to think we did, you know, we helped in some way by bringing attention to this.

After we did those stories, other journalists came in there. Aid agencies stepped up their efforts. I think a fair bit of money was raised, and, you know, some resources did get to these people. But it's - you know, it's hard to pick the right words in those situations to do justice to what you're witnessing.

GROSS: You know what made me feel, like, even more hopeless reading your article is that when the Shabab pull out of an area in Somalia, often instead of peace, it's just replaced by fighting between clans who take control.

GETTLEMAN: That's right. I did another piece about that, and we're seeing that now. The Shabab is, you know, thankfully for many people in Somalia - this is how they look at it - the Shabab are on the run and their power is fading rapidly. Just a year ago, they controlled a large chunk of territory in southern Somalia. Today, that's down to a pretty thin slice.

Mogadishu is a different place. I have a story coming out in the next few days that talks about this rebirth. Now that the famine is over, now that the Shabab have been pushed out of the city, a lot of people are coming back to Mogadishu to build homes, to rebuild their lives, to invest in the city.

So things are improving, you know, pretty dramatically pretty quickly. But at the same time, you know, so much of Somalia is, you know, is in trouble, and there is - the central problem in this place is there hasn't been a functioning government for 20 years.

So that breeds all kinds of problems, and one of them is this contest for power. We see that, where the Shabab has been pushed out, it's not like the government firmly establishes itself and starts providing services and unites the people. Instead, there's a competition for power, for authority, for the resources that come from that.

And we're seeing that across the country, and I think we're going to see that more once the Shabab have kind of given up any hope of ruling Somalia. They're still going to be around. They're still doing suicide attacks and beheadings and assassinations, and we're going to see that for some time. Most Somalis are eager for them to leave, and it's going to be hard for them to really regroup because they don't have any communities that are going to support them.

GROSS: Jeffrey Gettleman will be back in the second half of the show. He's the East Africa bureau chief for The New York Times. Our discussion was recorded yesterday. His article about how Mogadishu, Somalia's capital, is making a remarkable comeback went up on The Times website after our interview. But earlier today, a Shabab suicide bomber blew herself up during a ceremony for the re-opening of the National Theater in Mogadishu. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest is Jeffrey Gettleman, The New York Times East Africa bureau chief. Tomorrow, he receives a George Polk Award for his reporting on conflicts in some of the most dangerous regions on earth - the new state of South Sudan in Central Africa and the Horn of Africa - and for being the first to report that during the famine in Somalia that lasted from last July through February, the radical Islamist group the Shabab were preventing starving people from fleeing famine zones. Gettleman shares the Polk Award with photographer Tyler Hicks. Our discussion, like Gettleman's reporting, includes descriptions of brutality and suffering.

It sounds, from reading your articles, that if life is hell for a lot of people in Somalia, it's even worse for women. And you had an article about women as the spoils of war. And it sounds like whether it's the Shabab or any other, you know, clan or military group that, you know, wants to take - you know, militia group that wants to take control, they're after the women. And tell us some of the things that you've learned about what's happening to women.

GETTLEMAN: Yeah. No. I'm glad you brought that up. I had been covering Congo - part of my job as the bureau chief for East Africa is to cover a dozen countries in East Africa. And one of the other countries I spent a lot of time in is Congo, and Congo is infamous now for these mass rapes. I did a story about a year ago where there was one village, and one night an armed group came in and raped 300 women in this spree of violence. They didn't kill many people, if anybody. They didn't steal much. But they just raped woman after woman after woman, including the 84-year-old woman that I had interviewed, who had been gang raped by young men, and she screamed: Grandsons, get off me. And it just boggles the mind of why - what's the strategic purpose of this, what would drive people to do that.

In Somalia, we hadn't heard much about the rape issue. Of course, we knew that it's going to go - that the incident of rape is going to go up during a conflict, that women are going to be exposed, that women were on the run from this famine with their families, but we weren't hearing a lot of detail. But then, through sources of mine, we started hearing more and more. And this winter, I went to do a story specifically on this problem. And I met, you know, more than a dozen women who gave me very detailed accounts of being raped, many of them by the Shabab.

And this is another aspect of how they terrorize the population. They were forcing families to give girls to Shabab commanders and calling it an arranged marriage. And they would identify a pretty girl or a girl in the village that they wanted, and they'd say you have to give us your girl to marry our commander, and if you don't we'll kill her and we'll kill you. And...

GROSS: This is a group that considers itself so morally righteous, they won't allow music. They don't let women wear bras because it's too Western. But it's fine to let their people rape girls, force girls into marriage?

GETTLEMAN: This was part of the brainwashing. They presented this as part of the jihad. They said to families, you have to give us your girls because this is part of our cause and we have to keep the commanders happy. And if you don't volunteer your young women, you know, that's considered un-Islamic. Not many people...

GROSS: Nice.


GROSS: It's a...

GETTLEMAN: Yeah? And...

GROSS: ...really interesting rationalization for rape. Yeah.

GETTLEMAN: I mean, to us, yeah, it seems ridiculous. It seems laughable, and too many Somalis, the same thing. But at the same time, these were the guys with the guns in their community.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

GETTLEMAN: These were the people who had meted out, you know, extreme public punishments - cutting off hands, stoning people to death. And one of the women - or one of the young women that I interviewed who had been raped by several Shabab fighters had a best friend growing up who lived near her, same age. They were about 13 or 14 years old. They shared their dreams. They talked about the type of guys they'd eventually get married to, they were like young women anywhere. And her friend refused to marry a Shabab commander, and her family - the friend's family said no way. We're not going to do this.

And the girl that I interviewed said that one morning she stepped out of her hut, and she saw her friend buried up to her neck in sand. And the Shabab had arranged a public stoning of this girl because she had refused to marry a commander, and they bashed her head in rock by rock.

And I just, you know, I just heard this story a couple of months ago, and it was congruent with so many other accounts we were hearing about this, you know, about these opportunistic rapes because the Shabab controlled this area.

But it wasn't just the Shabab. It was happening all across, you know, the famine areas, as women were pushed out of their home territory with children, no male relatives, maybe the male relative had been killed. I mean, there's countless widows in a place like Somalia. Or maybe he stayed behind to guard the little property that they had, and you have these young women, you know, trudging through the desert, sometimes for hundreds of miles with a few children in tow, and they're totally vulnerable. And many were raped, you know, by all the different armed groups that inhabit that landscape.

GROSS: And you wonder, like, what makes somebody be able to live with themselves if they behave like that. You know, I realize that they're using some, like, distorted version of their religion to justify it. But you have a piece that helps explain the climate that young people are growing up in now. And I'm thinking of an article from September 20th that was headlined: "First Prize for a Child in Somalia: an AK-47." This was an article about a contest and the award ceremony. Tell us about the contest.

GETTLEMAN: Well, it was basically like a quiz show, a trivia show, with some Islamic teaching involved. And this is, again, in Shabab territory, which, you know, isn't some far-flung place. This is right on the outskirts of the capital. The geography, you know, is - everything is very close. You have the government-controlled area, and 20 miles away, you have the Shabab holding a trivia contest and handing out grenades as prizes.

They organized a trivia show. They had children as contestants, and the winners were given AK-47s and F-1 hand grenades. And they were proud of this. This wasn't - you know, again, like I heard this, and I was, like, this can't be right, you know. Who would do that? But, sure enough, they put out some public statements. They celebrated this show and this contest and they - you know, this is part of a bigger problem in Somalia of just the militarization of the whole society. The Shabab have also kidnapped countless children and pressed them into their ranks and given them guns and pushed them in the back and made them fight on the frontlines of these conflicts. Just happens across Africa.

And this, again, is a symptom of a breakdown of law and order and authority. And it's not just the state. Of course, you know, for us, that's, you know, the traditional concept of a state as a monopoly on violence and you have a police department, law enforcement, things like that. But in Somalia, it's always been a little more diffuse. You have elders. You have religious leaders. But all of that has been - all of that has come under attack and has deteriorated in this atmosphere of chaos and violence. So guys can get away with, you know, handing grenades to little kids and patting them on the head and saying, good job.

GROSS: The Shabab outlawed music. So on the radio, you described how music that would have - like, the theme songs for news shows were replaced by things like gunshots, engine roars, car horns, animal grunts. And I was trying to imagine a news show with, like, animal grunts as the opening theme music. Has music returned to the radio now that the Shabab are being driven out of some areas?

GETTLEMAN: Yes. Of course. There's, like, this sort of sense of a prisoner stepping out of a dark cell into the blinking sunlight. That's what we're seeing in Somalia. There's artists that are painting again. There's singers that are singing in public. There's radio shows that, God forbid, are playing music. And we have to remember, the radio is like the most important piece of technology in most of Somalia. People don't - you know, it's a very - the literacy rates in Somalia are very low. It's traditionally been an oral society. People don't have TVs - you know, very few TVs in a place like Somalia.

So the radio becomes their way to connect to the wider world. And the Shabab were, you know, controlling even the - micromanaging, you know, even the smallest radio stations and their daily programs to make sure they didn't play music. And now, yeah, that was one of the first things that people, you know, happily jettisoned and put music back on the airwaves.

GROSS: My guest is Jeffrey Gettleman, The New York Times' East Africa bureau chief. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday about Somalia with Jeffrey Gettleman, The New York Times' East Africa bureau chief. Today, a Shabab suicide bomber blew herself up at the ceremony for the reopening of the National Theater in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu. The ceremony was intended to be a celebration of the city's rebirth.

So let's just talk about where Somalia is now. The Shabab have pulled out. They've been driven out of a lot of places. How much power do they have now, would you say?

GETTLEMAN: Not much. The Shabab have lost most of their major towns that were under their control in the last six months. They still control a bit from the outskirts of Mogadishu along the coast, down to a place called Kismayo, a sizable town of a few hundred thousand people that has a port, and that's where they receive a lot of their weapons. And a lot of sugar and other supplies are smuggled through Kismayo and the Shabab extract attacks, and that goes to their fighting forces. But they're really on the wane.

Kenya recently invaded Somalia, saying that they needed to secure their border because there had been a number of incidents of kidnapping inside Kenya, and the Kenyans blamed it on the Shabab. It's not clear it was the Shabab. Later, I did some stories about how Kenya had this plan to take over part of Somalia and create a buffer zone for their own economic interests, because Kenya has all these ambitious plans to build a new port and to develop northeastern Kenya, and they feel like Somalia is jeopardizing it.

At the same time, Ethiopian troops have come across the border and pushed out the Shabab from some areas along the Ethiopian border. And then I wrote a piece about the African Union, which has this big peacekeeping force in Mogadishu, and it may be one of the most successful peacekeeping forces, you know, in recent memory. Peacekeeping is incredibly difficult and problematic, and often flawed.

We did a story in The New York Times just a couple of days ago about how peacekeepers in Haiti spread a cholera epidemic that killed 7,000 people. I've covered peacekeeping efforts in Congo and Darfur and other parts of Sudan that have not helped civilians. I did a story in January about a massacre of a town in South Sudan where six to 8,000 raiders from one ethnic group came and massed in this town, and then went on this rampage, burning down huts, killing people. And there were several hundred peacekeepers in the town, and they didn't do anything.

But in Mogadishu, it's different. The African Union peacekeeping troops - in a way, they're not even peacekeepers. They're soldiers. They're an army, and they're fighting to get rid of the Shabab and create some space for the government. And they have steadily, over the last three or four years, you know, piece by piece, block by block, pushed out the Shabab. They've taken a lot of casualties. This was the big secret. They didn't want to disclose how many people had been killed, but it's something like five to 600 peacekeepers, maybe more, which is far more than any other peacekeeping effort in the last 20 years.

GROSS: So in the absence of the Shabab, it's still mostly chaos, clan fighting, ethnic fighting, still no real civil society, no government.

GETTLEMAN: It's limited. There's, Somalia is this, you know, long country with a 1,700-mile coastline that stretches from almost, you know, the Red Sea down to Kenya. The northern part of Somalia, Somaliland, which wants independence, is OK. There's not a lot of fighting there. There's somewhat of a government, a local government, small. But they provide some services like education and street cleaning and traffic police. That's Somaliland.

Beneath that is Puntland, which is a little more unstable, but the same idea. It's an autonomous part of Somalia. There is a fledgling government there, doesn't do much, but there's not heavy fighting. There's piracy. That's - Puntland remains one of the hubs for piracy. But there's not, you know, big clashes with mortars and artillery and tanks and, you know, lots of men fighting each other. You don't see that in Puntland.

Then in south-central Somalia, it's a bit of a mixed picture. You have the capital, Mogadishu, which is relatively stable for the first time in 20 years right now. The outskirts are still in contention between the Shabab and the African Union. And then there are parts that are controlled by the Shabab that are now getting a lot of pressure put on them from these other forces.

And then there are some clan administrations that are beginning to pop up. This is the issue I wrote about last year, that in the vacuum of the Shabab leaving and the government being too weak to assert itself, you have all these little mini-administrations claiming, you know, to be the authority. And now there's 25 different presidents in southern Somalia and 25 different administrations, some very, very small and limited to one sub-sub-sub clan - you know, a very small group of people.

GROSS: So just one more question about Somalia: Earlier in our discussion, I said, you know, it's easy to read the international section of your newspaper and think, oh, another drought. Oh, it's in Somalia. And not know even the difference between the drought and the - Somalia and the famine that was in Sudan and the famine that was in Ethiopia. If you don't know Africa well, it's easy to just think, oh sure, there's always - there's always a famine somewhere there.

Until you read the story, like your stories, and you really start to understand what's going on. And I think when I say that, how callous that must sound to you. Because I'm sitting at my desk in my office in Philadelphia, you know, eating my breakfast and reading about famine. Whereas you are there in the hospital watching people die.

And I think there's just such a vast difference between me reading my newspaper in the comfort of my office and you being there and witnessing, you know, something so tragic. I guess that's what you're up against, is what I'm trying to say, is me. Do you know what I mean?

GETTLEMAN: Yeah. And listen, I don't see it as callousness.

GROSS: No. And I'm going to say, like, oh, I'm busy, I think I'll skip this article. And then I feel like, wow, that's really so callous of me when there's just so much suffering going on.

GETTLEMAN: We try to write and we try to reach people that aren't thinking about these things day in and day out. We want people to overcome their callousness, and that's - that's part of my job, to try to - to present the story in as clear and powerful terms as I am able to. Use my understanding, use my experience, use my ability to boil things down.

I mean, most of these stories are relatively short and we've got to put a lot in there - the background of the famine, how this happened, the politics behind it, the suffering, some details so you identify with the people that are experiencing this. That's our mission. And I think in this case people responded.

It wasn't - you know, we had these stories on the front page. You know, there were a number of aid organizations that contacted me directly. I was aware of other efforts that had been catalyzed by our coverage and by the way the paper, you know, got behind it and put these stories prominently on the front page.

So you know, I can't feed the people myself. It's, you know, a huge problem that's overwhelming for any of us.

GROSS: Just one more thing: When you are covering the famine, for instance in Somalia, what do you eat?

GETTLEMAN: This is it. You know, you eat fine. I once did a story - a couple years ago the World Food Program took a bunch of journalists into Somalia to show them an area that was right on the verge of famine and the minute that we flew in on this chartered plane, we were whisked into this hospital and we go - we were sort of herded upstairs and we step into this room - and, again, we're here to cover this food crisis - and there is an abundance of food.

Camel meat, potatoes, mangoes, bananas, stacks of pita bread, sodas, bottles of water. And this was to welcome us. And that was like a really jarring, eye-opening experience, to think: What's going on here? How can I eat this? You know, why is this food here if we're here to cover a food crisis? But this is the thing.

Famines are about distribution. They're not about total capacity to feed people. In Mogadishu there was plenty of food when I was there, so I was eating chicken, beef, vegetables. I was eating fine. We'd go to the hospital, we witnessed these people who had run out of food and were marooned in the city without any resources, and then we would go back to the place we were staying and we would eat fine.

And other people were eating fine on the streets of Mogadishu. That was what was so striking to me of watching this man emerge from the hospital with the body of his child in his arms and he's walking past pyramids of oranges and stacks of bread and sacks of flour. And that's what happens in all these famines. It's the same thing.

GROSS: So is it money? Like, you had the money to buy food; this man with the dead child in his arms did not?

GETTLEMAN: It's mostly money. And it's also a distribution problem. If you have money you can get food just about anywhere, except for areas that are really cut off and have blockages in them, like what the Shabab are doing. But once you get to the city, yeah, if you had money you could buy food.

But these people have lost everything they own. They've lost their animals, they've lost their homes, they've used what little money they had just to get to Mogadishu. So yeah, they don't have any money to get any food. And at that point, you know, you need specialized food. These kids need, you know, they need medicine. They need IVs. They need to be hospitalized.

You can't just hand them a banana when they're in that state. You know, their systems have been so compromised. So you know, it's a multi-layered problem that starts where they came from - that they were living on the edge, probably very poor, malnourished to begin with. And then they were driven out of their area, put on the run without anything to sustain them.

And then they show up completely broke in a place where there's no social safety net, there's no government to help them, and they're cut off from their families, their support network. So who's going to help them? And on that scale. I mean when we were in Mogadishu last year during the famine, there were hundreds of thousands of people like this.

GROSS: My guest is Jeffrey Gettleman, the New York Times East Africa bureau chief. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Jeffrey Gettleman, the New York Times East Africa bureau chief. He's in New York to receive a George Polk Award tomorrow for foreign reporting. George Clooney was recently arrested outside of the Sudan embassy, calling for an end to the violence and the government allowing humanitarian aid into the country. I wonder if you think it's helpful when celebrities call attention to, for instance, what's happening in Sudan.

GETTLEMAN: I'm not a snob about this stuff. I don't think you have to have a PhD in Sudanese history to speak out about Sudan. I think the celebrities are pretty effective in getting the word out and putting pressure on policymakers and politicians to pay attention.

I did a story a couple years ago where I interviewed an ambassador who had met George Clooney and said, you know, when George gets involved, you have to listen. And I think there's some truth to that. Occasionally the involvement of celebrities can complicate the resolution of a conflict. We saw this in Darfur, where all these celebrities seized on Darfur, oversimplified the issues, you know, to a great degree.

And then it made it very difficult to convince the rebels to negotiate, to convince the Sudanese government to back down from their positions. It got so heated and hysterical that it prolonged the conflict. So it's a double-edged sword to some degree, but I think overall the more attention on these problems, the better.

GROSS: So you are about to get the George Polk Award for your reporting from Somalia, and I would imagine when you are in a hospital surrounded by people dying in the famine, surrounded by dying children, that an award is probably not what is foremost on your mind.

GETTLEMAN: No. I mean, listen, these awards are great. It's an honor to win them. It's satisfying to have your peers, you know, put the stamp of approval on your work. But you can't get hung up on these things, and we take enormous risks to cover a story like the Somalia famine. I put my own life in risk.

There's a bulls-eye on my head when I step into Somalia, wherever I am. People have been kidnapped and killed. Westerners have been taken hostage. And I'm going into this area for - you know, putting myself in danger and so is the photographer. And the paper supports us doing that because we feel that this is important, this is part of our job, that we have an opportunity as journalists to make a difference, you know, however cliche that sounds.

But in Africa, that's a big part of our work, is spotting stories that will have impact, that will move people to hopefully do something to help. And the Somalia famine was, you know, was one of the most upsetting, disturbing things I've ever witnessed. I now have two kids of my own, and to see children, you know, wasting away - I just couldn't imagine what it would be like for a parent to watch your kid, you know, waste away right in front of your eyes, get smaller and sicker every day and you can't do anything to stop it. And then for that child to die right in front of you, the feelings of helplessness that that would breed, and anger and despair. And that's what we witnessed. And I just - I hope that I conveyed some of that so people would be moved to help.

That would make me feel better as a journalist, if there was some positive outcome from the work and the risk that I took.

GROSS: Although I'm sure you weren't thinking about awards when you were covering the famine and surrounded by starving people, I'm really glad that you're getting this award. It's a way - the Polk Award is kind of like a surrogate for all of us, your readers saying thank you for taking the risks that you take to cover the stories that you do and to inform us in the way that you do. So I just want to add my thanks to the...

GETTLEMAN: I appreciate that.

GROSS: ...far more prestigious award that you're about to get.

GETTLEMAN: Thank you.

GROSS: Jeffrey Gettleman is the New York Times East Africa bureau chief. He's in New York to receive a George Polk Award tomorrow for foreign reporting, which he will share with photographer Tyler Hicks. You'll find links to Gettleman's articles and Hicks' photographs on our website,

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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