If the past is anything to go by, televisions the world over will show heart-wrenching pictures of malnourished Somali babies with distended bellies; of flies feeding on their eyes; of mouths sucking at milkless breasts. Environmental experts will pontificate on the recurrent droughts in Somalia.

Aid organizations will canvass the world’s rich for funds to feed the starving. Governments will make promises they won’t keep.

What has been a tributary of refugees leaving Somalia and entering neighboring Kenya will become a flood. This will be channeled into refugee camps, which will overflow with rivers of human misery.

A couple of years ago, I was visiting my good friend Abdullahi Mohamed Shirwa, a respected civil society leader based in Mogadishu who wondered if the country would continue to exist, given the prevailing circumstances. A week ago he called, describing the situation as “disastrous, almost beyond repair.” He asked, “Why are our people being left to die, starving — decade after decade?”

Nearly 170,000 Somalis have arrived in refugee camps since January, according to the United Nations. That suffering humanity is indicative of the catastrophe awaiting an even larger multitude of Somalis: those who have stayed behind, those from whom death harvests its daily dividend. After all, they are in worse need, desperate for help that they are unlikely to receive from humanitarian agencies.

Access is being prevented by al-Shabab, the al-Qaida-linked, hardline religionists who claim divine sanction — and who are declaring death on the cut-off hordes.

In a way, the current situation in Somalia is much worse than the one in 1992. Then, warlords held the nation hostage, millions of Somalis were caught in the middle, and hundreds of thousands died of hunger. The U.S. Marines were sent in to do “God’s work,” as President George H.W. Bush put it. But that half-measure led directly to the calamity we’re living today.

The U.S. military action resulted in the deaths in 1993 of 18 American troops; thugs supporting the warlord whom the Americans were hunting dragged corpses through the dusty alleys of Mogadishu. Humiliated, the United States withdrew. Al-Qaida claimed credit for the attack, recruited terrorists nearly undisturbed, and five years later attacked the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.

By withdrawing, the Americans played into the hands of the disrupters of peace, ultimately privileging the terrorists. The United Nations rewarded the warlords by describing them as leaders instead of treating them as criminals. The warlords were invited to a series of national reconciliation conferences to form a government. Somalis equated this bizarre turn of events to the notion of entrusting a flock of sheep to hyenas.

The rest of the world stood by, leaving the warlords to profit and al-Qaida to strengthen its presence. Foreign vessels entered Somali waters and engaged in illegal fishing, causing piracy to balloon into an ugly reality. Somalia lived on mortgaged time, leased out to criminals of one sort or another, an ideal world for terrorists to flourish.

If we had had foresight and acted upon it; if the marines had disarmed the warlords; if the U.N. Security Council had issued arrest warrants for the warlords early on; if the Security Council had dealt with the warlords — who had denied millions of starving people access to food — decisively, in the same way it dealt with the genocidal regimes in Serbia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Sudan, then al-Qaida would not have established a secure base from which to plan terrorist attacks. Our country would not have been hamstrung by the enormity of our problem, nor would it have become the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.

For two decades, many alliances known by different names and belonging to different interest groups, all of them harmful to Somalia, have collaborated to destabilize the country. The Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen has said that famines are easy to prevent and often disappear with the establishment of a multiparty democracy, a free press and an active political opposition.

We have none of that in Somalia. Instead, we know that the recurrence of droughts stems from political collapse — the failure of the governing class to deal with impending catastrophes, which often take years to materialize.

By the time drought is upon us, it is often too late. On my visit to Somalia, in February and March, one could already see a rainless season on the horizon. Many people I spoke to forecast a famine. The word, in fact, was on everybody’s lips in Galkayo, in central Somalia, where the wells had dried up and wars were being waged over the right of the nomads to water their beasts.

The world has taken only piecemeal steps to deal with Somali’s plight. So far, none has worked. It is time that the Security Council referred Somalia to the International Criminal Court for an in-depth investigation, as happened with other recent humanitarian disasters in Sudan and Libya. Only the high-profile nature of such a prosecution could ensure that justice is done and Somalia can become a governable country.

The alternative is for the international community to prepare to return to Somalia in 10 or 20 years. Then, humanitarian agencies will have to negotiate for access to millions of starving Somalis with some new group of criminals bent on the physical elimination of their people, knowing that, as in the past, they can pursue their goal with impunity.

Nuruddin Farah, a Somali-born novelist, lives in Cape Town, South Africa, and Minneapolis, where he holds the Winton Chair in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota. His novel “Crossbones” is forthcoming in September.

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