Somalia famine: Children cry weakly as they starve
Wednesday 27 Jul 2011 7:00 a.m.
By Katharine Houreld and Khaled Kazziha
Seven-month-old Mihag Gedi Farah is the frail face of Somalia's famine. He stares out wide-eyed almost in alarm, his skin pulled taut over his ribs and twig-like arms.
At only 3.2 kilograms, he weighs as much as a newborn but has the weathered look of an elderly man.
Mihag is just one of 800,000 children who officials warn could die across the Horn of Africa. Aid workers are rushing to bring help to dangerous and previously unreached regions of drought-ravaged Somalia.
Famine victims like Mihag bring new urgency to their efforts, raising concerns about how many hungry children still remain in Somalia, far away from the feeding tubes and doctors in the field hospital at this Kenyan refugee camp.
Mihag's fragile skin crumples like thin leather under the pressure of his mother's hands, as she touches the hollows where a baby's chubby cheeks should be.
Sirat Amine, a nurse-nutritionist with the International Rescue Committee, puts Mihag's odds for survival at only 50-50. A baby Mihag's age should weigh about three times what he does.
His mother, Asiah Dagane, fans Mihag with the edge of her headscarf to keep flies away. He cries weakly, and when he does, she bounces him gently to try to soothe him and murmurs softly.
"In my mind, I'm not well," she says softly. "My baby is sick. In my head, I am also sick."
Mihag is the youngest of seven children in his family. His mother brought him and four siblings on the journey from Kismayo to northern Kenya after all their sheep and cattle died in the drought.
Like the tens of thousands of other Somalis fleeing starvation, the family traveled by foot, other times catching rides with passing trucks, cars or buses.
Dagane keeps vigil for her son in the ward, which is painted with cheerful pictures of balloons and fruit, lit with fluorescent bulbs. Other mothers huddle on beds next to babies with IV tubes snaking from their heads or hands.
Some infants cry, others are listless. In the middle of the room hangs a woven basket from a scale - but it's not needed to tell that many of the babies are dangerously malnourished.
Abdi Ibrahim Yara arrived 20 days ago with his four children, including 1-year-old twins. They are unable to drink the fortified milk and must be nourished by an IV.
He and his wife were on the road for 25 days, but she became sick from malnutrition and died. She was four months pregnant.
"We had a comfortable life there, but now there is no one left," Yara says.
Nurse Abukar Abdule says all of those arriving at the field hospital complain of "severe malnutrition." Most have walked from the middle of Somalia, between Kismayo and the capital of Mogadishu.
"We have to treat them for at least a week," Abdule says. "They have no food, shelter or water. Some have diseases. Some died on the road and some were lost. Many mothers who come here have lost children."
The United Nations estimates that more 11 million people in East Africa are affected by the drought, with 3.7 million in Somalia among the worst-hit because of the ongoing civil war in the country.
Somalia's prolonged drought became a famine in part because neither the Somali government nor many aid agencies can fully operate in areas controlled by al-Qaida-linked militants, and the UN is set to declare all of southern Somalia a famine zone as of Aug 1.
Aid organizations including the UN World Food Program have not been able to access areas under the control of the al-Shabab militants, who have killed humanitarian workers and banned the WFP.
The UN has said it will airlift emergency rations later this week to try to reach at least 175,000 of the 2.2 million Somalis who have not been helped yet.
The new feeding efforts in the four districts of southern Somalia near the border with Kenya and Ethiopia could begin by Thursday, slowing the flow of tens of thousands of people who have fled their homes in hope of reaching aid.
But the WFP hasn't operated there for more than two years and must find and rehire former employees to help with distribution. Transportation is also a substantial obstacle because land mines have severed key roads and a landing strip has fallen into disrepair.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization said a coordination conference would be held Wednesday in the Kenyan capital.
Donations are also desperately needed to sustain the aid effort in the Horn of Africa: The UN wants to gather $US1.6 billion in the next 12 months, with $US300 million of that coming in the next three months.
At the Kenyan refugee camp, Mihag's nurse takes his measurements and describes him as "severely, severely malnourished."
"We never tell the mother, of course, that their baby might not make it," the nurse says. "We try to give them hope."