Somalia Drought Brings Famine Near 10/05 06:06
DOLLOW, Somalia (AP) -- A man in a donkey cart comes wheeling through the
dust, carrying two small, silent boys. The sky is overcast. It could rain. It
won't. It hasn't for a very long time.
Mohamed Ahmed Diriye is 60 years old, and he's completing the grimmest
journey of his life. He set off from a seaside city on the northern edge of
Somalia two weeks ago. People were dying. Livestock were dying. He decided to
abandon work as a day laborer and flee to the other end of the country,
crossing a landscape of carcasses and Islamic extremist-held territory along
Seven hundred miles later, he is exhausted. The food has run out. He
clutches a battered stick in one hand, the nearly empty cart in the other. His
boys are just 4 and 5.
They had tried to escape, Diriye says. "But we came across the same drought
More than 1 million Somalis have fled and discovered that, too.
This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
In Somalia, a nation of poets, droughts are named for the kind of pain they
bring. There was Prolonged in the 1970s, Cattle Killer in the 1980s, Equal five
years ago for its reach across the country. A decade ago, there was Famine,
which killed a quarter-million people.
Somalis say the current drought is worse than any they can remember. It
doesn't yet have a name. Diriye, who believes no one can survive in some of the
places he traveled, suggests one without hesitation: White Bone.
This drought has astonished resilient herders and farmers by lasting four
failed rainy seasons, starting two years ago. The fifth season is underway and
likely will fail too, along with the sixth early next year.
A rare famine declaration could be made as soon as this month, the first
significant one anywhere in the world since Somalia's famine a decade ago.
Thousands of people have died, including nearly 900 children under 5 being
treated for malnutrition, according to United Nations data. The U.N. says half
a million such children are at risk of death, "a number, a pending nightmare,
we have not seen this century."
As the world is gripped by food insecurity, Somalia, a country of 15 million
people shaking off its past as a failed state, can be considered the end of the
line. The nation of proud pastoralists that has survived generations of drought
now stumbles amid several global crises descending at once.
They include climate change, with some of the harshest effects of warming
felt in Africa. Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which stalled ships carrying
enough grain to feed hundreds of millions of people. A drop in humanitarian
donations, as the world shifted focus to the war in Ukraine. One of the world's
deadliest Islamic extremist groups, which limits the delivery of aid.
The Associated Press spoke with a dozen people in rapidly growing
displacement camps during a visit to southern Somalia in late September. All
say they've received little aid, or none. A day's meal might be plain rice or
just black tea. Many camp residents, overwhelmingly women and children, beg
from neighbors, or go to sleep hungry.
Mothers walk for days or weeks through bare landscapes in search of help, at
times finding that the withered, feverish child strapped to them has died along
"We'd grieve, stop for a while, pray," Adego Abdinur says. "We'd bury them
beside the road."
She holds her naked 1-year-old in front of her new home, a fragile hut of
plastic sacks and fabric lashed together with cord and stripped branches. It's
one of hundreds scattered over the dry land. Behind a thorn barrier marking her
hut from another, giggling children pour cherished water from a plastic jug
into their hands, sipping and spitting in delight.
The home the 28-year-old Abdinur left was far superior -- a farm of maize
and dozens of livestock in the community where she was born and raised. The
family was self-sufficient. Then the water dried up, and their four-legged
wealth began to die.
"When we lost the last goat, we realized there was no way to survive,"
Abdinur says. She and her six children walked 300 kilometers (186 miles) here,
following rumors of assistance along with thousands of other people on the move.
"We have seen so many children dying because of hunger," she says.
At the heart of this crisis, in areas where famine likely will be declared,
is an Islamic extremist group linked to al-Qaida. An estimated 740,000 of the
drought's most desperate people live in areas under the control of the
al-Shabab extremists. To survive, they must escape.
Al-Shabab's grip on large parts of southern and central Somalia was a major
contributor to deaths in the 2011 famine. Much aid wasn't let into its areas,
and many starving people weren't let out. Somalia's president, who has survived
three al-Shabab attempts on his life, has described the group as "mafia
shrouded with Islam." But his government has urged it to have mercy now.
In a surprise comment on the drought in late September, al-Shabab called it
a test from Allah, "a result of our sins and wrongdoings." Spokesman Ali
Mohamud Rage claimed that the extremists had offered food, water and free
medical treatment to more than 47,000 drought-affected people since last year.
But in rare accounts of life inside al-Shabab-held areas, several people who
fled told the AP they had seen no such aid. Instead, they said, the extremists
continue their harsh taxation of families' crops and livestock even as they
withered and died. They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
One woman says al-Shabab taxed up to 50% of her family's meager harvest:
"They don't care whether people are left with anything."
Some flee their communities at night to escape the fighters' attention, with
men and even young boys often being forbidden to leave. One woman says no one
from her community was allowed to leave, and people who received assistance
from the outside would be attacked. Weeks ago, she says, al-Shabab killed a
relative who had managed to take a sick parent to a government-held city and
Those who escaped al-Shabab now cling to a bare existence. As what should be
the rainy season arrives, they wake in camps under a purple sky, or a gray one
offering the tiniest specks of moisture.
Children send up kites, adults their prayers. Black smoke rises in the
distance as some farmers clear land just in case.
In the only treatment center for the most severely malnourished in the
immediate region, 1-year-old Hamdi Yusuf is another sign of hope.
She was little more than bones and skin when her mother found her
unconscious, two months after arriving in the camps and living on scraps of
food offered by neighbors. "The child was not even alive," recalls Abdikadir
Ali Abdi, acting nutrition officer with the aid group Trocaire, which runs the
center of 16 beds and has more patients than they can hold.
Now the girl is revived, slumped over her mother's arm but blinking. Her
tiny toes twitch. A wrist is bandaged to stop her from pulling out the port for
a feeding tube.
The ready-to-use therapeutic food so crucial to the recovery of children
like her could run out in the coming weeks, Abdi says. Humanitarian workers
describe having to take limited resources from the hungry in Somalia to treat
the starving, complicating efforts to get ahead of the drought.
The girl's mother, 18-year-old Muslima Ibrahim, anxiously rubs her
daughter's tiny fingers. She has saved her only child, but survival will
require the kind of support she still hasn't seen.
"We received a food distribution yesterday," Ibrahim says. "It was the first
since we arrived."
Food is hard to come by everywhere. At midday, dozens of hungry children
from the camps try to slip into a local primary school where the World Food
Program offers a rare lunch program for students. They are almost always turned
away by school workers.
Mothers recall having to eat their stockpiles of grain and selling their few
remaining goats to afford the journey from the homes and lives they loved. Many
had never left until now.
"I miss fresh camel milk. We love it," says 29-year-old Nimco Abdi Adan,
smiling at the memory. She hasn't tasted it for two years.
Residents outside the camps feel the growing desperation. Shopkeeper Khadija
Abdi Ibrahim, 60, now keeps her goats, sheep and cattle alive by buying
precious grain, grinding it and using it as fodder. She says the price of
cooking oil and other items has doubled since last year, making it more
difficult for displaced people to obtain food with vouchers handed out by WFP.
Hundreds of families continue to emerge from the empty horizon across
Somalia, bringing little but grief. The true toll of dead is unknown, but
people at two of the country's many displacement camps in the hardest hit city,
Baidoa, say over 300 children have died in the last three months in rural
areas, according to aid organization Islamic Relief.
One day in mid-September, 29-year-old Fartum Issack and her husband carried
a small body along a dusty track to a graveyard. Their 1-year-old daughter had
arrived at camp sick and hungry. She was rushed for treatment, but it was too
The graveyard opened in April especially for the newly displaced people. It
already had 13 graves, seven of them for children. There's easily room for
Issack and her husband chose to bury their daughter in the middle of the
"We wanted to easily recognize her," Issack says.
At the camp, eight other hungry daughters are waiting.