Death march: the skeletal children who bear witness to a growing catastrophe

The Times of London
Dadaab, Kenya

Dadaab kid
Hanad, a six-month-old boy, is being treated at the refugee camp in Dadaab (Tristan McConnell for The Times)

Spectral figures emerging from Kenya’s eastern wastelands are the just-living proof of Somalia’s famine. Every day, more than a thousand of them trudge into the sprawling refugee camps that surround the town of Dadaab, wrapped in incongruous colourful robes that billow in the constant wind sweeping across an impossibly hostile landscape of sand, thorn and stone.

Their feet are cracked and bent from days, sometimes weeks, of walking, their emaciated forms appearing on the outskirts of the camps singly or in diminished family groups.

The refugees left their homes to escape death by starvation or at the hands of a vicious Islamist army, but death has followed many of them here.

One man arrived with his dead baby daughter still strapped to his back. Others have no sooner put down their meagre belongings than they are digging tiny graves for their children who, weakened by lack of food and the arduous journey, are the first to die.

Those who survive are quickly screened, a colour-coded tape measure determining the extent of their malnutrition, and the worst cases are taken to clinics for emergency treatment.

Six-month-old Hanad had to be resuscitated when he was brought to a hospital run by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in the Hagadera camp on Thursday. He weighed 6.8lb (3.1kg), his twig-like limbs, protruding ribs and wrinkled old man’s face the telltale signs of acute malnutrition.

Hanad’s mother, Ambia Abdi Ali, cradled his tiny form in her arms as she fed him sips of fortified milk.

In the next bed lay Faisal, aged 8 but the size of a skinny toddler. His three-year-old brother had died during his family’s flight, accidentally suffocated by his mother as they ran from a firefight between rival militias. Grieving, Ubah Bare Hussein stroked the arm of her remaining son into which doctors had inserted a saline drip.

John Kingoria, a doctor, said these two children would survive but at least five others have died in this clinic alone in the past month, compared with fifteen in the first six months of the year.

Outside the clinics nobody knows how many have succumbed. The corpses are buried within 24 hours, in accordance with Muslim law, and the graves are not marked. Every one of the refugees seems to have a tale of horror from the journey out of Somalia’s maelstrom of war and famine.

Kadija Hassan Ali, 35, came from Mogadishu with her six children. As they headed for Dadaab, bandits hijacked the vehicle in which they were travelling with two dozen others. All their possessions were stolen and Ms Ali’s two teenage daughters and a niece were raped. “I left Mogadishu when my husband and son were killed, we were looking for safety. I could not imagine such a thing would happen,” she said. Unable to bear the shame of rape, her daughters have returned to Somalia.

Reports of rape and sexual violence perpetrated against the refugees have been increasing. One medical worker said the numbers quadrupled in June and doubled again in July.

Hussein Abdullahi Ibrahim, 47, was one of the luckier ones. All four of his children are with him in the hut he built using branches and thorn bush on the far outskirts of Dagahale camp. It took him five days of walking and hitching rides to escape Baidoa, a southern Somali town and stronghold of the al-Shabaab militants.

Mr Ibrahim had stayed through Somalia’s 20 years of civil war but the famine was the final straw. “It is more dangerous than the war,” he said. His crops failed, his animals died, so he took his family and fled, joining 400,000 other Somalis in Kenya.

Southern Somalia is suffering enormously under the puritanical, brutal rule of fundamentalist Islam. Many Western aid agencies are banned from al-Shabaab territory. “We’ve had a lot of drought and still lived,” said Omar Abdirahman, who arrived from Baidoa yesterday. “But al-Shabaab have blocked humanitarian aid, and they stole my goats and my livelihood.”

Refugees and aid workers alike acknowledge that the problem is less a lack of rain than the failure of the Somali state. “At its root this is not a food crisis, it is a political crisis,” said Gerald Martone, IRC’s director of humanitarian affairs. “It is a terribly serious event; the worst I’ve seen in 30 years as an aid worker.

No one knows how bad it will get, only that it will get worse
An aid worker here describes the arrival of refugees in Dadaab as a “biopsy” of the famine which is, for now, unfolding almost entirely out of sight in al-Shabaab-controlled southern Somalia. The horrific tales being told in these camps are dreadful indicators of what is going on beyond the eyes and the reach of the world across the border. No one knows exactly how bad it is, but everyone knows that it will get worse.

There are no rains expected for months and there will be no harvests until the end of the year at the earliest. For now the famine thresholds have been reached in only a few parts of southern Somalia, including the capital Mogadishu, but all the indicators are that within weeks it will have spread across the entire south, putting millions of lives at risk.

US analysts estimate that 29,000 children have died as a result of famine in Somalia in the past three months. In the Dadaab camps, an estimated 76 people are dying every day. The children who succumb do not die of starvation but of diarrhoea, pneumonia, measles and other preventable illnesses which their malnourished bodies cannot fight.

The struggle for food and survival may well turn deadly. On Friday gunmen killed at least ten people as they raided a camp as food aid was being distributed in Mogadishu.

As the world tries to work out how to respond to the famine and save lives, Friday’s attack will be a worrying reminder of the last famine in Somalia in 1991. Then, the massive flow of aid became just another part of the war economy, another commodity for militias to fight over in the seemingly endless conflict.