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Drought drives Somalis from their homeland


Faduma Sakow Abdullahi and her five children tried to escape starvation in Somalia by walking for more than a month to a Kenyan refugee camp. Only one day before they reached their destination, her 4-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son died of exhaustion and hunger.

At first, the 29-year-old widow thought the two were merely sleeping when they wouldn't get up after a brief rest. She had to leave their bodies under a tree, unburied, so she could push on with her baby, 2-year-old and 3-year-old.

She saw more than 20 other children dead or unconscious abandoned on the roadside. Eventually a passing car rescued the rest of her family from what could have been death.

"I never thought I would live to see this horror," she said, tears rolling down her cheeks as she described the 37-day trek to Dadaab, the world's largest refugee camp.

A drought centered in the triangle where Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia meet has sent tens of thousands of people pouring into refugee camps in search of food. The three-way border is a nomadic region where families heavily depend on the health of their livestock.

Somali families have little food or money after herds of cattle, goats and camels were wiped out after successive seasons of no rains hit the war-ravaged country.

Somalis are walking for days or weeks to reach camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, which also have been hit hard by drought. Young and the old are dying en route.

The head of the U.N. agency for refugees said Sunday that drought-ridden Somalia is the "worst humanitarian disaster" in the world.

Uganda and Djibouti have also been hit. The U.N. World Food Program said it expects 10 million people in the Horn of Africa to require food aid.

Monday, the Ethiopian government announced Monday that 4.5 million people need food aid there, 40 percent more than last year.

Jason Frasier, mission director of USAID in Ethiopia, the U.S. government aid arm, suggested that Ethiopia might even be undercounting those who need help.

Ethiopia's state minister of agriculture, Mitiku Kassa, said Monday that nearly $400 million is needed to fill the country's food gap. He said Ethiopia needs to distribute 380 metric tons of food.

The refugee camp at Dadaab was originally built for 90,000 people; more than 382,000 are now here. People die in the camp every day, though no one can provide a reliable estimate of the drought deaths.

"I must say that I visited many refugee camps in the world. I have never seen people coming in such a desperate situation," the head of U.N.'s refugee agency, Antonio Guterres, said Sunday while visiting the new arrivals area.

Hundreds of mothers and children with dust-caked faces gather at 6 a.m. every day at registration centers in Dadaab's three sprawling camps.

Abdullahi, whose two children did not survive the journey, said her family's problems took a turn for the worse after her husband died in May. Still, with 20 cows and a small parcel of land, her family had enough to live on.

But as the rains failed, the cows died and the supply of maize was depleted.

"We started to dig up roots of trees to survive," Abdullahi said, while her 3-year-old daughter who survived the journey played near her.

Abdullahi lost her 4-year-old and 5-year-old, but in many cases parents are dying first.

Andrew Wander, a spokesman for Save the Children, said his agency provides care to more than 300 unaccompanied children who were found on roadsides after their parents died or abandoned them.

"More children have died of malnutrition in the first four months of this year than in the whole of last year," he said.

Abdi Aden, a former farmer who lived in Sakow town before the drought forced him to flee, said he lost an 8-year-old son after eight days of trekking.

"He tried to cry before he died, but he could not. He was so weak. He died peacefully from hunger," he said. "I buried him by myself in a shallow ditch so hyenas could not eat him."

On her way to Dadaab, Abdullahi said she walked with friends for three days before she and her children lagged behind. She saw around 20 children dead or unconscious abandoned on the roadside.

"I saw two elderly people on the road," she said. "They cried out, 'Ma'am, give us a helping hand.' They wanted to sweet-talk me, but I said to them, 'I can't help' and moved on.

"You will feel kind only when you have something," she said. "I wanted to give the little water I had to my children."

A bird's eye view of African drought

This image captured by the Aqua satellite in February shows the Horn of Africa. The dry land has only small hints of vegetation in the green mountains of Ethiopia.

Why so dry? Winds that carry tropical monsoon rains blow from the west and drop most of their moisture in the mountainous regions before reaching the eastern lowlands of the Horn. Annual rainfall can be as low as 2 inches in some areas of coastal Somalia.


How to help

UNICEF estimates that 2 million children are malnourished in the entire drought-stricken Horn of Africa countries. Donations can be made at

Drought drives Somalis from their homeland 07/11/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 12, 2011 7:43am]
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