Monday, July 25, 2011

Somalia’s walking corpses.

By Guled Mohamed

DOOBLEY, Somalia, July 19 – Just hours after giving birth to her first born son and still reeling from the excruciating pain of labour, 20 year old Madina Abdi, had to hurriedly jump into a truck ferrying starving children and elderly men and women fleeing a severe drought that has left half of Somalia’s population in dire need of emergency food aid.

When the truck ferrying over 150 dust-filled hungry Somalis together with Madina and her yet-to-be named 4 day old son finally made it into Doobley town 24 hours later and without eating anything, the young mother was so weak and barely able to get out of the crowded truck forcing her equally frail looking young husband to carry her off the vehicle.

Around a 100 pale-looking children uncontrollably wept for food as their feeble mothers helpless watched, not knowing what to tell them. Many of the elderly passengers could not open their mouth to speak, instead pointed at their empty pangs as if to tell us they were too hungry to speak.

The few who gathered strength to speak gave a chilling account of their journey from Dinsoor in Bakool region located around 300 kilometers to the Somali border town of Doobley. Bakol and the two Shabelle regions are the worst affected by the biting drought which neither has spared the other parts of Somalia.

Their condition was so appalling, we were so touched and had to chip into our pockets to buy them food. They said the two sacks of rice, one bag of sugar and 10 litres of cooking oil and some milk for the kids would give them the necessary energy to trek to Dadaab where they hope they would get aid assistance.

“I was struggling to hold my son because the truck was packed to the brim. We fled from hunger after our livestock perished and our farms in Gurban village dried up. We hope to get food and shelter at the refugee camps where we are heading. We have not celebrated his birth and neither have we even named him yet. Food is our priority at the moment,” Madina said safely tucking her toddler under her dusty clothes away from the scorching sun and dusty surrounding.

Those fleeing Somalia are mostly farmers and herdsmen from the country’s food basket areas of Middle and Lower Shabele, Middle Juba region as well as Bay region in the south and central parts of the country severely hit by the drought, the worst to hit Somalia the last half a century.

The United Nations has officially announced a famine in the country due to the high levels of malnourishment rates among children above normal thresholds of 30 percent in a country dogged by two decades of a bloody conflict that has made life even worse for many of its impoverished residents.

The hunger-stricken Somalis are either fleeing towards the refugee camps in Kenya or towards the capital Mogadishu depending on distance. Those interviewed in Doobley and on their way to the Kenyan refugee camps in Dadaab said many more drought victims were trekking towards the refugee camps with the weakest dropping dead on the way. Somali officials say the drought has already claimed at least 10,000 people.

“Thousands of people fleeing the drought come daily through Doobley by bus or trucks. The unlucky ones trek hundreds of miles arriving tired and looking so frail like walking corpses. The situation is so bad and people have started to die of hunger and thirst. We cannot do much to help because we are also affected. All we do for them is to give them water and share the little food we have,” said Adan Dahir Hassan, Dobley district commissioner.

On our way back from Doobley, we met some more Somalis fleeing the drought by foot.

“People are dropping off dead on the way. The situation is so serious. I managed to survive by eating wild fruits and sipping small amounts of water I carried. We had to plead for a lift for the most vulnerable children and women who could barely walk as a result of swollen feet. I have never witnessed such a magnitude of suffering in my life, it is simply horrible,” said Nuuno Nuurow, a 50 year old father of 5 trekking towards the refugee camps whose children were among those who hitched a lift.

Habiba Abdirahman, 70, whom we met pulling her few belongings on a Donkey cart that also carried her granddaughter along the Liboi-Dadaab road also gave a chilling account of their death-defying journey past Al-Shabaab militants who despite allowing aid agencies access to the affected regions are reportedly stopping the drought-stricken Somalis from moving towards the refugee camps in Kenya, in Mogadishu and across the Ethiopian border where the refugees can expect help.

“We left Diinsoor 30 days ago by foot after our livestock perished and everyone was fleeing the hunger. The little food reservoir we carried finished a day ago. We have been living off begging for food from commuters and residents. I can keep walking but my only worry is my grand daughter who has not had a meal since yesterday. We don’t know what to expect at the refugee camps. We simply hope to get food and shelter there,” she said, pointing at her skinny grandchild safely tacked on top of the cart.

Back at the overcrowded refugee camps in Dadaab, there are two contrasting images and conditions of the Somali refugee. You will see a few well-off refugees eking out a living from running businesses at the camps where they have lived for the last two decades.

However, the most disturbing image is that of the newly arrived refugees who have no food, water or a place to call home prompting their better off relatives and friends to donate clothes and share food with them. Every Somali refugee you speak to has a sad story to say. Some of them have even lost family members on the way out of hunger-related conditions.

International aid agencies assisting the Somali refugee say they are overwhelmed by the record number of arriving refugees. According to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, which manages the 3 refugee camps of Ifo, Dagahalay and Hagadera that receive at least 1,500 Somali refugees daily fleeing the biting hunger at home further congesting the refugee camps in Dadaab, home to already around 380, 000 refugees from Somalia, a country without an effective government since 1991.

The World Food Programme, which provides cereals and specialized foodstuff for children for curbing the rising malnourishment rates within the refugee camps, says despite funding shortfalls they are managing the humanitarian catastrophe.

“Our food pipeline is tight but we have enough to keep feeding the Somali refugees as we keep knocking all doors of our main donors and other possible new donors in order to continue saving lives. We give a 15 day ration of cereals, cooking oil and sugar to each registered family. For the malnourished children under the age of 5 we give a special Corn Soya Blend (CSB), a protein-rich foodstuff that helps them recover quickly from the malnutrition,” WFP Kenya Public Information Officer, Rose Ogolla said at a food distribution point in Dagahaly refugee camp .

As the south and central regions continue to witness dry spells, incidentally, monsoon rains have been pounding Mogadishu for the last few days further complicating conditions of those who have fled towards the city due to lack of proper shelter and medicine at a time when measles outbreak has been reported in the capital city and surrounding areas.

In Dadaab though, Somali refugees say they have to put with poor conditions at the moment because aid coming in is too little compared to the magnitude of their problems.

Khadija Abdisalan, who arrived at Dagahaly refugee camp’s new “Bula Bakhti” unit or the Corpses camp a month ago, struggled to explain her young family’s miseries and the condition of her 10 month old severely malnourished daughter called Shukri.

“My breasts have dried up due to the starvation we are experience at home. We have nothing much to eat because we just arrived last month. She was a healthy baby girl a few months ago but now she is so skinny with protruding bones. My worst fear is loosing her. I just hope she will make it,” Khadija said, tears flowing off her pale cheeks.