Friday, July 15, 2011

The forgotten people of Africa's deadly famine

Displaced Somali children rest inside their makeshift shelter in southern Mogadishu on Thursday. The Horn of Africa is in the grip of a major food crisis, with millions of people severely affected in drought-stricken areas of Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Uganda, according to the UN.

Displaced Somali children rest inside their makeshift shelter in southern Mogadishu on Thursday. The Horn of Africa is in the grip of a major food crisis, with millions of people severely affected in drought-stricken areas of Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Uganda, according to the UN.

Photograph by: Ismail Taxta, Reuters, The Daily Telegraph

It is a long walk from Fini village to Dadaab, the Kenyan refugee camp that is the focus of attempts to save millions of people in the Horn of Africa from starvation.

Daily aid flights bring Hollywood stars and hand-wringing Western politicians to tour the epicentre of a hunger crisis that many are warning could rapidly become a catastrophic famine.

However, in Fini, a place so small it does not appear on maps, there are no visitors. This cluster of three dozen stick-built shacks, bisected by a track rarely used by traffic, is growing daily as more and more people trek in from the wilderness.

They are here seeking help. But most come in vain; The Daily Telegraph was told again and again in northern Kenya that none of the millions of dollars generated by aid agencies' latest appeals had yet filtered through.

No one is bringing food, or medicines, or offers to buy the destitute herders' few remaining goats. The little food that people have is shared around ever more mouths. Children, already weak, are falling sick with potentially deadly diarrhea.

The only outside help has been water trucked in daily since December by World Vision, a British Christian charity. Those supplies end today because the money needed to cover costs has run out.

"There have been droughts before, but then people came to assist us, there was food available, even the animals were helped," said Dekow Farah, 49, an elder who arrived here a month ago with his two wives and nine children.

"Now, there is nothing. We see vehicles from the government passing by some days, but they do not stop. The situation is worse than ever. Why have we been forgotten? I cannot tell."

In countless villages like this across northern Kenya, eastern Ethiopia and southern Somalia, similar scenarios are being played out as the disaster threatens 11 million lives.

Fini is a place of the elderly and of women and children; all husbands and brothers aged between 16 and 50 have left with the few animals still alive to chase reports of rain far away that might have turned green a distant land with precious new pasture.

Among the domed huts of thatch and rags, the constant hot wind entombs in sand the carcases of goats that have perished. The only vegeta-tion lies high on trees with poisonous foliage.

Beneath a leafless thorn bush, branches are used to lift a near-lifeless cow to its feet to shift it into the meagre shade. The village shop, such as it is, stands locked, its shelves - usually stocked with sugar, maizeflour and cooking oil - are bare.

The traders who formerly visited once a fortnight to buy livestock stopped coming weeks ago because the animals were so weak they would die before reaching the slaughterhouse.

These are a people who survive by drinking the milk and selling the meat of their animals, their only source of food, wealth and income, and whose animals are now dead or worthless.

A cow that last year could be exchanged for six large sacks of rice now barely covers the cost of one. With money short and food prices soaring, stark decisions are being forced. In Habaswein, the nearest town, a long day's walk from Fini, Fatuma Ahmed sat at sunrise frying thin maize pancakes that would be the only food she and her seven children would eat all day.

She told of how "in the dark because people don't want others to know," families are agreeing to give their daughters as young as 13 in arranged marriages in order to receive a dowry from the groom's family, as is the tradition in Kenya.

While it is the most severe in living memory, the current drought is in fact the latest in a series that have come closer together and are forcing a change in an entire way of life.

People are for the first time choosing to settle permanently in villages with boreholes or towns with schools and hospitals, and turning their backs on living by their livestock.

Abdullahi Wardere, who guesses his age at 50, had chosen to leave the area his family roamed for generations and walked to Habaswein with his son and daughter-in-law and their three children. Their hope was to find food aid from the government or aid agencies.

Apart from once last month, they have received nothing.

"There is no one there where we came from, you will find all the villages are empty," he said.

"It is time now to stop moving with the animals. They cannot survive with these droughts, and in the same way we cannot survive. This must be where we stay now."


A new camp for Somalis fleeing the drought sweeping the Horn of Africa is to open in Kenya, despite security fears.

More than 1,400 Somalis stream into the Dadaab refugee centre every day, and its existing infrastructure cannot cope. Aid organizations led by UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency, have been pushing Kenya to allow new arrivals to use a ready-built camp that had been kept closed at Nairobi's insistence.

Kenya's government fears that agents of al-Shabaab, Somalia's al-Qaeda-linked Islamist insurgency, could slip into the country unnoticed in the chaos of the drought influx.

On Thursday, Raila Odinga, Kenya's prime minister, said he had agreed to open the Ifo II complex.

"Although we consider our own security, we cannot turn away refugees," Odinga said.

The camp, for as many as 80,000 people, must be run by the UN, he added.

Dadaab's three existing centres were designed to house 90,000 people, but are currently catering for 380,000, almost all of them Somalis. The Daily Telegraph

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