08.08.11

Inside Somalia’s Crippling Famine

My assignment in Africa occurred as our own country fixated on the debt debate in Washington. But I came face to face with a debt of a different sort.

It’s shortly after daybreak and the sun has risen over the giant red gate in Dadaab, Kenya. We arrive by truck, and in the distance, through the fog of dust, we see the crowd gathered in blistering heat. It isn’t until we are among them that we witness one of the most searing images of all: a mother emerging from the parched desert carrying the sum of her family’s belongings upon her head and in bags strapped to her shoulders. Inside a tiny bag in front of her, she carries her baby.

Little by little, mothers and their children emerge as she did. It’s estimated that 1,500 refugees come to the Dadaab refugee camp every day. Many of them have walked more than 100 miles from Somalia to Kenya, driven from their homes by drought, hunger, and conflict. They are walking to food and to freedom.

We drive out to chronicle the last 10 miles of that impossible journey, and it is not lost on me that we have an engine and wheels. In many cases, these refugees have only their bare feet. We spot families dragging their belongings, and there are animal carcasses lining the road. It is their livestock lost along the way. For so many of the refugees, this is the least of their loss. Later, at the desert’s edge, we discover freshly dug graves covered in dirt. These are the loved ones who didn’t survive the journey.

There are no road signs along these dirt roads. Families simply follow those ahead of them. They pray they won’t be met by bandits or wild animals. We notice a woman too exhausted to go on, sitting beneath a tree. A line of makeshift tents on the horizon offers a sign that she’s almost there. She tells me her journey from Somalia has lasted 10 days and her children have run ahead to those tents.

The United Nations describes this as the worst famine in a generation, and there is no argument about that inside this hospital.
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A Somalian mother cradles her malnourished baby in a field hospital in a refugee camp in Dadaab, northeastern Kenya on Wednesday, August 3rd 2011. (Boris Roessler, DPA / Landov)

The sticks that hold up the plastic in the distance sprout by the thousands; the tents fill with families waiting to get into the Dadaab refugee camp. The camp is swollen with 400,000 refugees, a population the size of Cleveland or Minneapolis. And with refugees spilling into the desert, many of the aid workers have now come to them.

At a small Doctors Without Borders outpost, a worker points to the “ambulance” sitting right in front of us. “This is an ambulance?” I ask.

It is a donkey and cart, bearing a woman and her baby.

We enter the little clinic and find a crush of humanity. Mothers line up to place their children inside what appear to be buckets suspended by rope. These are the scales that document the scope of the crisis. Physicians tell of an alarming trend. Infants and toddlers were the first to feel the famine’s fury, but now the more resilient school-age children are succumbing to malnutrition too.

The families who make the journey to Dadaab carry unimaginable tales of suffering and survival.

Inside the hospital run by Doctors Without Borders at the camp, we approach a tiny wooden building with a simple handwritten sign that reads “Maternity Ward.” Inside, we meet a woman holding her newborn girl. She gave birth while walking that perilous route with her three other children. When I ask her how she managed on her own, she tells me other mothers saw her and came to her aid. They were all on the same journey.

The United Nations describes this as the worst famine in a generation, and there is no argument about that inside this hospital. They are quite literally feeding the children back to life.

I notice a little girl with hollow eyes and skin draping her bones like fabric. And while I see the toll ravaged upon her by days without food, the physician in charge sees something else. With a hint of a smile, he points out she is sitting up. A joyful moment for a doctor who knows it is proof this little girl will survive. She had gained a full pound in just two days here.

We observe a baby wrapped in what looks like tinfoil. It is a heating blanket keeping her fragile body warm. Even in the desert, she needs more heat, her nutrient-starved body not strong enough to fight sickness on its own.

There is another key here to helping these babies bounce back. It is a miracle meal small enough to sit in the palm of your hand: Plumpy'nut therapeutic food. Hospital workers tell me it is one of the most effective tools in bringing a child back from the brink. It’s made of peanuts and milk powder. Doctors Without Borders feeds many of the children in its Dadaab hospital two of these meals a day. It costs just under a dollar.

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Photo by Christine Romo / ABC

Back at that red gate, where families end the long journey from Somalia, many soon realize that their wait will be even longer. Their fingerprints are registered in a computer and they are presented with a yellow wristband that allows them a ration of food for 20 days. But the wait to get into the camp is now two months.

I notice a child with his newly awarded yellow band slowly starting to eat again. He and his mother survived the journey to Dadaab. So many others have not.

The U.S. estimates the famine has killed more than 29,000 children under the age of 5 in just the last three months.

My assignment in Africa occurred as our own country fixated on the debt debate in Washington. But I came face to face with a debt of a different sort. I found one that is measured in human capital.