Somalia's drought: 'Children are dying. Everything is dying'
April 20, 2006 | More from David McGuffin
David McGuffin is the CBC's Africa correspondent, based in Nairobi. Previously, he was bureau chief in Moscow for Feature Story News (FSN), a British broadcast news service with clients that include CBC Radio, National Public Radio, PBS and ABC News. He reported from across the former Soviet Union during the last turbulent years of the Yeltsin administration. He went on to open FSN's Beijing bureau in 2000 before joining CTV News as their Asia correspondent. He also spent two years in Rome, reporting on Vatican and European affairs for ABC News and NBC News. He got his start in journalism at PBS’s MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour in Washington, D.C., where his last job was as foreign editor of the show's award-winning website. An Ottawa native, he graduated from Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., and from the journalism program at the University of King's College in Halifax.
The day we arrived in Wajid, in southern Somalia, they executed a man on the edge of town. We heard the gunshots.
He'd been involved in a scuffle over water at a distribution site the day before and shot another man. The town elders say rough, quick justice is the only way to prevent full-blown anarchy. This is how desperate the drought has made life in Somalia.
On the edge of town, refugee camps have sprung out of nowhere. Stand in the middle of them and all you can see are sad, makeshift tents crammed together in a dry, dusty, windblown plain.
We met 60-year-old Makay Sufi in the heart of this barren sea of tents.
She was pounding grain – food aid from the United Nations – to make her one daily meal. Everything she cooks with is borrowed. She told us that she owns nothing but the clothes on her back. Her livestock are dead. Her crops failed for three years in a row. She walked almost 97 kilometres to this refugee camp.
David McGuffin reports on the desperate situation in Somalia, where the drough sweeping East Africa is hitting hardest. [Runs 2:50]
"I came in search of food and shelter," she said. "I have nothing. But even here, our monthly food rations only feed us for a week."
Up to a half a million Somalis are on the move in a desperate hunt for food.
Aid agencies estimate that 80 per cent of livestock in this part of the country have died in the drought. This is a devastating loss for a society of subsistence farmers.
The suffering 'brings tears to my eyes'
Hassan Aden Farah, a Somali aid worker with Action Against Hunger in Wajid, said he has never seen so much suffering caused by drought alone.
"This is now the worst drought we have faced in the last 30 years," he said. "Children are dying. Everything is dying. Animals are dying. Camels, there are only a few. This is something that brings tears to my eyes."
The camps around Wajid have grown from housing a few hundred people before Christmas to almost 15,000 now. And new families are arriving every day. The conditions are squalid – the worst I have seen in camps in a half dozen countries in Africa. Other than food aid, the refugees are getting almost no help from the international community. There are no medical facilities to speak of.
We met Nuna Degey huddled in her tent cradling her one-year-old child, his face scarred, scabby and oozing. She told us that he had ring worm. They'd been in the camp for 10 days but she hadn't been able to find anyone who could help her son.
Like all the refugees, she built her own shelter: a low, makeshift dome tent made from sticks and covered with a patchwork of plastic and cloth, much of it flapping loose in the wind. It's feeble cover from a day-time sun that can send temperatures up to 50 C.
Feeding the hungry is increasingly dangerous
One evening, we watched as a UN convoy of trucks carrying food aid left town. Each had guards armed with AK-47 assault rifles. But despite the security, these convoys are being attacked with increasing regularity. Three men were killed when a convoy was ambushed near the city of Baidoa three days after we left.
Even by sea there is danger. Somali pirates have seized UN food shipments, holding them for ransom.
Somalia has had no effective central government for 15 years. It's divided by warlords and their militias. As food becomes increasingly valuable, feeding the weak and hungry becomes ever more dangerous.
Zlatan Milisic, country director for the UN's World Food Program said getting food to the two million Somalis in need is a logistical nightmare.
"The humanitarian situation is getting worse," he said. "We have a major number of people who desperately need our assistance and we are struggling to move through and distribute to them the necessary assistance. It doesn't help their society either when they are in a constant situation of attacks and unrest and problems."
In this drought-ravaged land, awash with guns, the problems are never far away.
As we approached a UN food distribution centre two hours north of Wajid, we heard gunfire. It was warning shots by the local militia to stop people, mostly shrieking, desperate women, from fighting over bags of food. There are simply too many hungry and not enough aid to go around.
Evidence of hunger can be seen everywhere. Dead livestock litter the countryside.
Children are too weak to eat
And then there are the children. At a therapeutic feeding centre in Wajid we came across three-year-old Mohammed Ali. He arrived here so weak that he could only be fed through a tube down his nose. He weighed the same as a child half his age.
The feeding centre opened only days before we arrived and it was already full to capacity. Worried staff told us they hadn't even begun looking in the countryside for sick children yet.
Mohammed Ali's mother said they have lost everything. Her husband left her and their five children when their livestock died. All she can do, she said, is pray.
Thanks to the help he's getting, Mohammed Ali is gaining strength. But then what? The spring rains might help, but aid workers say it could take a generation to rebuild the livelihoods that have been wiped out by the drought.
For its part, the UN has appealed for $425 million US to deal with the immediate crisis caused by drought in East Africa. So far, it has received a quarter of that.
Somalis are a famously proud people in a country with a tortured past. But even so, many of the people we met said they have never felt so hopeless.