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Somalia Drought Brings Famine Near     10/05 06:06

   

   DOLLOW, Somalia (AP) -- A man in a donkey cart comes wheeling through the 
dust, carrying two small, silent boys. The sky is overcast. It could rain. It 
won't. It hasn't for a very long time.

   Mohamed Ahmed Diriye is 60 years old, and he's completing the grimmest 
journey of his life. He set off from a seaside city on the northern edge of 
Somalia two weeks ago. People were dying. Livestock were dying. He decided to 
abandon work as a day laborer and flee to the other end of the country, 
crossing a landscape of carcasses and Islamic extremist-held territory along 
the way.

   Seven hundred miles later, he is exhausted. The food has run out. He 
clutches a battered stick in one hand, the nearly empty cart in the other. His 
boys are just 4 and 5.

   They had tried to escape, Diriye says. "But we came across the same drought 
here."

   More than 1 million Somalis have fled and discovered that, too.

   ___

   This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

   ___

   In Somalia, a nation of poets, droughts are named for the kind of pain they 
bring. There was Prolonged in the 1970s, Cattle Killer in the 1980s, Equal five 
years ago for its reach across the country. A decade ago, there was Famine, 
which killed a quarter-million people.

   Somalis say the current drought is worse than any they can remember. It 
doesn't yet have a name. Diriye, who believes no one can survive in some of the 
places he traveled, suggests one without hesitation: White Bone.

   This drought has astonished resilient herders and farmers by lasting four 
failed rainy seasons, starting two years ago. The fifth season is underway and 
likely will fail too, along with the sixth early next year.

   A rare famine declaration could be made as soon as this month, the first 
significant one anywhere in the world since Somalia's famine a decade ago. 
Thousands of people have died, including nearly 900 children under 5 being 
treated for malnutrition, according to United Nations data. The U.N. says half 
a million such children are at risk of death, "a number, a pending nightmare, 
we have not seen this century."

   As the world is gripped by food insecurity, Somalia, a country of 15 million 
people shaking off its past as a failed state, can be considered the end of the 
line. The nation of proud pastoralists that has survived generations of drought 
now stumbles amid several global crises descending at once.

   They include climate change, with some of the harshest effects of warming 
felt in Africa. Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which stalled ships carrying 
enough grain to feed hundreds of millions of people. A drop in humanitarian 
donations, as the world shifted focus to the war in Ukraine. One of the world's 
deadliest Islamic extremist groups, which limits the delivery of aid.

   The Associated Press spoke with a dozen people in rapidly growing 
displacement camps during a visit to southern Somalia in late September. All 
say they've received little aid, or none. A day's meal might be plain rice or 
just black tea. Many camp residents, overwhelmingly women and children, beg 
from neighbors, or go to sleep hungry.

   Mothers walk for days or weeks through bare landscapes in search of help, at 
times finding that the withered, feverish child strapped to them has died along 
the way.

   "We'd grieve, stop for a while, pray," Adego Abdinur says. "We'd bury them 
beside the road."

   She holds her naked 1-year-old in front of her new home, a fragile hut of 
plastic sacks and fabric lashed together with cord and stripped branches. It's 
one of hundreds scattered over the dry land. Behind a thorn barrier marking her 
hut from another, giggling children pour cherished water from a plastic jug 
into their hands, sipping and spitting in delight.

   The home the 28-year-old Abdinur left was far superior -- a farm of maize 
and dozens of livestock in the community where she was born and raised. The 
family was self-sufficient. Then the water dried up, and their four-legged 
wealth began to die.

   "When we lost the last goat, we realized there was no way to survive," 
Abdinur says. She and her six children walked 300 kilometers (186 miles) here, 
following rumors of assistance along with thousands of other people on the move.

   "We have seen so many children dying because of hunger," she says.

   At the heart of this crisis, in areas where famine likely will be declared, 
is an Islamic extremist group linked to al-Qaida. An estimated 740,000 of the 
drought's most desperate people live in areas under the control of the 
al-Shabab extremists. To survive, they must escape.

   Al-Shabab's grip on large parts of southern and central Somalia was a major 
contributor to deaths in the 2011 famine. Much aid wasn't let into its areas, 
and many starving people weren't let out. Somalia's president, who has survived 
three al-Shabab attempts on his life, has described the group as "mafia 
shrouded with Islam." But his government has urged it to have mercy now.

   In a surprise comment on the drought in late September, al-Shabab called it 
a test from Allah, "a result of our sins and wrongdoings." Spokesman Ali 
Mohamud Rage claimed that the extremists had offered food, water and free 
medical treatment to more than 47,000 drought-affected people since last year.

   But in rare accounts of life inside al-Shabab-held areas, several people who 
fled told the AP they had seen no such aid. Instead, they said, the extremists 
continue their harsh taxation of families' crops and livestock even as they 
withered and died. They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

   One woman says al-Shabab taxed up to 50% of her family's meager harvest: 
"They don't care whether people are left with anything."

   Some flee their communities at night to escape the fighters' attention, with 
men and even young boys often being forbidden to leave. One woman says no one 
from her community was allowed to leave, and people who received assistance 
from the outside would be attacked. Weeks ago, she says, al-Shabab killed a 
relative who had managed to take a sick parent to a government-held city and 
then returned.

   Those who escaped al-Shabab now cling to a bare existence. As what should be 
the rainy season arrives, they wake in camps under a purple sky, or a gray one 
offering the tiniest specks of moisture.

   Children send up kites, adults their prayers. Black smoke rises in the 
distance as some farmers clear land just in case.

   In the only treatment center for the most severely malnourished in the 
immediate region, 1-year-old Hamdi Yusuf is another sign of hope.

   She was little more than bones and skin when her mother found her 
unconscious, two months after arriving in the camps and living on scraps of 
food offered by neighbors. "The child was not even alive," recalls Abdikadir 
Ali Abdi, acting nutrition officer with the aid group Trocaire, which runs the 
center of 16 beds and has more patients than they can hold.

   Now the girl is revived, slumped over her mother's arm but blinking. Her 
tiny toes twitch. A wrist is bandaged to stop her from pulling out the port for 
a feeding tube.

   The ready-to-use therapeutic food so crucial to the recovery of children 
like her could run out in the coming weeks, Abdi says. Humanitarian workers 
describe having to take limited resources from the hungry in Somalia to treat 
the starving, complicating efforts to get ahead of the drought.

   The girl's mother, 18-year-old Muslima Ibrahim, anxiously rubs her 
daughter's tiny fingers. She has saved her only child, but survival will 
require the kind of support she still hasn't seen.

   "We received a food distribution yesterday," Ibrahim says. "It was the first 
since we arrived."

   Food is hard to come by everywhere. At midday, dozens of hungry children 
from the camps try to slip into a local primary school where the World Food 
Program offers a rare lunch program for students. They are almost always turned 
away by school workers.

   Mothers recall having to eat their stockpiles of grain and selling their few 
remaining goats to afford the journey from the homes and lives they loved. Many 
had never left until now.

   "I miss fresh camel milk. We love it," says 29-year-old Nimco Abdi Adan, 
smiling at the memory. She hasn't tasted it for two years.

   Residents outside the camps feel the growing desperation. Shopkeeper Khadija 
Abdi Ibrahim, 60, now keeps her goats, sheep and cattle alive by buying 
precious grain, grinding it and using it as fodder. She says the price of 
cooking oil and other items has doubled since last year, making it more 
difficult for displaced people to obtain food with vouchers handed out by WFP.

   Hundreds of families continue to emerge from the empty horizon across 
Somalia, bringing little but grief. The true toll of dead is unknown, but 
people at two of the country's many displacement camps in the hardest hit city, 
Baidoa, say over 300 children have died in the last three months in rural 
areas, according to aid organization Islamic Relief.

   One day in mid-September, 29-year-old Fartum Issack and her husband carried 
a small body along a dusty track to a graveyard. Their 1-year-old daughter had 
arrived at camp sick and hungry. She was rushed for treatment, but it was too 
late.

   The graveyard opened in April especially for the newly displaced people. It 
already had 13 graves, seven of them for children. There's easily room for 
hundreds more.

   Issack and her husband chose to bury their daughter in the middle of the 
empty ground.

   "We wanted to easily recognize her," Issack says.

   At the camp, eight other hungry daughters are waiting.

 
 
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