Tens of thousands of Somalis, mostly women and children, are on the move, fleeing the worst famine in a generation in this Horn of Africa nation. Resilient Somalis have endured two decades of civil war and two consecutive seasons of failed rains. Now, after their livestock and crops have died, and with their babies suffering from malnutrition and food prices skyrocketing, they have given up any pretense that they can survive on their own.
Any hope of the world helping them has also faded. Al-Shabab, the militia linked to al-Qaeda that rules large swaths of famine-stricken southern Somalia, has barred international aid agencies from delivering assistance to regions it controls. It has heavily taxed ordinary Somalis on food and other goods, exacerbating the crisis. In fact, the militia denies that a famine is taking place, disputing the United Nations’ contention that tens of thousands of Somalis, mostly children, have died because of it.
Yet nearly 170,000 Somalis have fled to already crowded refugee camps in neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia since January, according to U.N. figures released Monday. In Kenya, about 1,300 Somalis are arriving daily; an average of 1,700 are entering Ethiopia. Most emerge from their grueling journeys bearing scars that probably will not fade anytime soon.
Waiting in vain for help
Xukun Muhumed walked more than 130 miles to seek help for her thin baby, sickened by hunger. As she trudged slowly across the bleak landscape, choked by famine and drought, she wondered whether her infant son, Sadik, would survive.
“If Allah wants him to die, he will die,” said Muhumed, her voice dropping. “I have seen many people who have died along the way.”
“These are becoming roads of death,” Josette Sheeran, executive director of the U.N. World Food Program, told reporters in Nairobi over the weekend. “Over half the women I talked to had to leave children to die or had children die.”
“In the Horn [of Africa], we could lose a generation,” she added. “Those that survive could be affected deeply.”
On Sunday, Muhumed held her frail son in this border town, where they had arrived a day earlier after a month-long journey. Sadik was listless, his eyes half closed, his skin leathery from malnutrition. Moments earlier, he had vomited the little milk he had swallowed.
There were no doctors, no aid agencies distributing food. Many of the new arrivals sat under trees or on vacant patches of land, waiting for help.