Somalia is facing poverty and hunger on an unprecedented scale. Every minute of every day, another child in the East African nation is admitted to a hospital suffering from malnutrition.
Crippling drought and a 20-year insurgency by al Qaeda-linked militants are the two main factors driving the crisis. The United Nations Children’s Fund says more than 500 000 kids could die by the middle of this year unless urgent action is taken. Already, many of the children being admitted to Somalia’s hospitals don’t make it.
Earlier this year we witnessed first-hand the pain of doctors, nurses and parents who didn’t have enough time to save tiny lives destroyed by hunger. Desperation has prompted thousands of people to flee their homes in the south of the country, and what used to be barren land in the Baidoa region has become a refuge for those fleeing climate change and conflict.
Every day, more of the depleted, the desperate and the near-dying arrive, most of them on foot, and many of them mothers risking everything for their starving children. More than two years of drought has left southern Somalia desolate, and the villagers who lived there with a stark choice. Stay and face starvation, or flee and risk getting caught up in the fighting between government forces and one of al-Qaeda’s deadliest affiliates, Al-Shabaab.
We met Bilisey Ali and her daughters just after they made it to Baidoa. They were weak with hunger after travelling more than 70 miles. “I am very sick and extremely worried,” she told us. Her daughters had eaten only a small amount of porridge in days. But back at their home, there is nothing to eat. It’s too dangerous for aid organisations to enter her village, and any food that does make it there is used as a weapon.
“Al-Shabaab controls supplies,” she told us. “If they haven’t authorised it, they burn the food.” Ali’s husband was taken captive by the militants. She has no idea where he is. She pleads for food, and finally she’s able to get something to eat. But suddenly, the mood shifts all around us.
An Al-Shabaab fighter has been spotted at the camp. It’s not easy working in Somalia — for anyone, aid agencies or journalists. We were told that a suspected militant was arrested, so we had to leave.
At a different refugee camp, we find Habiba Mohammed. She fled her home in Al-Shabaab territory after her crops failed to grow for a fifth consecutive season with no rain.
“It’s the worst drought I’ve ever experienced in my life,” she told us. She was eight months pregnant when she walked for six days with her three-year-old son to find food.
When we met her, she’d just given birth to baby Assad three days earlier, all alone, with no water and no food. She cut her own umbilical cord. When children are starving, a mother’s courage knows no bounds