As the crisis in the Horn of Africa is declared a famine, a report from a refugee camp in Kenya where thousands have headed to avoid what Oxfam warns will be ‘massive loss of life.'

Khadija Aliow Mohamed sits silently in the sand inside her twig shelter, staring at the small bundle wrapped in shawl on the bed. The 20-year-old Somali walked for 30 days with her two-year-old daughter Madina to get to Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya.

Hungry and exhausted, the family escaped southern Somalia's worst drought in decades, which has claimed tens of thousands of lives, according to the United Nations. While Mohamed regained her strength in the world's biggest refugee settlement, Madina did not. An hour after the UN declared a famine in two regions of Somalia on July 20, the toddler died.

Her mother, who is pregnant, is too shocked to talk. Madina's 63-year-old grandfather, Ali Mohamed, explains what happened. Mohamed escaped Somalia with them, and carried Madina's body here from the hospital.

“The child never recovered from the malnutrition,” he says, clutching a small blue slip of paper with the words Permit for Burial. “Madina died because of the drought.” She will not be the last. According to the UN, more than six out of every 10,000 people are dying of hunger every day in some parts of the Bakool and Lower Shabelle regions of Somalia, with more than half the children there suffering acute malnutrition. This is far above the normal famine threshold of two deaths per 10,000 people a day and 30 per cent malnutrition levels, UN agencies say.

While there have been numerous disasters in the Horn of Africa, it is the first time a famine has been declared here since 1992, when hundreds of thousands of Somalis starved to death, prompting an international peacekeeping intervention.

No rain, food costs

“Somalia is facing its worst food security crisis in 20 years,” says Mark Bowden, the UN official in charge of humanitarian aid in Somalia. “This desperate situation requires urgent action to save lives.” Other countries in the region, particularly Ethiopia and Kenya, are facing the failures of rains in pastoralist areas, soaring food prices and longer-term issues such as underdevelopment and high population growth. Across the Horn, 11 million people require humanitarian assistance.

Somalia has been hardest hit — with 3.7 million people, nearly half the population, requiring food aid. The country has lacked effective government since before the famine of the 1990s. Most of southern Somalia is controlled by the al-Shabab Islamists, who stopped most international aid organisations, including the World Food Programme, from operating in its areas two years ago, only lifting the ban last week.

Many people have received little or no help since the drought started to bite last year. Prices of food staples such as sorghum have increased more than threefold, due to the conflict and lack of supply.

First the animals died.

Ali Mohamed says he lost his entire herd of 90 camels, goats and cows this year. “There was no water, no grazing, no food production. We lost everything. This is the worst drought I've ever experienced.” Then people started to die of hunger-related diseases.

Over the past month the number of deaths has grown sharply, aid organisations say, prompting an exodus from southern Somalia towards the capital Mogadishu. Some 2,000 Somalis have been crossing into Ethiopia each day, with a further 1,300 coming to Dadaab, according to Attidzah Fafa, head of the UN refugee office. Thirty thousand people arrived in June alone, and he expects similar numbers this month and next.

The settlement, built for 90,000 people in Kenya's arid northeast, now houses more than 370,000 Somalis. Instead of igloo-shaped huts covered in plastic sheeting, which many people sleep in, new arrivals like Idhoy Abdinor sleep under thorn trees. The 53-year-old grandmother reached Ifo, one of the Dadaab's three camps, on July 19. She walked through the desert scrub for 22 days wearing mismatched pink and yellow flipflops. She did not complain.

“Some of the others' shoes broke, so they had to come barefoot,” she says.

With her came seven of her children, the youngest 18 months. After they spent a night in the open on the outskirts of the camp, other Somalis shared food rations with them. Abdinor, who trekked from the town of Dinsor, says the situation is desperate. “For the last three years we did not receive rain. We were farmers, but there are no farms anymore. No animals.” War provided an extra push. Al-Shabab rebels and government forces had clashed in the area. Abdinor's eighth child went missing during fighting three months ago, as did her husband. She has heard rumours that he is dead. Still, the decision to leave was not easy, as Abdinor heard stories of bandits preying on refugees on both sides of the border. She was not robbed during the three week walk to Kenya but suffered greatly because of the lack of food and water.

“Some of us had donkey carts but the donkeys died because there was no water,” she says. “We also had to leave some mothers and children behind on the road because they were too tired. People were very weak.” The next rains are due in September or October. Even if they are good, harvests are expected to be weak because so many people have been uprooted. The UN says that without immediate action the famine will spread to all eight regions of southern Somalia within two months.

‘Wilful neglect'

Oxfam, which is assisting arrivals in Dadaab, says that of $1bn needed to avert a humanitarian disaster only $200m had been pledged, and accuses several European governments, including France, Italy and Denmark of “wilful neglect” of a crisis that has been known about for many months.

“There is no time to waste if we are to avoid massive loss of life. We must not stand by and watch this tragedy unfold before our eyes,” says Fran Equiza, Oxfam's regional director. “The world has been slow to recognise the severity of this crisis, but there is no longer any excuse for inaction.” Getting aid into Somalia is not going to be easy, despite Al-Shabab agreeing to let humanitarian organisations in. The refugee agency UNHCR says it wants additional security guarantees from the rebels, who practice an extreme version of Islam, before stepping up assistance. The World Food Programme (WFP), which has experienced problems working with al-Shabab in the past, says it will negotiate with local drought committees in rebel areas to ensure safety for its staff.

“Operations in Somalia are among the highest risk in the world, and WFP has lost 14 relief workers there since 2008,” says executive director Josette Sheeran. “We will aggressively pursue efforts to mitigate against risk, through robust assessments and monitoring, but I am calling on all sides to stand together in recognising the inevitable risks that will be present in southern Somalia.” The agency is considering flying high-energy biscuits and other supplementary foods for children and pregnant mothers to locations where the needs are greatest.

In Dadaab, aid agencies are struggling to cope with the influx of refugees. The Kenyan government, which is reluctant to host more Somalis, has yet to officially allow the opening of a new camp that has already been built close by. So where there are fresh arrivals sleeping, people are defecating in the open, raising fears of an outbreak of disease.

Still, no matter how grim the conditions here, there is relief from people that help is near. Asked why she had risked the 20-day walk to get here from Saku in Somalia, Garmana Mohamed Aden, a 30-year-old mother-of-two, replied instantly: “People were dying there.” — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2011

RELATED NEWS

Reaching out to SomaliaJuly 23, 2011

More In: Comment | Opinion