Drought / East Africa / Ethiopia / Food Security / Kenya / Pastoralism / Somalia / Vulnerability

When the last cow dies, the children are next

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A mother in Somalia carries the body of her child, who died of hunger, in the last famine to occur in that country, in 1992 (photo on Flickr by Jerry Mannel Reghunadh).

Starving Somali families are waiting till their last animal is dead before making a dangerous trek across the desert to refugee camps.

The Los Angeles Times reports that ‘Every day, more than 1,000 [refugees]—an estimated half are malnourished children—arrive at the gates of the Dadaab refugee complex in northeastern Kenya. The 19-square-mile sprawl, created in the early 1990s to accommodate refugees fleeing political chaos in Somalia, now holds 372,000 people, more than four times its original capacity.

‘Waiting outside the camp gates one recent morning, Ali Hulbale, 30, said he arrived with his wife and children two months ago but had yet to be registered for camp services. So he lives on the outskirts, amid countless squatter huts built of sticks and ragged cloth.

Hulbale had been an important man in his village in southern Somalia, with 60 goats and 50 cows. Then the river shrank to a trickle and his livestock began to sit. That meant they had days to live. He waited until the last was dead, three months ago, before making a desperate 25-day pilgrimage across the bandit-plagued Somali desert to the border, then struggled 50 more miles to Dadaab. . . . [T]he vast majority of new arrivals are women and children. Men stay behind with the dying livestock, trying to protect the precarious family wealth. . . .’

Read the whole story in the Los Angeles Times: Somalis swell Kenyan refugee camp, fleeing war and now drought, 2 Aug 2011.

A similar story from the same refugee camp concerns Abdulahi Haji Hassan, his two-year-old son Madey, his four-year-old daughter Fama and his wife Haway, who made the 27-day trek through the howling desert from their home near Baidoa in southern Somalia to the Kenyan border.

“My home is nothing but dust and starvation,” he says. “I cannot go back there.”

‘Walking towards asylum was not a matter of choice. The family livelihood depended on herding animals. Abdulahi’s 70 goats and 30 cows fell ill and died one-by-one as the worst drought in memory denied the animals water and feed. The livestock were in many ways considered to be part of his extended family and their loss was catastrophic.

‘When the last cow died, everyone knew that the children would be next. Abdulahi’s mother told him to leave the village. “I want your children not to die of hunger,” she said. “You go anywhere you can to get help and I will pray for you to get there safely.”

‘The Hassan family is among the 1,300 refugees who arrive daily from Somalia to the camps around Dadaab in north-east Kenya, including Dagahaley. The ability of UNHCR to accommodate the new arrivals people improves each day, but running a refugee city of 400,000 is daunting. UNHCR and the government of Kenya have taken great strides forward. But more resources are needed to protect the vulnerable, provide shelter and see to health needs. . . .’

For those fleeing Somalia, the first and perhaps most painful undertaking is the journey itself. The Hassan family organized their expedition with seven other families. They took with them all they had left in the world; a donkey cart made from a discarded car axle, a bag of ground maize and a large plastic container of water.

‘They rested by day and walked by night. After a week, time folded in on itself. “All the nights you travel are the same. There is no good night and no bad night. There is only night,” Abdulahi says. “You think about the situation of your children, which one you are worried about. I worried about the smallest of course.” The children ate small servings of maize and water while the parents largely went without. . . .’

Read the whole story at UNHCR: Drought and displacement in Somalia: Fleeing from dust and starvation, 2 Aug 2011.

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