“My son died of hunger,” says mother in Somalia who must put her grief aside and find food
Across South-West Somalia, hungry families are making desperate journeys to urban centres, seeking food and shelter. The journey is long and arduous and for some it’s already too late.
Hagarka IDP Camp, Baidoa – “There was nothing more I could do for Salat. He was already very sick on the journey here,” says Fatuma Mohamed Omar, her eyes fixed on her youngest son, Bille. She shifts the nine-month-old boy on her knees and then looks us straight in the eye. “He died because he was hungry, because we didn’t have enough food.”
Fatuma and her five children including 10-year-old Salat left their village in Malagda exactly three weeks ago. They walked for three days over the desolate countryside, withering under yet another failed rainy season that has devastated crops and decimated livestock. When they finally reached Baidoa, they were provided a space at the Hagarka camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs), overflowing with hundreds of families; one of many camps along this stretch of rutted road leading to the town of Dinsoor.
“He died the next day,” she says, her hands stroking little Bille’s head. “I cannot grieve for him because I have to find food for him and my other children,” she turns her head to gaze at the three children sitting on the dirt floor next to her.
Eleven year old Dahir, her oldest boy stares at his feet. His two younger sisters Mariam, 6, and Milian, 4, look away, their innocent little faces contorted with the confusion and the stunned silence of the helpless. Distant, but still chained by the same thread of shared loss.
It is now established that Salat died from complications due to severe acute malnutrition, a condition caused by the lack of food whereby the body becomes so weak and emaciated that any common illness can prove fatal.
This is a tragedy but Fatuma and her children are just one of a million families in Somalia at the mercy of this cruel mix of climate-induced disaster and decades of conflict, now careening towards a famine.
According to the UN, more than 7 million persons in Somalia are critically food insecure and UNICEF estimates that half a million children are expected to suffer from severe acute malnutrition this year.
“It is the same for all my neighbours – all our animals are dying, the wells are drying and we have no option but to come here and look for food,” says Fatuma. “The drought before was bad but at least some of our animals survived and we had something to live on – but this year there is nothing.”
Baidoa has become one of the main centres for internally displaced persons from the South-West region and local partners say at least a 100 persons arrive every day at the more than 400 IDP camps. All humanitarian agencies, including UNICEF and other UN organizations are working with a renewed urgency to avert the looming famine.
UNICEF and partners are stocking health and nutrition centres with therapeutic foods and medicines to prevent malnutrition and to treat common illnesses; increasing emergency trucking for clean drinking water; conducting immunization campaigns and nutrition evaluations of children in the camps; and rolling out a new Education in Emergencies programme to provide children a space to learn.
UNICEF is also working to prevent and respond to cases of gender based violence (GBV) and to protect children from abuse and harm, through the establishment of a 24/7 hotline telephone. This includes a referral and treatment centre for victims at the Ceebla One Stop Centre in the Bay Regional Hospital.
On the ground the needs are evolving say local partners, as the numbers keep increasing by the day. They warn that more needs to be done and that they need more resources to prevent a catastrophe.
As we watch, a new family arrives, their donkey-cart laden with their meagre belongings; the women and children tired from the long walk to this unusual place dotted with orange and white tents, where they will build a new home, under a tarp and propped with string and twigs; once proud people, forced to wait a handout, just to survive.
We walk behind Fatuma and come across Binta Hassan and her nine children, also displaced, also destitute and hungry. The story again all too familiar.
We follow Fatuma to the outskirts of the camp, her thin rubber sandals stirring small puffs of dust.
She stops and stands before a mound of overturned earth, scarred by a few dead cacti and empty plastic bags that litter the outskirts of this ever-expanding camp. This is where she buried her son. “He was a good boy, my son, I wish he didn’t have to die.”