Drought in Somalia: a boy’s struggle to save his family from starvation

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Dahir’s brother died of starvation. Now two of his sisters are battling illness and malnutrition. The TBEN’s Andrew Harding returns to Baidoa to revisit a family forced to flee Somalia’s worst drought in 40 years as authorities urge the international community to recognize the crisis as a famine.

Warning: This article contains images that some readers may find disturbing

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Eleven-year-old Dahir makes his way between a growing number of self-made huts on the outskirts of Baidoa, on his way to a tin-roofed schoolhouse near the main road. He’s wearing his only shirt and pants and holding his only other possession: a new textbook.

The school’s only teacher, Abdullah Ahmed, 29, writes English days of the week on the blackboard, while Dahir, and perhaps 50 classmates, chant “Saturday, Sunday, Monday…”.

For a few minutes, a burst of interest energizes the children, but soon the yawns and coughs resume – signs of hunger and illness that echo like a grim soundtrack across the plateau of rocky ground around Baidoa that has become their home in recent months. for hundreds of thousands of civilians displaced by the worst drought to hit Somalia in 40 years.

“I think at least 30 of these kids haven’t had breakfast. Sometimes they come up to me and tell me they’re hungry,” says Ahmed. “They have trouble concentrating, or even getting to class.”

Students at school

Young children are dying in increasing numbers in the country’s battle against drought

Six weeks ago, on our last visit to this part of southern Somalia, Dahir sat weeping next to his mother Fatuma outside the family’s meager home-made hut.

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A few days earlier, his younger brother, Salat, had starved to death while traveling to Baidoa from the drought-stricken countryside.

Salat was buried a few meters away. Now the tomb is surrounded by huts built by novices.

“I’m worried about my sisters. I was for them. I was their faces too,” says Dahir, glancing at six-year-old Mariam, who was coughing hoarsely and complaining of a headache, and then at four-year-old Mariam. old Malyun, sitting lethargically and with sunken eyes on her mother’s knee.

‘She’s hot. I think she has the measles. They could both have the measles,’ says Fatuma, placing her hand on Malyun’s forehead.

Dahir with his siblings and mother, Fatuma

Fatuma (centre) had no time to mourn the death of her son, she told the TBEN

Measles and pneumonia have swept Baidoa in recent months, killing many younger children whose immune systems are weakened by malnutrition.

At the provincial hospital in central Baidoa, doctors and nurses move between beds in the intensive care unit, putting drops of fluid into the arms of emaciated babies and oxygen tubes into tiny nostrils.

Several children’s limbs are dark and blistered – as if they had severe burns – a painful response to prolonged starvation.

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“We have received more [aid] necessities. But still not enough,” said Abdullahi Yusuf, the hospital’s chief physician.

“The world is now watching the drought in Somalia. We see visitors from international donors. But that doesn’t mean we’re getting enough support. I hope it comes soon. It’s a hopeless situation.”

Six weeks ago, he described the situation as “terrifying.” Today he acknowledges a slight drop in admissions but explains that this was likely due to a few days of rain that had disrupted some dirt roads and prompted some families to focus on planting crops rather than sick children to take to hospital.

The situation is getting ‘worse’

Back at camp, Fatuma carries home a plastic jerry can filled with water from a communal tap. Dahir emerges from the hut to help her clean a battered metal bowl as her ailing daughters lie wearily in the hut.

“My boy is a great help. He does so much to help the girls,” says Fatuma.

While she is boiling water, her phone rings. Her husband, 60-year-old Adan Nur, is calling from their home in a village three days’ walk away in the area controlled by the militant Islamist group al-Shabab.

“He says he planted sorghum. He’s fine. He’ll be back soon. But we’ve lost all our livestock. We can’t possibly live on the harvest alone, so I’m staying here. That way of life is over,” says Fatuma after the conversation is over.

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Her decision is supported by the opinion of many experts, who warn that this rainy season appears to be failing like the past four – spreading a flush of green across the wilderness outside Baidoa, but making no real impact on the crisis.

“It’s getting worse. Many people still come here to seek food, safety and water. And many children die of malnutrition. We urge [the government and international community] to consider the situation… as a famine,” said Baidoa Mayor Abdullah Watiin, briefly stepping away from a community gathering in a heavily guarded compound.

Somalia famine image

Somalia famine image

In the hall, an army general warns the locals of the growing threat from Al-Shabab and tells them to be wary of explosives and ambushes.

Somali government forces and militias are expected to expand an offensive that appears to have had some success further north, but threatens to make it even more difficult to access some of the rural communities hardest hit by the drought.

Later in the day, Fatuma lays her two sickest children – Mariam and four-year-old Malyun – on a blanket on the dirt floor of their hut.

An offer to take the children to hospital was turned down in favor of a course of traditional herbal remedies. Then Fatuma, also tired, lies down next to the girls.

“I just want them to get better,” says Dahir, watching from his own little blanket and solemnly repeating the phrase two more times.

Read Andrew Harding’s previous reports on the drought in Somalia: