Somali Children Most Affected By Africa's Drought

More than 12 million people face starvation unless they are able to reach emergency food supplies in the horn of Africa. Somalia is particularly hard hit with a famine already declared in vast swaths of the food-growing south, which is also destabilized by a decades long civil war.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, host:

And I'm David Greene.

The humanitarian crisis brought on by the drought and famine in the Horn of Africa, is affecting more than 12 million people in the region and stretching relief and aid agencies to the limits. The country hardest hit - Somalia. Somalis continue to abandon their homes in search of security, refuge and medical treatment across the border in Kenya. As NPRs Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has been finding out, children are the most vulnerable.

(Soundbite of crying)

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: This hospital ward in Dagahaley camp in Dadaab refugee settlement in northern Kenya is full of malnourished infants. With their match-thin limbs, some are listless, their huge eyes staring out. Others are wailing and cant be comforted. And theyre here, mostly, with their mothers.

The children are among the tens of thousands of Somali refugees who've arrived in Kenya in recent weeks and Dr. Mohamed Gedi says many are in very poor shape.

Dr. MOHAMED GEDI (Hospital director, Doctors without Borders): Yes, most of the patients come in a critical state. Two hundred patients today are here because they are children mostly below five years old, with severe malnutrition. Almost all of the patients here are from Somalia. We do still have a lot of patients who are in a critical state in the critical ward.

QUIST-ARCTON: Dr. Gedi is the hospital director for the emergency medical relief agency, MSF - Doctors Without Borders. For the past 18 months, he has been treating children who arrive at the hospital, many of them close to death these days, exacerbated by an outbreak of measles in the camp.

Dr. GEDI: The problem is most of them come in a very, very bad state.

QUIST-ARCTON: Amino Ali Isak is the young mother of a one-year-old girl, Hanan Ali Husein.

Ms. AMINO ALI ISAK: (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: Isak says she herself was suffering from tuberculosis. She's convinced her sick daughter also has TB. But its clear that the child is also malnourished. She seems to cry out in pain. Hanans mother says she left behind her husband and another child in Somalia.

Ms. ISAK: (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: Its a familiar tale. Come the drought, the crops fail, the livestock dies off, food prices skyrocket, and theres nothing more to eat. All this suffering is framed in the double jeopardy of conflict, and now famine, in Somalia. Some families have to split up as the father stays home, while the mother heads off across the border to get help.

Dr. GEDI: Because these are patients who've been coming - walking for 10, 20 days. They dont have shelter. They dont have food.

QUIST-ARCTON: Dr Gedi says the long trek from Somalia, often by foot and sometimes by donkey cart, means the sick infants are even weaker by the time they reach the gates of the hospital.

Dr. GEDI: You have a mother with one sick child, but she has eight or nine other children that need her care. So, sometimes, she has to choose between the one who is critically sick and by the way, most of them have seen many of these children dying, so they think even if they try their best for this ones, she is risking the lives of the healthy ones.

Ms. ISAK: (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: This is the very reason Amino Ali Isak is here in Kenya. She says shes never going back to Somalia, even if it means becoming a refugee for the next 20 years.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Dadaab, northern Kenya.

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