Desperation Grips Children In Horn Of Africa

Famine is driving Somalis out of the country by the tens of thousands. Many are seeking shelter in Kenyan refugee camps. Humanitarian agencies are facing intense pressure, and medical staff are receiving malnourished children. Aid is getting through, but the U.N. says more money is needed. NPR Foreign Correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton speaks with host Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Just ahead, a treat for the end of the week. We hear from the godfather of go-go, Chuck Brown. The legendary performer of D.C.'s signature musical style turns 75 this week, but the party's just getting started. He's being honored next month by the National Symphony Orchestra. We will talk with Chuck Brown and the new principal pops conductor of the NSO in just a few minutes.

But first, we wanted to give you an update on that very difficult situation in Somalia where the famine has hit harder than anywhere else in the Horn of Africa. Somalis have been crossing the borders into Kenya and Ethiopia by the tens of thousands. They started even before the United Nations declared the famine in some parts of Somalia last month. The UN estimates that more than 12 million people in the region are in urgent need of food aid.

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is back with us to give us an update. Ofeibea, thanks for joining us.

OFEIBEA QUIST: Greetings from Dadaab.

MARTIN: And speaking of which, you visited the refugee camps last month, but you are back in Dadaab in northern Kenya this week. Could you just tell us what you're seeing there now?

QUIST: Somalis are still coming across the border into Kenya, but when I was here a month ago, I mean, they were flooding in. We were told 1,500 a day. I'm told now by the authorities and by aid agencies that that figure has gone down a bit, but it hasn't eased the pressure on the humanitarian agencies here.

The hospitals run by MSF Doctors Without Borders, International Rescue Committee and others are chock-a-block and they are still very full of children who are suffering with acute and severe malnutrition. I've just been in a hospital and seen that some are getting better, but the doctors and the nurses and the medical staff say they are still receiving children who are pin thin who are suffering from all sorts of diseases, as well.

There's been an outbreak of measles and the situation is still pretty grim. Somalis are still fleeing conflict, famine, drought. Their animals have died. People are dying. Children are really - many of them, on the edge. The crisis is not over.

MARTIN: And Ofeibea, as you know, of course, the African Union held a pledge summit for drought and famine in the Horn of Africa yesterday at its headquarters in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. But from what you've seen, is aid getting through at all?

QUIST: Yes. Aid is certainly getting to Dadaab. The international aid agencies, local aid agencies are here. They are helping Somali refugees, but of course, it's not only Somalia suffering from drought. It's Kenya, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, the whole of the Horn of Africa. So you have a crisis that's, you know, 12 million-plus people in need of food aid, Michel, and still a month and a half later, still these people need help.

Help is getting through, but the UN and others say they need much more money.

MARTIN: Ofeibea, it's been widely reported that one of the issues is not just the amount raised in contrast to the need, but also the situation on the ground. For example, the al-Shabaab militant group, which has been linked to al-Qaida, has barred some aid agencies from operating in the territories that it controls in southern Somalia and in other areas. So is that still an issue? Are groups like al-Shabaab still barring aid from getting in?

QUIST: Al-Shabaab, yes, we're told. But we're told that some individual commanders of this al-Qaida-linked insurgency group are letting aid workers help because, of course, the populations are in the areas that they control. So I'm afraid the political and the military situation on the ground is still not stable in Somalia, despite what the international community is saying about trying to return peace to this country that has had no functioning central government for the past 20 years.

I spoke to a doctor here in Dadaab, a Somali-Kenyan and also another Somali-Kenyan who has been working in the camps here for the past 20 years. He said, you know, these people had a coping mechanism for chaos, for violence, for insecurity, but if you see them streaming over the borders into Kenya and into Ethiopia and to Mogadishu, it's because you know that they are so desperate, that is why they've left.

But that they should be tried to be helped at home so that they don't have to leave in their droves to become refugees for perhaps another 20 years here in Kenya, which is home to at least 400,000 Somali refugees in the past two decades.

MARTIN: Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is an NPR correspondent. She joined us from Dadaab in northern Kenya. Ofeibea, thank you for joining us.

QUIST: Always a pleasure, Michel, even when it's sorrowful news.

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