Somalia’s biggest famine in decades claiming the smallest of victims first

By Sudarsan Raghavan, Published: September 7


Sudarsan Raghavan/THE WASHINGTON POST – Nasteha Jana Mohamed, 16, holds her baby girl,
Anfa Habib Mohamedís, inside Benadir Hospital in Mogadishu. Anfa is 3 months
old and weighs only 5.5 lbs. She is suffering from severe malnutrition.

Mogadishu, Somalia — Anfa Habib
Mohamed’s skin is leathery and wrinkled, her face as gaunt as an old woman’s.
Her cloudy eyes stare blankly at the ceiling as flies land on her forehead.
Every few seconds, she moves her thin, tiny fingers, the only visible sign that
she is alive.

Anfa is 3 months old. On her
medical form, she weighs 5.5 pounds, but even that seems generous. Her cheeks
are more bone than flesh. Her mother admits that her child is closer to death
than to life. “I am afraid,” said Natesha Jana Mohamed, 16, holding her still
child in her lap. “If she remains like this, she will die.”

Inside this
overcrowded, understaffed hospital, evidence of Somalia’s worst famine in two
decades is all around. Turn left, and a baby suffering from severe malnutrition
is listless, too weak to cry. Turn right, and a baby’s face is crisscrossed
with white tape to hold the feeding tube slipped into its small nostrils.

Then look a few steps away at the
baby with the peeling skin, suffering not only from severe malnutrition but
also measles and malaria. Hunger warps the body — along with the entire immune
system.

The scenes at Banadir Hospital
reflect the immense challenge facing this Horn of Africa nation, already
besieged by multiple woes, from civil war to radical Islamist militants to a
weak transitional government incapable of governing effectively, despite
massive support from the United States and its allies.

This week, the scale of the
challenge came into sharper focus: The United Nations declared that Somalia’s famine
has spread to a sixth region and warned that at least 750,000
people are at risk of dying
in the next four months if aid efforts are not
stepped up. Tens
of thousands have died
, U.N. officials say. Most are children.

Searching out aid

The center of the crisis is in
southern Somalia. Tens of thousands of people have
trekked for hundreds of miles
to reach refugee camps in neighboring Kenya
and Ethiopia. Thousands more have arrived here in Mogadishu, settling down in
188 makeshift settlements around the capital city. They are the fortunate ones.
Al-Shabab, the al-Qaeda-linked militia that controls large swaths of southern
Somalia, has prevented many people from leaving famine-stricken areas, U.N.
officials say.

For two years, Natesha, Anfa’s
mother, lived as a refugee in the Afgooye Corridor, a stretch of road northwest
of Mogadishu that houses large settlements of displaced people. She had escaped
civil war. Then came a drought, and by July, a month after Anfa’s birth, the
United Nations declared a famine. But as the crisis grew, al-Shabab barred
humanitarian aid from entering Afgooye, as it has in other areas it controls.

Anfa was sick from the day she
was born, Natesha said. And with each passing day, her frail body deteriorated.
On Monday, with Anfa virtually motionless, Natesha cradled her in her arms and
took a minibus to the capital. They left early to avoid al-Shabab fighters and
arrived at the hospital at 9 a.m.

By 11:45, they had yet to see a
doctor.

Anfa moved her tiny head and
turned to reach her mother’s breast. But even that effort was a struggle, and
soon Anfa gave up. Even if she had the energy, disappointment lay ahead.

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