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Opinion 'My daughter didn’t make it. She didn’t have enough food. The life left her'

Trócaire’s Miriam Donohoe meets the families on the front line of famine in Somalia – a country facing the worst hunger crisis in a decade.

Head of Communications with Trócaire, Miriam Donohoe, is just back from a visit to Somalia where hunger has taken a grip on the country. 7.7 million people are in dire need of humanitarian assistance and the UN says 350,000 children could die from starvation unless urgent action is taken.

THREE-YEAR-OLD HABSO SITS quietly, cross-legged, on a bed in an overcrowded, clammy ward in the Trócaire hospital in Luug town, Gedo District, southern Somalia. The ward is designed for 20 patients, but today there are 32 children under the age of five being treated for severe malnourishment, all packed into this small space.

Stoic and sombre mothers, including Habso’s, sit quietly with their seriously ill children, many of who have been admitted to this vital health facility on the brink of death.

There is the sound of small babies crying and an overall sense of gut-wrenching suffering. The children look curiously at the small group of visitors, who are a distraction. But most of the exhausted mothers stare ahead and don’t make eye contact.

‘In the grip of hunger’

Trócaire staff are busy, going from bed to bed to check on the patients. Among them is Dr Shukri Hussein Abdi, a Somalian and the first ever female doctor employed by the Irish humanitarian agency which runs all of the health services in Gedo, a regional slightly bigger than the size of the island of Ireland. She is concerned about a new patient who has been admitted and she is consulting with the Trócaire programme manager, Dr Abdi Tari Ali.

dr-shikri-examing-samia-diagnosed-with-pneumonia-at-luuq-hospital Dr Shukri Hussein Abdi Mohamed Imtiaz Mohamed Imtiaz

Hunger has taken a grip on Somalia, which is experiencing its fourth successive season of drought, making it the worst in 40 years. With the rains falling, livestock have died and crops have withered. There is no food. Families are leaving their villages in their thousands and drifting towards towns and internally displaced persons camps to seek support.

Habso’s family left their village in Wajid Region, about 70 kilometres away, three months ago when the last of their goats died. Father Ibrahim Yarow (49) and mother Abshiro Adn Mohammad (35) walked for 20 days with their nine children, all already weak from a lack of food.

Tragically, in their first week on the road, their two-year-old daughter Feizal, died in their arms.

“We had no food or water setting out on our journey. When we came to a town we managed to get a little to eat and drink to allow us continue. But my daughter didn’t make it. She didn’t have enough food. The life left her. We had to bury her on the side of the road and continue the journey. We had to keep moving or we would have all died,” said Ibrahim.

Somalia Habso Family 1 The Habso family.

Today the family have had nothing to eat yet. “We are hungry, but we hope some of our neighbours can help us later. We all try to help each other.”

Makeshift camp

They arrived at Boyle Internally Displaced Persons camp in Luug, desperate for support. They built a shelter and have been barely surviving since with the help of neighbours and the local District Committee.

Boyle is a sea of makeshift shelters built from sticks and covered with whatever scraps of material and plastics the displaced can get their hands on. The earth is scorched and there is no vegetation apart from dried up bushes.

New arrivals tell of villages deserted as hungry people leave in their droves in search of relief. They tell of carcasses of goats, donkeys and camels strewn along rural roads, a catastrophe for Somalis who earn their living by raising and selling animals.

idpcamp-luuq Boyle Camp Mohamed Imtiaz Mohamed Imtiaz

As you walk through the camp you see scores of weary women, men and children shuffling slowly in the searing heat. Young babies clutch to mothers dressed brightly in colourful traditional dresses and scarves.

Small children run around and groups of tall, lean men gather in clusters. For them each day is focused on survival, getting enough food to stave off starvation.

Trócaire runs an outreach clinic here where daily dozens of mothers bring their children to have them assessed for malnutrition. This is done using a colour coded MUAC (Mid-Upper Arm Circumference) Tape, which is used on children from six months to five years to measure malnourishment. The tape is wrapped around a child’s arm. Green means that there is no acute malnutrition, yellow indicates moderate acute malnutrition and red severe acute malnutrition.

A Trócaire team learned of Habso’s family’s plight on a visit to the camp. One of the team immediately identified that Habso was malnourished, and she was taken to Luuq hospital to be assessed and admitted.

Just two days later the change in Habso was remarkable. The little girl was coming back to life. Without the intervention, Habso may not have survived the week.

Mass starvation

Currently, 7.7 million people in Somalia, or half the population, are in dire need of humanitarian assistance as climate change takes its deadly toll, triggering a devastating hunger crisis.

The country is experiencing its worst drought in 40 years with four seasons of failed rains and temperatures unbearably high. 90% of the country is now experiencing extreme drought.

Over 800,000 people have so far fled their homes, says the UN, flocking to already overcrowded Internally Displaced Persons camps similar to the one in Boyle. New camps are sprouting up in the region to cope with the increasing numbers which are expected to rise to 1.4 million in the coming months.

Somalia animal carcasses Trocaire Trocaire

The UN has warned that 350,000 Somalia children could die this year if nothing is done to help them. Since January, at least 448 children have died from severe acute malnutrition, according to a database managed by UNICEF.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is exacerbating the crisis, cutting off most of the wheat imports that Somalia depends on, and sharply increasing the prices of fuel, food and fertiliser.

Trócaire’s Country Director for Somalia, Dubliner Paul Healy, says it is devastating to witness what is happening on the ground. Trócaire is reaching over 215,000 people with lifesaving services every year through its health facilities in Luug, Dollow, Garbaharey, Belet Hawa and Burdhubo. Key aspects of the work are supported by the Irish government through Irish Aid, and recently Trócaire has implemented a new EU-funded programme targeting vulnerable, hard-to-reach populations.

“Severe malnutrition has taken hold in Somalia and it will get much worse in the coming months unless urgent action is taken. Currently, the world is focused on the dreadful crisis in Ukraine, but we must not forget what is happening here in Somalia and the Horn of Africa. Thousands of people are at risk of dying.”

“Children are the most vulnerable. There is limited access to food, and prices are rising due to the war in Ukraine. Climate change is wreaking havoc. Severe water shortages have heightened the risk of disease outbreaks, with people and animals now competing for untreated water from hand-dug shallow wells and dwindling rivers.”

Healy says the team in Luug have been feeling the impact of drought in recent months. “In January we admitted 66 patients to our stablisation unit in Luug Hospital. In May this figure had jumped to over 200, a three-fold increase. The pressure on our services is increasing all the time.”

“Thanks to the support of the people of Ireland and Irish Aid and our other donors we are reaching hundreds of thousands. But the need is huge.”

Miriam Donohoe is Head of Communications with Trócaire. More at Tró


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