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28 July 2011

Drought: Misery as Somalia buries its dead

Mogadishu - Beside a rubbish dump in war-ravaged Mogadishu, Osmail Moalim Abdi cries at the grave of his one-year-old son, another child fallen victim of an extreme drought gripping the Horn of Africa.

"My son here, Isak, is the fourth of my five sons I have buried," he said, bowing in grief over the simple grave.

"All of them died from hunger, and I was not able to help them."

Abdi, 42, fled his village in southern Somalia's Lower Shabelle region, one of two areas affected by famine, seeking food and water in the conflict-torn capital.

An estimated 3.7 million people in Somalia - around a third of the population - are on the brink of starvation, and millions more in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda have been struck by the worst drought in the region in decades.

Many in Somalia are fleeing to neighbouring Kenya and Ethiopia, but up to 100 000 people have arrived in Mogadishu in the past two months, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR.

In July, around a thousand people arrived every day into the Somali capital, already struggling with over-crowded camps.

Funeral arrangements

"We are receiving a large number of displaced people every day, and they need urgent assistance as soon as possible," said Muhudin Hasan, a Somali government official.

The United Nations has called for massive action to support the 12 million people affected by drought, and its World Food Programme began airlifting supplies into Mogadishu on Wednesday.

But fighting broke out in the city on Thursday as government forces backed by African Union troops launched an assault on strategic areas held by hard-line Shabaab insurgents.

Access to support for people like Abdi remains hard.

Without money, he could not even afford proper funeral arrangements for his children.

Instead, he had to scrape a metre-deep grave in an empty area, close to a rubbish dump beside Mogadishu's airport.

"Friends helped me dig a grave," he said, tears rolling down his cheeks.

Malnutrition

His entire wealth of 60 cows in his village of Toratorrow died three months ago, leaving the family with nothing to support them, forcing them to move to Mogadishu.

But the three-day journey on foot through the parched scrubland to the capital ended in tragedy.

"I lost two of my children on the way from the village, because the days of travel were without food and hardly water to drink," Abdi said, adding that another son died on arrival in the city.

UN officials say the drought has killed tens of thousands of people in recent months, forcing hundreds of thousands to walk in search of food and water.

But the situation inside Mogadishu, where al-Qaeda-inspired Shabaab insurgents continue to battle the Western-backed government, is no better.

Aid workers say they are hopelessly overstretched.

"Many are dying of malnutrition. We estimate six or seven children are dying each day," said Mohamed Roble, a health worker with a local aid agency, describing the situation at the camp for displaced people where he works.

Little hope for the future

"This is a disaster but we are not getting assistance to cope with it," he added.

Even when people are able to obtain the food and water being distributed, they often lack even the most basic containers to carry it, the UNHCR warned.

Instead they haul food and water away in plastic bags, the agency said.

"I could do nothing as my children starved to death in front of my wife and me," Abdi said.

"It would have been better that I died before them, so that I would not have to witness the tragedy in my family," he added.

He has little hope for the future, only a faith that "God will help me be strong."

"My wife does not sleep but just cries most of the time, which makes me so sad every day," he said.

"We have only one child left now and he is very ill, and we don’t know if he is going to make it."

- AFP