Dahir’s sister died of starvation. Today, two of her sisters are facing health problems and malnutrition.
BBC journalist Andrew Harding has returned to Baidoa town to visit the family again, forced to flee Somalia’s worst drought in 40 years, as authorities call on the international community to recognize the food security crisis as a famine emergency.
Warning: This report contains strong images
Dahir, 11, makes his way through a growing group of makeshift huts on the Baidoa border, towards a zinc-roofed school near the main road.
He’s wearing the only pants and shirt he has, and clutching his other possession – a new schoolbook.
The school’s only teacher, Abdullah Ahmed, 29, writes the days of the week in English on the board, while Dahir and around 50 classmates recite: “Saturday, Sunday, Monday…”
For a few minutes, a burst of interest invigorates the children, but soon the yawning and coughing resume – signs of hunger and disease that echo, like a somber soundtrack, over the plateau of rocky terrain on the outskirts of Baidoa. . This city has become in recent months a refuge for hundreds of thousands of people trying to escape the worst drought to hit Somalia for 40 years.
“I think at least 30 of these children have not had breakfast. Sometimes they come to me and tell me they are hungry,” Ahmed said.
“They have difficulty concentrating and even coming to class.”
Six weeks earlier, on our other visit to this region of southern Somalia, Dahir was sitting in tears next to his mother Fatuma at the entrance to the family’s makeshift hut.
A few days earlier, his younger sister Salat had starved to death after their journey to Baidoa, leaving the drought-stricken countryside behind.
Salat was buried a few meters away. Now his grave is surrounded by huts built by the new arrivals.
“I’m worried about my sisters. I wash them. I also wash their faces,” Dahir said, looking at Mariam, six, who has a hoarse cough and complains of headaches, then Malyun, four, to the deep-eyed, sitting lethargic on her mother’s lap.
“She’s feverish. I think she has measles. They could both have measles,” Fatuma said as she put her hand on Malyun’s forehead.
Cases of measles and pneumonia have spread across Baidoa in recent months, killing many young children whose immune systems have been weakened by malnutrition.
At Baidoa Provincial Hospital, doctors and nurses move between beds in the intensive care center, placing IVs in babies’ skinny arms and oxygen catheters in their tiny nostrils.
The limbs of several children are blackened and blistered – like severe burns – a painful reaction to prolonged starvation.
“We received a few more supplies [d’aide humanitaire]. But it’s still not enough,” says Abdullahi Yusuf, the hospital’s chief medical officer.
“The world is now paying attention to the drought in Somalia. We are getting a visit from international donors. But that doesn’t mean we are getting enough support. I hope it comes soon. It’s a desperate situation.”
Six weeks earlier, he had described the situation as “terrifying”. Today, he acknowledges a slight dip in admissions, but explains that this is likely due to a few days of rain which affected some dirt roads and led some families to focus on trying to plant rather than d take sick children to the hospital.
The situation is “worsening”
Back at camp, Fatuma carries a plastic gallon of water from a communal tap. Dahir comes out of the hut to help clean a damaged metal bowl, while his sick daughters are lying, tired, inside the hut.
“My boy is a big help. He does a lot of things to help the girls,” Fatuma says.
As she boils the water, the phone rings. It was her husband, Adan Nur, 60, who called from their home, located in a village three days’ walk away in territory controlled by the Islamist extremist group al-Shabab.
“He says he has planted sorghum. He is doing well. And he will be back soon. But we have lost all our livestock. There is no way to live on crops alone, so I will stay here. Our way of life is over,” Fatuma said after ending the call.
His decision is confirmed by the opinion of many experts, who warn that this rainy season promises to be another “failure”, like the previous four – it spreads a light touch of green in the desert around Baidoa, but has no real impact on the crisis.
“The situation is getting even worse. Many people are still coming in search of food, safety and water. And many children are dying of malnutrition. We ask [au gouvernement et à la communauté internationale] to consider the situation […] as a famine emergency,” Baidoa Mayor Abdullah Watiin said as he briefly left a community meeting at a heavily guarded compound.
Inside the compound, an army general warns the local population of the growing threat from the al-Shabab group, asking residents to be on the lookout for explosive devices and ambushes.
Government troops and militias are expected to expand an offensive that appears to have had some success further north, but which risks making it even more difficult to reach some rural communities that have been hardest hit by the drought.
At the end of the day, Fatuma tucks her two sickest daughters – Mariam and Malyun – into a blanket on the dirt floor of her hut.
The offer to take the children to hospital was rejected in favor of traditional herbal treatment. So Fatuma, also tired, lies down next to the girls.
“I just want them to get better,” Dahir said, watching the three people from his little blanket, solemnly repeating the phrase twice more.