Field Report: The Road to Dadaab

Driving the nearly 100 kilometre sand road from the Somali border to the refugee camps in Dadaab, Kenya is like an otherworldly odyssey across an arid landscape seemingly devoid of life. The four-by-four bucks and swerves to avoid the lifeless bodies of animals whose bones have been bleached a brilliant white by the merciless sun. The leafless branches of trees and shrubs are road signs telling me that I have come to the land of drought and death.  Report by Christopher Tidey, UNICEF Spokesperson in Kenya.

Then I see them. I see the brilliant colours of the women’s clothing and the small outlines of the babies bundled on their backs. I see the elderly men and women shuffling gingerly along without the support of a walker or cane. I see the older children helping their younger siblings keep pace with the rest of the family.The listless expressions on their gaunt faces tell of a painstaking journey on foot over hundreds of kilometres in search of food and water. All of them are walking across this wasted land towards what they hope will be their salvation. Many of them will not make it.

A mother sits with her son
A mother sits with her son during his treatment for malnutrition at stabilisation centre in Dadaab, Kenya.(© UNICEF Kenya/2011/Tidey)

These are the Somali refugees seeking relief from drought and starvation in their homeland. Thousands of the people fortunate enough to survive the journey arrive daily at the refugee camps in Dadaab – nearly 40,000 have come since the beginning of June alone. They come exhausted. They come starving. Many come having lost family members along the way.

Among the refugees, it is the children whose situation truly reflects the terrible human toll the drought has taken. With famine now declared in two regions of Southern Somalia and malnutrition rates at emergency levels in arid and semi-arid regions across the Horn of Africa, almost 720,000 children are at risk of death without urgent assistance. In total 2.23 million children in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia are estimated to be acutely malnourished.

Three mothers, with small children on their backs
Three mothers, with small children on their backs, wait for processing at Hagadara refugee reception centre in Dadaab, Kenya.(© UNICEF Kenya/2011/Tidey)

At the Hagadera Stabilisation Centre in Dadaab, I meet with Abdile, the father of four children whose three-year-old son Aden is being treated for severe acute malnutrition.

“Because of the drought, we lost all of our crops and animals and were left with nothing to eat,” says Abdile.

“We walked for 25 days to get to Dadaab from Somalia. My wife died along the way, so now, I must look after the children alone.”

When Abdile and his children arrived at the Hagadera reception centre, Aden was near death. Lacking the strength even to swallow, he was rushed to the camp’s hospital for emergency treatment. That was six days ago.

Sitting with Aden and his father now, I can see that he is getting his strength back. Through therapeutic feeding provided by UNICEF, Aden’s health has improved and he can now hold his head up without support. His recovery is fragile, however, and his case must be handled with the utmost care by the hospital’s attentive doctors. Aden weighs a meagre five kilograms and suffers from skin and respiratory infections.

“When I saw Aden six days ago, I was worried that he wasn’t strong enough to survive, so I am thrilled to see that his condition has improved,” says UNICEF Nutrition Specialist Patrick Codjio. “Every time I leave the hospital after meeting with children suffering from severe malnutrition, I hope that I will see them again, but you just don’t know.”

UNICEF's Chris Tidey walks with children at Dadaab camp in Kenya.
UNICEF's Chris Tidey walks with children at Dadaab camp in Kenya.

The first major goal in treating malnourished children at the Dadaab stabilisation centres is for them to be able to feed themselves again. Sitting in the hospital bed beside Aden is three-year-old Mohammad who has just achieved this feat today. It is truly inspiring to see.

Sadly, this crisis is nowhere near to being over.It is the worst food security crisis in Africa for 20 years; and worst in the world today. For every Aden and Mohammad who survived the journey from Somalia, there are thousands of other children whose lives could still be lost on the road to Dadaab.

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