DADAAB, Kenya, 11 July 2011 – It was a difficult decision, but in the end Hawa Issak decided to leave her home. The drought had destroyed her family’s livelihood, her husband had left her and she was pregnant. She did not see any future in southern Somalia’s Gedo Region, so she joined up with six other families, hoping to find help in neighbouring Kenya. Report by Michael Klaus
VIDEO: UNICEF’s Kun Li reports on the organization’s response to the food crisis in the Horn of Africa and a visit by UNICEF Regional Director Elhadj As Sy to a settlement in north-eastern Kenya for Somali refugees from drought and conflict.
They walked 420 km together for 28 days in blistering heat and dust. Finally, they reached Dadaab, once a small village in eastern Kenya, which has become the biggest refugee settlement in the world.
Heavy winds whip through the open fields of Dadaab. Children’s faces are covered with dust, and everyone has trouble breathing and talking. Animal cadavers lie between dry bushes. It’s not easy for anyone or anything to survive in such a blistering environment.
The three camps in Dadaab – Ifo, Hagadera and Dagahaley – were set up years ago for the steady flow of refugees fleeing conflict in Somalia, which has been going on for over 20 years. Originally planned to house a maximum of 90,000 refugees, Dadaab has grown into the third largest population centre in Kenya – after the capital, Nairobi, and the port city of Mombasa.
Almost all of the people in the camps are living in makeshift tents amidst a population that has swelled to nearly 400,000. Between January and June, more than 60,000 new refugees arrived. Since the end of last month, there has been another steep increase.
“Looking around, we mainly see women and children,” said UNICEF Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa Elhadj As Sy, who has just visited Dadaab. “They are again the ones that are hardest hit by this triple shock of drought – which is related to climate change – [plus] soaring food prices and the armed conflict in Somalia.”
Mr. As Sy added: “People went through so many hardships to get here. They are in very bad shape. It’s really humbling and sobering to be here.”
Severe food crisis
The refugees in Dadaab, however, are only a symptom of a much larger problem. Due to two consecutive failed rainy seasons, price increases of up to 200 per cent for some staple foods and escalating violence in Somalia, the Horn of Africa is facing one of the most severe food crises in the world today.
As a result, more than 10 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance in the region. Among them are more than 2 million children under the age of five who are suffering from malnutrition, including 480,000 who are severely malnourished and in urgent need treatment.
UNICEF is providing therapeutic food to the children who are at the greatest risk. The most severe cases receive therapeutic milk to stabilize their medical condition. After three or four days, the milk usually can be replaced by Plumpy’nut, a high-energy peanut paste that helps them recover over the following weeks.
Some malnourished children, however, reach the hospital too late. Last week, six young children died in the therapeutic feeding centre at Ifo camp, which UNICEF’s Mr. As Sy visited on Sunday.
Stories of inspiration
“The most impressive thing, for me, is that the poorest mothers in the worst cases of deprivation still love their children and want the best for them,” said Mr. As Sy. “They want them to be well fed, well-educated and to grow up with a future. To listen to all their stories, with smiles on their faces and hope for the future, is a true source of inspiration for all of us.”
In the midst of dust and hardship, one of these inspiring stories is that of Hawa Issak, the pregnant woman who left Gedo Region in Somalia. Shortly after her arrival in Dadaab, Ms. Issak, 21, gave birth to a boy, her third child.
“I gave him the name Ibrahim,” she says proudly. “We are safe now – for the time being.”