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Concern grows over a food crisis and potential famine in Somalia

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In East Africa, there's growing concern that a food crisis could lead to famine in Somalia. The country is suffering its worst drought in 40 years. Hundreds of thousands of Somalis have fled from parched rural areas to makeshift camps in search of food over the last year. And the situation is made more precarious by a growing insurgency from the extremist Islamist militant group al-Shabaab. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from the city of Baidoa in the southwest of Somalia.

(CROSSTALK)

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: At a displaced persons camp on the edge of Baidoa, Mariam Kasim tells me that she's very old, so old that it's impossible to really know her age. She ponders the question for a moment and then says she thinks she's 50. Over those years, Somalia has suffered multiple droughts. But she says the suffering all around her now is unlike anything she's seen in her lifetime.

MARIAM KASIM: (Through interpreter) We are just staying here. We have nothing to eat. We go for begging. We have no hope, no future.

BEAUBIEN: Kasim is standing in front of her shelter. Like all the others in this camp, her shelter is a dome of sticks wrapped in tarps, bits of cloth and grain bags. One of her teenage granddaughters, who the neighbors say is mentally ill, sits in the powdery dirt at the entrance. Two of her younger grandchildren lean against Kasim's long, black shawl. The grandkids are thin. Their wispy hair is limp and faded to a dull orange from malnutrition. Six months ago, after the fourth rainy season in a row failed, Kasim decided she had to get her grandkids out of their village because there was no longer anything to eat.

KASIM: (Through interpreter) We were farmers, also keeping livestock animals. But for the last of three years, there was no rain. There was drought. So we couldn't grow our crops.

BEAUBIEN: All their livestock had either died or been eaten. She says they had no food left. So Kasim, along with her grandchildren and several neighbors, set out on a nearly 170-mile trek to get to this camp in Baidoa.

KASIM: (Through interpreter) Most of the time, we walked by foot. But during our journey, we got some donkey carts where we used to carry the kids.

BEAUBIEN: The journey took several weeks. She doesn't remember exactly how many days. They begged for food along the route. Her daughter, the mother of her six grandkids, had passed away before the drought. Two of the children, she says, died during the grueling trip.

KASIM: (Through interpreter) Their kids died due to hunger, starvation. We were having nothing to eat, so they died because of the starvation.

BEAUBIEN: Kasim and her neighbors had heard that international relief agencies were distributing food aid here in Baidoa. But when they got here, she says, they found that the assistance ranged from meager to nonexistent. Kasim and her kids beg in town now or collect firewood to sell in order to get food. Adding to the complexity of the food crisis in Somalia, the militant Islamist group al-Shabaab has banned international relief agencies or the government from distributing food aid in the areas it controls. That includes much of the south of the country. All of the roads into Baidoa are controlled by al-Shabaab, forcing aid agencies to fly in most of their relief supplies.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Crying).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

BEAUBIEN: At a bare-bones health clinic in a camp adjacent to where Kasim lives, Dr. Ali Nur Mohamed says the number of severely malnourished kids in his camp is overwhelming. His caseload, he says, has jumped fivefold over the last six months.

ALI NUR MOHAMED: So you can see that most of the children are new, and most of them are already malnourished. So, yeah, you can see that the situation is still alarming.

BEAUBIEN: The clinic is in a sheet-metal enclosure with a dirt floor. Mothers bring in children with bone-thin arms. Some of the kids struggle to hold their heads up. Dr. Nur says several malnourished children have recently died here. Most of the deaths are among children who also had some other complications, such as measles or whooping cough.

NUR MOHAMED: So you can see that the situation is still critical.

BEAUBIEN: Dr. Nur says most of the kids at his clinic rebound quickly if they're given fortified milk or high-calorie food supplements. Some just need extra biscuits. The problem, he says, is that so many of the residents of these sprawling camps have hardly any food at all. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Baidoa, Somalia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien
Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.