By CARA ANNA
DOLLOW, Somalia (AP) — A man in a donkey cart comes rolling through the dust carrying two small, silent boys. The sky is cloudy. It could rain. It will not. Not for a very long time.
Mohamed Ahmed Diriye is 60 years old and has had the darkest journey of his life. He started in a coastal town on the northern edge of Somalia two weeks ago. People died. cattle died. He decided to quit his job as a day laborer and flee across the country, crossing a landscape of carcasses and territory held by Islamist extremists on the way.
Seven hundred miles later he is exhausted. The food is gone. In one hand he holds a battered cane, in the other the almost empty car. His boys are only 4 and 5.
They tried to flee, says Diriye. “But we encountered the same drought here.”
More than 1 million Somalis have fled and discovered that too.
This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
In Somalia, a nation of poets, droughts are named for the pain they bring. There was Prolonged in the 1970s, Cattle Killer in the 1980s, Equal five years ago for its nationwide reach. A decade ago there was a famine that killed a quarter of a million people.
Somalis say the current drought is worse than any they can remember. It doesn’t have a name yet. Diriye, believing that in some of the places he has traveled no one can survive, unhesitatingly suggests one: White Bone.
This drought has stunned resilient pastoralists and farmers by lasting four failed rainy seasons that began two years ago. Season 5 is underway and likely to fail as well, along with Season 6 early next year.
A rare famine could take place as early as this month, the first significant global event since the famine in Somalia a decade ago. Thousands of people have died, including nearly 900 children under the age of 5 who were being treated for malnutrition, according to the United Nations Data. The UN says half a million such children are at risk of dying, “a number, an imminent nightmare we have not seen in this century”.
As food insecurity grips the world, Somalia, a country of 15 million that is shaking off its past as a failed state, can be seen as the end of the road. The nation of proud shepherds that has survived generations of droughts is now stumbling amidst multiple global crises looming simultaneously.
These include climate change, with some of the worst effects of warming in Africa. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which stalled ships with enough grain to feed hundreds of millions. A drop in humanitarian donations as the world shifted focus to war in Ukraine. One of the deadliest Islamist extremist groups in the world, restricting the delivery of aid.
The Associated Press spoke to a dozen people in fast-growing refugee camps during a visit to southern Somalia in late September. All say they have received little or no help. A daily meal can be plain rice or just black tea. Many camp residents, mostly women and children, beg from neighbors or go to bed hungry.
Mothers wander for days or weeks across barren landscapes in search of help, sometimes finding that the withered, feverish child strapped to them has died along the way.
“We would mourn, stop for a while, pray,” says Adego Abdinur. “We would bury her by the side of the road.”
She holds her naked 1-year-old in front of her new home, a fragile shack made of plastic bags and fabrics tied together with twine and torn branches. It’s one of hundreds scattered across the mainland. Behind a barrier of thorns that separates their hut, giggling children pour beloved water from a plastic jug into their hands, slurping and spitting with delight.
The home that 28-year-old Abdinur left behind was far superior — a farm with corn and dozens of livestock in the community where she was born and raised. The family was self-sufficient. Then the water dried up and their four-legged wealth began to die.
“When we lost the last goat, we realized we couldn’t survive,” says Abdinur. She and her six children walked 300 kilometers (186 miles) here after following rumors of help, along with thousands of other people who have fled.
“We’ve seen so many children die of starvation,” she says.
(AP Video/Nqobile Ntshangase)
At the heart of this crisis, in areas where famine is likely to be declared, is an Islamist extremist group linked to al-Qaeda. An estimated 740,000 of those most devastated by the drought live in areas controlled by al-Shabab extremists. In order to survive, they must flee.
Al-Shabab’s influence over much of southern and central Somalia was a major contributor to the death toll in the 2011 famine. Much aid was not let into its lands, and many starving people were not let out. Somalia’s president, who survived three attempts on his life by al-Shabab, has described the group as a “mafia cloaked in Islam”. But his government has urged them to have mercy now.
In a surprising comment on the drought in late September, al-Shabab called it a test from Allah, “a consequence of our sins and wrongdoings.” Spokesman Ali Mohamud Rage claimed the extremists had offered food, water and free medical care to more than 47,000 people affected by the drought since last year.
But in rare accounts of life in al-Shabab-controlled areas, several people who fled told the AP they saw no such help. Instead, they said, the extremists continue to tax families’ crops and livestock harshly, even as they wither and die. They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
One woman says al-Shabab taxed up to 50% of her family’s meager harvest: “They don’t care if people have anything left over.”
Some flee their communities at night to avoid the attention of fighters, with men and even boys often forbidden to leave them. One woman says that no one was allowed to leave her community and that people who received outside help were attacked. Weeks ago, she says, al-Shabab killed a relative who managed to get an ailing parent to a government-controlled city, then returned.
Those who fled al-Shabab now cling to mere existence. When the real rainy season arrives, they wake up in camps under a purple or gray sky offering the tiniest patch of moisture.
Children fly kites, adults their prayers. Black smoke billows in the distance as some farmers clear land just in case.
At the only treatment center for the most malnourished in the immediate area, year-old Hamdi Yusuf is another sign of hope.
She was little more than bones and skin when her mother found her unconscious two months after arriving at the camps, living on scraps of food offered by neighbors. “The child wasn’t even alive,” recalls Abdikadir Ali Abdi, deputy nutritionist for the aid organization Trocaire, which runs the 16-bed center and has more patients than it can accommodate.
Now the girl is revived, slumped over her mother’s arm but blinking. Her tiny toes twitch. A wrist is bandaged to prevent her from pulling out the port for a feeding tube.
The ready-to-eat therapeutic food so important to the recovery of children like her could run out in the coming weeks, Abdi says. Humanitarian workers describe taking limited resources from the hungry in Somalia to treat the starving, complicating efforts to forestall the drought.
The girl’s mother, 18-year-old Muslima Ibrahim, anxiously rubs her daughter’s tiny fingers. She saved her only child, but surviving will require the kind of support she hasn’t seen.
“We received a food distribution yesterday,” says Ibrahim. “It was the first since we arrived.”
Groceries are hard to come by anywhere. At lunchtime, dozens of hungry children from the camps try to slip into a local elementary school where the World Food Program is running a rare lunchtime program for students. They are almost always turned away by school staff.
Mothers remember having to eat their stores of grain and sell their few remaining goats to afford the trip from the homes and lives they loved. Many had never left before.
“I miss fresh camel milk. We love it,” says 29-year-old Nimco Abdi Adan, smiling at the memory. She hasn’t tried it in two years.
Residents outside the camps feel the growing desperation. Shopkeeper Khadija Abdi Ibrahim, 60, now keeps her goats, sheep and cattle alive by buying valuable grain, grinding it and using it as fodder. She says the price of cooking oil and other items has doubled since last year, making it harder for displaced people to obtain food with WFP vouchers.
Hundreds of families continue to emerge from the empty horizon across Somalia, bringing little but heartache. The true death toll is unknown, but people at two of the country’s many displacement camps in the hardest-hit city of Baidoa say over 300 children have died in rural areas in the past three months, according to aid organization Islamic Relief.
One day in mid-September, 29-year-old Fartum Issack and her husband carried a small body down a dusty path to a cemetery. Their 1-year-old daughter arrived at the camp sick and hungry. She was taken for treatment, but it was too late.
The cemetery was opened in April specifically for the newly displaced. It already had 13 graves, seven of them for children. There is easily room for hundreds more.
Issack and her husband decided to bury their daughter in the middle of the empty ground.
“We wanted them to be easily recognizable,” says Issack.
Eight other hungry daughters are waiting in the camp.
Associated Press writer Omar Faruk in Mogadishu, Somalia, contributed.