Luke Dray for NPR
At the Daniyle camp on the outskirts of Mogadishu, Somalia, hundreds of people who’ve fled from drought-stricken areas of Somalia are now crammed into a dusty lot. They’ve erected makeshift shelters out of sticks covered with tarps, burlap bags and bits of plastic sheeting. The ground is dry and powdery. Puffs of dust rise around each footfall.
Khadijo Noor Ali arrived at the Daniyle camp two months ago with 7 children in tow. Khadijo says they had to come after the crops in her village in the Lower Shabelle region failed for the fourth season in a row.
“We fled from the drought,” she says. “We had nothing to eat. We ran away from our home.”
Khadijo is a single mother. She has five children from her first marriage, a 4-year-old from her second and a frail 8-year-old relative whose parents died several years ago.
In her village, she worked as a farm laborer tending crops. But without rain there was no work.
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“The owner of the farm saw the lives we were living,” Khadijo says, sitting with her children in front of her shelter. “He paid for the bus fares for us to come here.”
Daniyle is one of hundreds of displaced persons camps that have sprung up this year around the Somali capital and other cities. According to volunteers who helped build latrines and a set of water taps at the camp, there are now more than 300 families living in Daniyle alone and between 20 to 30 more families arrive each week. The United Nations now calculates that more than 1.7 million Somalis – in a country of just over 16 million people – have been uprooted from their homes this year due to the food crisis and fighting involving the Islamist militant group al-Shabaab.
Khadijo says she came to Mogadishu because she heard that international aid agencies were providing food to the residents of the camps. But once she arrived, she found that it wasn’t happening.
“We have been here for two months and we haven’t gotten any assistance at all except for the toilets and the water taps,” she says. The camp chairwoman confirms that there are no food distributions happening at Daniyle although food assistance is provided at some of the other displaced persons camps that were set up years ago by Somalis fleeing earlier disasters.
Khadijo feeds her children by doing casual labor, she says, usually washing laundry for families in Mogadishu. But she says she can’t always find work.
“We are living in very hard conditions,” she says. “If I get work, I’ll buy food and cook it. If I get nothing, I tell the children to go to bed, to sleep with hunger.”
Luke Dray for NPR
The 8-year-old orphan, Dahiro, appears to be suffering the most from the lack of food. Her arms are thin and hang limply at her sides. Her hair has faded to a reddish color, a classic sign of malnutrition.
According to a consortium of aid agencies, including the UN’s World Food Program, 5.6 million Somalis are already “experiencing high levels of acute food insecurity.”
As the worst drought on record continues to scorch the Horn of Africa, the consortium predicts that more than half the country, some 8 million Somalis, could be going hungry by April of 2023. The number of people facing catastrophic food shortages, basically at risk of starvation, could top 700,000.
And the food crisis is already claiming lives. Doctors say they are treating children who are already dying of malnutrition.
Drought is only part of the problem
At the Bay Regional Hospital in the southwestern city of Baidoa, Dr. Mohammed Ibrahim, who works on pediatric malnutrition wards, says the food crisis in Somalia is about more than just failed crops.
“Food prices were really high earlier this year,” he says. Prior to the war in Ukraine, Somalia got 90% of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine. The doctor says grain prices have come down somewhat but still remain high. He adds that water prices have also jumped dramatically, adding to the financial burden on families. Looking over the chart of a child in the intensive care unit, Dr. Ibrahim says most malnourished kids — even those on the brink of starvation — can be successfully treated as long as their parents bring them for help. The boy in front of him is 2 years old and weighs just 12 pounds.
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“He’s half the weight he should be,” the doctor says.
The boy’s mother, Sowda Mustaf, is 21 years old. Even as she tends to her son in the hospital, a neighbor brings in her 6-month-old daughter to breast feed. Her husband left her, she says, and she survives thanks to her brother, who does day labor in the market in Baidoa.
“When he gets some money, he shares it with us,” she says.
Efforts to get international aid to Baidoa and many parts of Somalia have been hampered by al-Shabaab, which controls many rural areas in the south of the country. The armed group controls all of the roads leading into Baidoa, where hundreds of thousands of Somalis have arrived seeking food aid. The leaders of al-Shabaab have banned international aid agencies from working in their territory, claiming that the group will provide assistance on its own. And because al-Shabaab is at war with the government, Somali officials can’t offer help. The militants attack aid convoys, forcing humanitarian groups to fly almost all of their supplies into the drought-afflicted areas.
Local shopkeepers in Baidoa say al-Shabaab is also driving up food prices due to what they refer to as “blockages” on the local roads. Shipments of food from Mogadishu can only be arranged by special brokers. Merchants in Baidoa who used to send rice, oil and other staples to vendors at market stalls in outlying villages now say they can’t risk having their shipments seized by the armed insurgents.
Bashir Ahmed Saman, 23, runs a dry goods store in Baidoa. He says roads around the city have been blocked ever since he opened his shop two years ago. “I cannot buy everything I want from Mogadishu,” he says. “I can only order it from the larger wholesalers. Also, I can’t transfer items to another village because of the blockages. That affects me.”
The “blockages” hurt his profits and also inflate his prices. “I blame this situation on the lack of a strong government,” he says. “Also, the change of the climate. But mainly we don’t have leaders who are able to solve the problems of this country.”
This camp resident sees only one solution
In one of the displaced persons camps in Baidoa, 32-year-old Farhia Abdi Hussein says the food situation is dire. Residents have no money, she says, and aid from international relief groups has mostly focused on providing toilets, water and tarps.
“Most of the people survive by begging,” Farhia says of the residents of the camp. She says some people get medicine from a humanitarian health clinic and then resell it in town to buy food.
Farhia fled her village, which was controlled by al-Shabaab, after her crops failed and most of her goats died.
“I can’t go back to where I came from because the area is controlled by al-Shabaab,” she says. Al-Shabaab doesn’t allow people to leave freely so she fled in the middle of the night. “Once you move from that place you cannot go back there. Even if you leave everything there.”
She says she doesn’t have much faith that the government or international relief agencies will be able to solve the current food crisis in her country. The one thing that could make a difference, she says, would be rain.
“I pray to God that he brings rains so that those who are able to go back can go to their villages and grow their own crops,” she says. “But for people like me who cannot go home, I hope they can also get a life in the urban town. They can get something to live on. I hope the rains will come and people will be stable.”
Luke Dray for NPR