One year after Somalia's famine, a story of recovery
One year ago, on 20 July 2011, the United Nations declared famine in two regions of southern Somalia, the flashpoint in a humanitarian crisis gripping the Horn of Africa. After an outpouring of international support, the famine ended in February 2012, and countless lives across the region were saved. But 8 million people in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya remain in need of humanitarian assistance, and UNICEF’s relief efforts must continue.
By Athanas Makundi
MOGADISHU, Somalia, 18 July 2012 – Amina walked briskly with her 4-year-old son, Ismail Mohamed, to fetch water at the edge of the camp where they live in Mogadishu. As the sun rose, they could hear the sound of babies crying and distant gunfire.
“We have to wake up early to fetch water because it is so scarce,” Amina said. “If you don’t, then you find a long queue at the pump, and sometimes the water runs out altogether.”
Once she had filled her yellow plastic containers, she hurried home with to prepare breakfast. The family’s home, made of plastic sheeting, cardboard and colourful fabric, provides little protection from the heavy overnight rains.
“Our shelter is exposed and the children are often cold,” Amina said as she boils the water on an open fire. “But I prefer to be here than in the village because we get food, water and medicine.”
A year ago, drought coupled with escalating fighting and lack of access for aid workers led to a terrible famine in the Lower Shabelle region of southern Somalia where Amina’s family lived.
“All our animals died and there was nothing left,” said Amina’s husband, Mohamed Ibrahim, as he sips his tea. “We had to leave; my son Ismail had fallen ill.”
Amina’s voice cracked with emotion as she narrated their ordeal.
“When we arrived in Mogadishu, Ismail was already very sick,” she said. “His body started to swell, and his skin started to peel off.”
Ismail was severely malnourished and, like many children in his condition, he contracted measles and cholera. His body swelled up so much he was unable to open his eyes.
“I was so worried when his eyes closed,” says Amina, shaking her head. “I didn’t know what to do. I used to ask myself, where can I find help?”
Ismail’s father heard from outreach workers at the camp about a feeding centre run by the Somali NGO SAACID and supported by UNICEF.
There, they learned that Ismail had a form of severe malnutrition known as kwashiorkor that required urgent treatment.
“When he was brought to us, the rate of the swelling – called edema – was very high,” said Abdullahi Mohamed, a nurse with SAACID, who was the first person to treat Ismail at the centre. “We could not do much for him then.”
Ismail was then sent to a hospital run by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Belgium, where he was admitted for two weeks until the edema subsided.
“Then we took him to our feeding centre, where we put him on a therapeutic programme,” Mr. Mohamed said. “Now you can see Ismail is alive and kicking.”
Aid since the famine declaration
Thousands of children in central and southern Somalia died before famine was declared on 20 July 2011. But the massive humanitarian response helped save many lives.
Over the past year, UNICEF has treated more than 455,000 acutely malnourished children throughout Somalia, of whom almost 225,000 were severely malnourished – the vast majority in the central and southern regions.
Ismail has made extraordinary progress and his mother can still scarcely believe the change.
“When he recovered, I felt hope restored in my heart,” she said. “I’m very happy.”
Yet the situation in many areas of Somalia remains fragile. An estimated 2.5 million people – half of them children – still need assistance.
“Although the need is not high as it was a year ago, there are still children who are suffering like Ismail,” Mr. Mohamed said. “We do still see children like him in our feeding centres, but the scale of the need is not as it was a year ago.”
Emergency assistance is clearly needed, but it will not be enough. UNICEF is also working to boost the resilience of the most vulnerable by strengthening basic services at the community level. This, in the long term, is the only way to reduce the risks caused by crises such as drought and food insecurity and ensure that children like Ismail can look forward to a normal childhood.