East African famine takes heavy toll on children

While skeletal baby who became the face of the tragedy in Somalia is out of danger, more than 29,000 others have perished already.

Minhaj Gedi Farah was severely malnourished when he arrived at the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya late last month.
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DADAAB, KENYA // Only 10 days ago, Minhaj Gedi Farah was too weak to cry and his skin crumpled liked thin leather under the pressure of his mother's hands. Now doctors say the severely malnourished 7-month-old appears out of danger of joining the more than 29,000 children who already have died in the famine.
It's a rare success story amid unimaginable misery for parents at the world's largest refugee camp - a place where a father must bury two of his daughters one day, and their brother the next.
Seven-month-old Minhaj though now weighs more than 3.8 kilogrammes - still well below what he should for his age, but a major improvement from 3.2 kilogrammes when he first arrived at a field hospital ward here.
"He is in stable condition and he is doing well," said Dr John Kiogora of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), who has been treating the infant since his arrival in late July.
Startling photos of Minhaj's twig-like arms and hollow cheeks made him the frail face of the worst famine in 60 years. On Saturday, though, the wide-eyed baby looked around the ward inquisitively and became captivated with a journalist who was taking his picture.
It is a miracle for his mother, and a testament to just how hard doctors and other healthcare workers here are trying to save lives as more and more malnourished children arrive each day.
"He has no problem compared to the past days," said his mother, Asiah Dagane, who now smiles broadly and frequently plants kisses on the baby's cheeks. "Now he sleeps the bulk of the night. When he wakes up, he is hungry and wants milk."

Video: Aid in Somalia

Plan International co-ordinator on East Africa's crisis

Most parents have been far less fortunate: new arrivals at Dadaab have described losing as many as four children to starvation and disease along the journey by foot from Somalia. Others made unthinkable decisions about which children to take with them, and which to leave for dead under trees so that the entire family did not perish.

As Minhaj's mother celebrated his recovery on Saturday, Muhumed Surow had to bury his 1-year-old daughter Liin, who died from malnourishment overnight after the family reached this refugee camp too late to save her.

The 27-year-old father sat about 10 metres away from the thigh-deep grave of his little girl. Dozens of refugees attended the funeral at the edge of Ifo extension, part of the Dadaab camps. Mr Surow sobbed in a squatting position as fellow mourners tried to console him.

"I was not thinking of losing a child when I was coming to this country. I was instead saying to myself that Kenya is a peaceful country. But when I came, I found a bad country, where wind blows every time. And that affected our children. The sadness you see is because of that," said Mr Surrow, whose 3-year-old, Alaso, has survived.

His wife's mourning is tinged with hope for the future after she gave birth to a baby boy, Hamdi, just two days before her 1-year-old died.

"I'm pained and saddened by the loss of my daughter. I can't do anything about it. But I pray to God to give me a good replacement that lives a long life," said the 24-year-old mother, Hamaro Mohamed.

It's a grief that all too many here share. Three of Mayow Aden Ali's six children have died at Dadaab: on Friday, he buried his 6-month-old daughter and her 5-year-old sister. On Saturday, he buried his 2-year-old-son.

"They were taken to hospital, but doctors could not save them," he says, now thinking of returning to Somalia, where his three surviving children remain.

More than 29,000 children under the age of 5 have died in the past 90 days in southern Somalia alone, according to US estimates. The UN says 640,000 Somali children are acutely malnourished, suggesting the death toll of small children will rise in the coming weeks.

Here in this hospital ward with drawings of fruit and Arabic letters on the wall, the staff draw strength from success stories like Minhaj. The stabilisation centre run by the IRC is totally full, though, forcing the group to set up a tent for the increasing number of malnourished children who arrive each day.

Doctors hope that Minhaj can soon leave the ward, though he will need to return for regular monitoring and check-ups.

"I'm very happy and very joyful," his doctor said. "That is the best thing, I think, I have done for this child to make sure I've saved his life."

* Associated Press