The crippling drought in the Horn of Africa has affected about 11 million people in a region straddling Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya. But it's Somalia that has been hit hardest. This week, the United Nations declared a famine in two parts of the lawless nation – Lower Shabelle and Bakool in the south.
Thousands of Somalis are crossing the border into semi-arid northeastern Kenya, in search of shelter, food and medical care. They are streaming into the giant Dadaab refugee complex, which is the world's biggest collection of camps.
For the new arrivals, life is grim. They start off at what are called spontaneous settlements, which have sprung up all over the outskirts of the camps. The one in Dagahaley stretches endlessly in inhospitable, sandy ground, with a howling wind whipping up the dust.
The U.N. says 80 percent of the new arrivals are women and children. The Somalis are crossing into Kenya at a rate of about 1,000 a day. Many spend their first few days living out in the open, with precious little shelter except for scattered thorn trees.
The Somali refugees who have had a little time to establish themselves at the camp construct makeshift homes out of tree branches, covered in plastic sheeting printed with the names and symbols of humanitarian agencies. Men and women drag the branches or hoist them onto donkey-drawn carts. Then they begin manually tying strips of cloth and weaving them in between the branches to stabilize the precarious structures they call home.
Despite the difficult beginnings, the new refugees say life is better here than facing famine, drought and conflict in Somalia, because there is peace in Kenya.
For the past 20 years, when refugees first began crossing into Kenya to escape the conflict and clan fighting back home, Somalia has been without a functioning central government.
Many call it a failed state. The transitional national government controls only small parts of Somalia, including a section of the capital, Mogadishu, with the help of peacekeeping forces from the African Union.
Other parts of the country are in the hands of the powerful anti-Western militant al-Shabab group, which has ties to al-Qaida and is on the United States' terrorism watch list.
Al-Shabab threw out international relief agencies and allowed them back into the country only this month. But aid organizations, and the U.S., are concerned about safe access.
The White House has also expressed concern that any food aid for drought-stricken Somalia may fall into the hands of and benefit the militants.
Saruuro Aden traveled on foot from Dunsoor, near Baidoa in southern Somalia, across the Kenyan border with her four children. She said they walked for 10 days.
"Famine, drought — as well as conflict — all added up has forced us to leave Dunsoor," says Aden, speaking on the outskirts of Dagahaley camp this week, five days after she arrived.
"I encountered lots of problems, including an attack. All the money I had, all the clothes, everything was taken away from me. We don't know who the attackers were. It was at night," she says.
"They took only our personal effects, but we women were not sexually assaulted," she adds. Other female Somali refugees have reported that they were raped or abused by attackers.
Before heading off to look for firewood, Aden turns and says, "We have no food, we have no shelter. We have no clothes. We are just out there in the open, in the wind. We need water. We need life."
Dadaab settlement is run by the U.N. refugee agency. It was built to house 90,000 people in the early 1990s, when the conflict in Somalia broke out. That number has swelled to almost 400,000, plus the more than 30,000, say the Kenyan authorities, in June and July.
Somalis are in search of help offered at the camps, provided by the U.N. and dozens of relief organizations — including some from the U.S. and all over the world.
Many of the women have trekked with severely malnourished children. Dr. Humphrey Musyoka, who works at the field hospital of the U.S.-based aid agency International Rescue Committee in Hagadera camp, says they have seen a fourfold increase of cases admitted for severe malnutrition since the influx of the recent arrivals.
"This leaves the children quite vulnerable, especially in the situation where food security is not guaranteed," he says. "We have seen children die – maybe, over the last week or so, two to three children. Those are the very severely ill children."
Musyoka says the main reason they are seeing the deaths of some children is because the patients arrive sometimes too far gone for the medical teams to be able to help.
"We are getting very many late arrivals, even into our nutrition program. So there is only so much we can do to salvage this kind of situation," he says.
Hawa Hassan, who is about 80 years old, cradles her 3-year-old grandson, Adan Abdon, in her arms on an IRC hospital bed at Hagadera.
With large, limpid eyes, it is clear Adan is suffering from acute malnutrition, with the telltale oversized head on his wasted, wizened body. He hardly whimpers. He does not smile or react. Adan's mother died of hunger, his grandmother says, during the 30-day walk from southern Somalia.
"All our animals died in the drought," she says, "so that was the end of our livelihood. We had to leave Somalia and walk to Kenya – with my grandchildren, including Adan, and you can see he is so very, very sick."
That is the problem, laments Abubakar Mohamed. He is the deputy field coordinator across town at another hospital run by the emergency medical charity MSF — or Doctors Without Borders — at Dagahaley camp.
Himself a Somali-Kenyan, Mohamed says the plight of the new arrivals is pitiful and no fault of their own.
"The groups that we are receiving now are the groups that were left behind after the anarchy of Somalia – civil strife [in the 1990s]," he says.
Mohamed, who has been working at Dadaab refugee settlement since it opened more than two decades ago, says the first arrivals then were the victims of conflict, politics and poor leadership in Somalia.
He adds that the new refugees, though, "had no business in politics."
"Today, they are the victims of natural calamities like famine. They had no choice," he says. "So, unlike in the other times, it was politics, now it's a different scenario: innocent people who are suffering — not politicians, not armies, not military [but] real human beings, farmers, nomads who have had a tough time in Somalia."
The Kenyan government is under pressure from the U.S. and others to open up an additional camp, Ifo-2, to accommodate some of the recent influx of Somalis. But Kenya argues that the refugees would be best served being assisted back home, on the Somali side of the border.
It also points out that Kenyan nomadic herders and farmers across the arid and semi-arid north of the country are suffering from the same drought as the Somalis, and that resources and pastureland are limited.
Kenya says it fears that members of the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab may surreptitiously cross into Kenya with the refugees, and spread terror on that side of the frontier.
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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:
And I'm Mary Louise Kelly.
We begin this hour in the horn of Africa, where a crippling drought means about 11 million people are not getting enough to eat. It's the worst drought there in decades, and things are worst in Somalia. Thousands of Somalis are crossing into Kenya, in search of shelter, food and medicine.
NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports from the giant Dadaab refugee complex in northeastern Kenya.
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: I've come to what are called the spontaneous settlements at one of the Dadaab camps. It's called Dagahaley. And for miles on end you see this inhospitable land. Sand. The wind is blowing furiously here and many of the people are living out in the open. There's very little shelter. As far as the eye can see, it's a tented town here, fragile structures, homes made out of branches of trees, covered over in plastic sheeting. And most of the people here are children and women. Some have come as recently as one or two days ago. Although they're still hungry, they say life is better here than it is in Somalia, because there's peace in Kenya.
Ms. SARUURO ADEN: (Through translator) My name is Saruuro Aden. I came from Dunsoor. I have four children. Famine, drought, hunger, as well as conflict, all added up, has forced us to leave Dunsoor. I have been walking for 10 days. I encountered lots of problems on the way, including an attack. All the money I had, all the clothes, everything was taken away from. It was at night. It was dark. We don't know who the attackers were but they robbed us of everything that we had. They only took our personal effects but none of us was sexually assaulted. We have no food, we have no shelter. We have no clothes. You can see we've just been out there in the open, in the wind. We need water, we need life.
QUIST-ARCTON: These are just some of the dangers facing refugees from Somalia as they flee war and drought and now famine.
Dadaab settlement, which is run by the UN refugee agency UNACR, was built 20 years ago in Kenya to house 90,000 people when the conflict in Somalia began. That number has now swelled to almost 400,000, with about a thousand Somalis continuing to arrive each day.
(Soundbite of baby crying)
QUIST-ARCTON: And many of the women have trekked with severely malnourished children.
Dr. HUMPHREY MUSYOKA (International Rescue Committee): Just to highlight, because of the influx of the new arrivals, we have had a fourfold increase in cases admitted for severe malnutrition, fourfold increase from the initial crew that we just had, the old refugees in the system. Yes.
QUIST-ARCTON: Dr. Humphrey Musyoka works at the U.S. aid agency International Rescue Committee's field hospital in Hagadera camp.
Dr. MUSYOKA: This leaves the children quite vulnerable, especially in a situation where we - food security is not guaranteed. We have seen children die and maybe over the last week or so two to three children. These are the very severely ill children and the main contributing factor is of the late arrival.
Ms. HAWA HASSAN: (Foreign language spoken)
QUIST-ARCTON: Hawa Hassan is about 80 years old. Her grandson, three-year-old Adan Abdon, is one of her son's children. She's cradling her grandson in her arms on the hospital bed. With large, limpid eyes, it's clear Adan is suffering from acute malnutrition with the telltale oversized head on his wasted, wizened body. Adan's mother died of hunger, says his grandmother, as they walked for 30 days from southern Somalia.
Ms. HASSAN: (Foreign language spoken)
QUIST-ARCTON: All our animals died in the drought, she says. So that was the end of our livelihood. We had to leave Somalia and walk to Kenya with my grandchildren, including Adan, and as you can see, he's so very, very sick.
Mr. ABUBAKAR MOHAMED (Doctors Without Borders): The groups that we are receiving now today are the groups that were left behind after the anarchy of Somalia civil strife.
QUIST-ARCTON: Across town, in another hospital run by the emergency medical charity, MSF, Doctors Without Borders, at Dagahaley Camp, the deputy field coordinator, Abubakar Mohamed, laments the plight of the new arrivals. Himself a Kenyan-Somali, Mohamed has been working at the refugee settlement since the 1990s.
Mr. MOHAMED: Then they had no business in politics, but today they are the victims of natural calamities like famine. They have no choice. So unlike in the other time, it was politics, game which was played. So it's a different scenario what we are in today. Innocent people who are suffering, not politicians, not the armies, not military. Real human beings, farmers, nomads, yeah? Who have had tough time in Somalia.
QUIST-ARCTON: Kenya's government is under pressure to open an additional camp to house some of the recent influx of Somalis. But the Kenyan authorities argue the refugees should be held on the Somali side of the border. Kenya says it fears members of the powerful anti-Western al-Qaida-linked al-Shabaab militia group, which controls large parts of Somalia, may cross into Kenya and spread terrorism here.
Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Dadaab refugee settlement, northeastern Kenya. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.