Historic Famine Threatens Millions

Originally published on July 20, 2011 12:24 pm

A massive drought has hit Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee their homes. The U.N. also officially declared today that some parts of Somalia are facing famine. Host Michel Martin discusses the situation with Azad Essa, an Al Jazeera English journalist who just returned from the region; and Reuben Brigety, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up California has passed a landmark law requiring that public schools in that state teach students about the contributions of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans to this country's history. We'll ask one of the curators at the country's first museum of LGBT history what kinds of lessons might be taught. We'll have that conversation in just a few minutes but first we are going to East Africa to focus on a devastating humanitarian crisis.

Today, the United Nations officially declared that famine has struck parts of Somalia. Thousands of Somali's have already died in what the UN calls the worst hunger emergency in a generation. More than ten million people in Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia are now in urgent need of food in wake of the worst draught in decades. Hundreds of thousands have fled their homes to seek relief in refugee camps which are already over capacity. Recently NPR spoke to a 70-year-old man in Northwest Kenya who is threatened by this crisis.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through Translator) I don't have any food to eat here. There is no hope, there's no rain. My animals are all dead. I'm just waiting for my death. I'm just waiting to die.

MARTIN: That was Loraman Lobween(ph) speaking through an interpreter to NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton. In response to the emergency the U.S. Department of State has announced an additional $28 million dollars in aid to Somalia and Somalia refugees in Kenya. We wanted to talk more about the draught and what can be done to help people displaced by this disaster. So, first we've called on Azad Essa. He's a journalist with Al Jazeera English. Last week he was in Somalia and Kenya reporting on the crisis.

He's with us on the line from Al Jazeera studio's in Doha, Qatar. Azad thanks for joining us.

AZAD ESSA: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: Also with us, Reuben Brigety. He is the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Population Refugees and Migration. He also recently returned from Ethiopia where he traveled to assess U.S. resources in response to the crisis. He's here with us in our Washington, DC studios. Once again, welcome, thank you for coming back.

REUBEN BRIGETY: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Azad, I'm going To start with you. You visited Kenya's Dabaab refugee camp. They're seeing as I understand it up to 1,500 new refugees each day and the camp was built for what, 90,000 people, but now there are some 400,000 living there. Can you just tell us what the conditions are there?

ESSA: Sure. In a word the situation is quite horrific. As you say, 1,500 people are arriving every day at the camps - extremely malnourished, exhausted, even traumatized. This refugee complex was created 20 years ago in '91 for just 90,000 people and the infrastructure definitely cannot work for 400,000 people. And, you know, this means that not only does the process take much longer to kind of get them registered and meaning that, you know, to get some of the basic essentials to live as a refugee in the camp situation.

But there's no space for them to live in the refugee camps themselves so, it's a bizarre situation where you have refugees outside a refugee camp and I wonder if your listeners can grapple with such an idea that you have people living on the outskirts of a refugee camp between 40 and 60,000 people in totally ridiculously squalor conditions very. Very poor hygiene, no sanitation and it's just very - very desolate. It's almost as if they had been abandoned by humanity, as such.

One of the major things that will strike you is the amount of women and children that are walking distances in excess of 200 kilometers to get to Dabaab from southern Somalia. And (unintelligible) the Doctors Without Borders would tell you that within the first few days if they don't address these kids that are coming into the camp they're not going to survive. So, the situation is very, very horrific at the moment.

MARTIN: Assistant Secretary Brigety, how long has this crisis been going on and why are the conditions so dire and I guess part of what I'm interested in is it really the drought that's causing this crisis or have other issues contributed to it?

BRIGETY: Well, what we're facing Michel is a crisis on top of a crisis. As Azad said we have the Dabaab refugee camps in Kenya have been there since 1991. They were created after the fall of the Siad Barre regime when people started to flee outside of Somalia. You are correct in that the current drought is what's exacerbating the food crisis inside Somalia. That's why people are leaving. But what is making this problem particularly acute right now is the impact of Al Shabaab, which is the militant Islamist group that has controlled South Central Somalia for some years now.

In January of 2010, Al Shabaab forced out all of humanitarian aid agencies that were operating in South Central Somalia. So, there has been no humanitarian food aid or other assistance of any import in that country since the last 18 months. So, without access to food and compounded by the draught people are now fleeing in record numbers and we're seeing acute rates of malnutrition that we haven't seen in decades.

MARTIN: So, absent this political crisis perhaps that food stocks or other supplies could have been pre-positioned or in place but there was no infrastructure?

BRIGETY: Yes, that's true and I think that the draught is affecting the entirety of the region. Clearly, there are portions of Kenya and Ethiopia that are affected as well. And there are certainly people in both those countries that are affected by it but nothing like the rates of malnutrition insecurity we're seeing inside South Central Somalia where Al Shabaab is in control.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the draught that's devastating parts of East Africa with Reuben Brigety. He's Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Population Refugees and Migration at the U.S. State Department. That's who was speaking just now. Also with us, Azad Essa. He's a journalist for Al Jazeera English. He just got back from the region, as did Mr. Brigety.

Mr. Brigety we just spoke earlier today actually with Dr. Raj Shah. He's the administrator of the U.S. Aid Agency and we'll just play a short clip of what he had to say.


Dr. RAJ SHAH: This is a severe and tragic draught and famine and it is of course worse in precisely those areas where people have not had access to development and relief programs in South and Central Somalia.

MARTIN: I should mention that we caught up with him in Kenya. We mentioned earlier that the U.S. has pledged $28 million in aid to refugees in the affected areas of East Africa and this country has already spent about $383 million this year on food and non-food assistance in the region. Do we feel that this aid is getting to the people who need it most?

BRIGETY: We know that the aid is getting to the refugees that are in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, and to a lesser extent in Djibouti as well. The challenge that we are having is providing assistance actually inside Somalia where the people are in greatest need. So, part of the reason you see these massive flows out is because people don't have food where they are and now we're seeing the people who are leaving are the people who are the poorest of the poor.

Farmers, (unintelligible) who's livestock have all died. I was just in Dadaab camp where Essa was just last week. I talked to one mother who's daughter was there in a wheelbarrow next to her because she had polio. Her 7-year-old daughter who couldn't walk and this mother carried her polio-stricken daughter on her back for nine days with six other children in tow in order to get to refuge inside Kenya and I could tell stories like that all day long.

So, we are very concerned about trying to find ways to get assistance inside Somalia so people don't have to starve for days if they try to seek refuge outside of the country.

MARTIN: Azad what is the immediate need in the camps? I mean, it sounds very overwhelming. First of all, is there any sense that aid is in fact getting to the camps to support these camps that are overburdened and what is the immediate need that you saw?

ESSA: I think with regards to aid that's coming in people are getting food but it takes a long time to process. So we're talking about people walk for five or six days or even twenty days and then waiting perhaps ten days and more to then receive the food. You know, they might get some energy biscuits to kind of keep them alive in the beginning. But to get the ration of the basic essentials, like a little white canvas that would go over their hut that they would make the food.

All those things come but very slowly so, there's a need for a kind of a more resources or human resources to hasten that process. The other aspect that's kind of emergency kind of work is the opening of the new camp the E42 or the E4 extension. The Kenyan prime minister said the other day that they're going to open it, but when this is going to happen is, you know, everything's very vague and relief officials as such will tell you that, you know, privately that they won't, you know, they're not banking on that. Until they see it in writing and until they see it happening.

So if that camp opens, we're talking about perhaps 40,000 people or so that can be accommodated there because what's going on here is not just about people starving and having a difficult time living as such and surviving, but it's also - there's a lot of other things that are going on, a lot of sexual abuse and a lot of other violence that is going on within those outskirts because people are so vulnerable and not protected.

And, also, people go to the hospitals and they get help. But when they leave the hospital and they go back to the outskirts, they are totally away from, you know, the eye of the U.N. or even the doctors as well. They are totally not accessible. They just disappear.

MARTIN: Mr. Brigety, to your point about the political problem, I don't even know if that captures what's going on there, Somalia, for example, for four years in a row has topped Foreign Policy magazine's Failed States Index, which is based on, you know, all the issues that we just described. Are there any pathways into negotiation to whatever governmental infrastructure exists and to al-Shabaab to try to relieve the suffering of these people? Are there any conversations ongoing?

BRIGETY: Well, again, Michel, we are seeing a natural disaster made cataclysmic by human error, principally on the portion of al-Shabaab just last week invited aid groups back in. Given their history with aid groups previously both in assassinating aid workers, in taxing aid convoys, taking food that should've gone to recipients and using it for their own people. That's a situation that we have to look at very carefully.

But basically we have two things we have to do. First we have to meet the immediate humanitarian needs. And as a part and parcel that we have to find a way to find both a political solution inside Somalia and then sort of broader food security in the region so that we aren't repeating this cycle over and over again.

MARTIN: And, finally, Mr. Brigety, I'm sure there are people who will be listening to our conversation who will want to know, what can I do? Is there anything that the interested citizen can do to be helpful at a time like this?

BRIGETY: Yes. There are a number of non-governmental organizations that are operating in the camps in the region both in Ethiopia and Kenya. I also mentioned one, Doctors Without Borders. There are many others like International Rescue Committee or Save the Children. I would encourage your listeners do the research, find the one they like and donate money, which is the most efficient way that people can help.

MARTIN: Reuben Brigety is U.S. deputy assistant secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration. He recently returned from East Africa where he traveled to assess U.S. resources and support for the region's drought crisis. He was kind enough to stop by our studios in Washington, D.C.

Also with us, Azad Essa. He's a journalist with Al Jazeera English, who just returned from Somalia and Kenya, where he was reporting on the drought crisis. And he joined us on the line from Al Jazeera studios in Doha, Qatar. Gentlemen, I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

BRIGETY: Thank you.

ESSA: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.