Bhanu Bhatnagar

What’s happening to Somalia’s children?

Imagine one in two people in the UK don’t know where their next meal is coming from or only have enough food to last a few days. It seems unthinkable, doesn’t it?

But that’s exactly what the people of Somalia are going through. 6.7 million people out of a total population of 12 million are food insecure – that is to say, they lack reliable access to sufficient quantities of affordable and nutritious food. And most vulnerable of all are Somalia’s children.

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Bhanu Bhatnagar
Halimo, with her severely malnourished son Ali*, 3, malnourished daughter Khadro*, 5. Ali was rushed to hospital after this picture was taken.

Ali and Khadro

I chance upon three-year-old Ali and his five-year-old sister Khadro in the Kheyrdoon camp for internally displaced people (IDP) near the northern Somali town of Galkayo. People have been gathering here for months, in search of help after a severe drought led to crop failure and killed off their livestock.

Ali is in bad shape. His mother Halimo holds him in her lap, urging him to drink some water, whispering into his ear, comforting her weak and sick child. When Ali has the strength to open his eyes, I notice they’re glazed over.

He has a vacant look and struggles to stand upright. It seems like he’s given up.

Alone with her four children

Halimo is all alone with four children to care for after her husband and two of her sons were killed in a clan dispute three years ago. Her lifeline was her 400 goats. They provided milk and meat and money. But the drought claimed all of them, every single one.

Now both Ali and Khadro are malnourished, Ali dangerously so. Our health officer tells me that Ali needs to be rushed to hospital immediately or he risks passing out or even dying. His condition is critical.

Help families like Halimo’s

Identifying the most vulnerable

We operate in camps like this one to help identify the most vulnerable children and save their lives. Ali is taken to Galkayo, where he’s brought back from the brink with urgent care in the form of a milk-based formula diet and nutritional rehabilitation.

Ali’s story is all too common here. 1.4 million children under five in Somalia are acutely malnourished. Of this number, an estimated 275,000 risk death, unless they receive urgent medical attention. Somalia has a weak central government that’s unable to provide law and order and as a result, basic services during a time of crisis.

Al Shabab and Climate change: double threat

The armed group Al Shabab still controls chunks of territory and regularly launches attacks. Though the tide has shifted in the government’s favour and things are slowly changing for the better, the double-edged sword of conflict and climate change have wreaked havoc with people’s lives.

The El Niño phenomenon has compounded the already widespread drought in the country. The region has experienced below average rainfall for two years now. Malnutrition and drought-related diseases like cholera and measles are on the rise. Increasing competition for resources like water could trigger communal conflict.

What will happen next?

According to the UN, between November 2016 and May 2017, a staggering 739,000 people were forced from their homes in search of help because of the drought. 65% of them – nearly half a million people – are children under the age of 18.

The next rainy season isn’t due until mid-October but crops won’t be ready until early next year. If the October rains fail, we could be facing a catastrophe that will make the 2011 famine – when more than a quarter of a million people died, half of them children – pale in comparison.

Bhanu Bhatnagar
Ramlo, 20, holds her son Mohamed*’s, 1, arm to prevent him from pulling the feeding tube out of his nose.

Ramlo’s story

I meet 20-year-old Ramlo and her one-year-old son, Mohamed, in a hospital in the northern town of Garowe. Mohamed has just been brought in to the stabilisation centre for urgent medical care.

He’s severely malnourished and being fed nutrients through a tube in his nose. He’s weak and in pain. His mother grips his hands to prevent him from pulling the tube out. The ward is silent except for the sound of his high-pitched wailing.

Ramlo has been displaced for the past four years. She’s originally from Mogadishu, 950 kilometres away. But the conflict with Al Shabab forced her and her family north to Garowe. First, she was displaced by war. Now the drought threatens to displace them again. And with little food to eat, it’s Mohamed that will pay the price. He weighed 4.1kg when he was brought in. A child his age should weigh 7kg.

The world has a small window of opportunity to act. Between now and the end of the year Somalia’s children need help to stay alive. They need food, water and medicines. Their parents need support. We cannot allow tens of thousands of children to die of hunger or thirst.

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