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Baidoa is the epicenter of drought in Somalia and famine fears are growing: NPR

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Mariam Kasim sits with her grandson, who she says is suffering from measles and malnutrition, at a camp outside Baidoa, Somalia, on Tuesday.

Lucas Dray for NPR


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Mariam Kasim sits with her grandson, who she says is suffering from measles and malnutrition, at a camp outside Baidoa, Somalia, on Tuesday.

Lucas Dray for NPR

BAIDOA, Somalia – In a camp for displaced people on the outskirts of Baidoa, in southwestern Somalia, Mariam Kasim says she is very old – so old that it is impossible to really know her age. But she thinks she’s 50.

Over these years, Somalia has suffered immensely from droughts and wars. But she says the suffering around her at the Bakol camp in Baidoa is unlike anything she has ever seen in her life.

“We have nothing,” says Kasim of herself and the hundreds of thousands of other Somalis who now live in makeshift camps around Baidoa. She says that most people here survive by begging. “We have no hope. No future.”

Repeatedly failed rains, an Islamist insurgency and chronic poverty are leading to what the United Nations and other aid agencies describe as an imminent famine in Somalia. Millions of lives are at risk from food insecurity, with many in this part of Somalia dependent on aid. Given the scarcity of that help, many, like Kasim and his family, are turning to begging.

Makeshift shelters from sticks and scrap metal

Kasim is in front of the shelter he shares with his four grandchildren. Like the other shelters in this camp, hers is a dome of sticks wrapped in tarps, rags and sacks of grain.


Newly displaced people build a shelter at a camp in Baidoa on Tuesday.

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Newly displaced people build a shelter at a camp in Baidoa on Tuesday.

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One of her teenage granddaughters is sitting in the dusty entryway. Two younger grandchildren lean against Kasim’s long black shawl. Children are skinny. His thinning hair is limp and faded to a dull orange from malnutrition.

Six months ago, after Somalia’s fourth consecutive rainy season failed, Kasim decided he needed to get his grandchildren out of his village because there was nothing left to eat.

“We were farmers and we also raised cattle,” says Kasim. “But the last three years there has been no rain, there has been drought. So we haven’t been able to grow our crops.”

Officially, the last five rainy seasons, spanning the last 2 1/2 years, have been far below normal.


A woman walks to collect water from a water station at a camp for displaced people in Baidoa on Tuesday.

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A woman walks to collect water from a water station at a camp for displaced people in Baidoa on Tuesday.

Lucas Dray for NPR

Kasim lost all his livestock. She was forced to sell some to buy food, and other animals died when their pastures withered in the drought.

When they had nothing left, Kasim packed up his grandchildren. Along with several neighbors, they started the nearly 170-mile journey to Baidoa.

“We walked and walked and walked,” she says.

The trip lasted several weeks. They begged for food along the way. His daughter – the mother of his grandchildren – had passed away several years earlier. So Kasim had to take care of all the kids herself.

There were six of them. Two, she says, died during the grueling journey.

“We had nothing to eat. So they starved to death,” she says. They buried the children on the side of the road.


Women collect water at a camp for displaced people in Baidoa.

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Women collect water at a camp for displaced people in Baidoa.

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Kasim and his neighbors were making this trip because they had heard that international relief agencies were distributing food aid in Baidoa. Relief groups are working here, but when Kasim and the children arrived, she says, they found there was not enough assistance. She and her children now beg in town or collect firewood to sell for food.

Somalia is on the verge of a full-scale famine

There is growing concern that a growing food crisis could lead to famine in Somalia. The food crisis is not just affecting the south of the country, although aid agencies warn that Baidoa is a part of the country that could fall into full-scale famine in the coming months.

“Somalia has had four rainy seasons in a row. It’s the worst drought we’ve seen in 40 years,” said Elizabeth Omoke, emergency specialist at UNICEF’s Somalia office in Mogadishu. “The situation is bad.”

Residents in many of the camps say they are not receiving much food assistance, but Omoke insists aid agencies are working to bring aid to Somalis left with almost nothing because of the drought.

“The humanitarian community is mounting a response, which is very focused on [internally displaced persons]”, she says. “The response is heavily focused on Baidoa, as data shows that is where the greatest needs are and where there is the greatest possibility of famine. The response in Baidoa has increased significantly since July. But depending on who you talk to, services are not enough. The needs are there – and the needs are overwhelming.”


“The needs are huge,” says Elizabeth Omoke, a UNICEF emergency specialist, on the roof of the UNICEF compound in Baidoa, Somalia, on Tuesday.

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“The needs are huge,” says Elizabeth Omoke, a UNICEF emergency specialist, on the roof of the UNICEF compound in Baidoa, Somalia, on Tuesday.

Lucas Dray for NPR

Baidoa is a city besieged by al-Shabab militants

Adding to the complexity of Somalia’s food crisis, the militant Islamist group Al-Shabab has banned international aid agencies or the government from distributing food aid in areas it controls. This includes much of the south.

All roads to Baidoa are controlled by Al-Shabab, forcing aid agencies to send most of their relief supplies. Humanitarian groups are even flying armored cars because it is too dangerous to fly them from Mogadishu, the capital, to Baidoa.

Meanwhile, the overwhelming needs mentioned by Omoke are increasing.


A mother waits in line for doctors to weigh her child at an outpatient clinic that monitors malnutrition at a camp for displaced people in Baidoa on Wednesday.

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A mother waits in line for doctors to weigh her child at an outpatient clinic that monitors malnutrition at a camp for displaced people in Baidoa on Wednesday.

Lucas Dray for NPR

At a basic health clinic at a camp in Baidoa, Dr. Ali Nur Mohamed says the number of severely malnourished children he treats has increased fivefold in the last six months.

“The situation is still critical,” says Nur. He says more and more families are moving into the fields every day. And most children who arrive “are already malnourished,” he says.

The clinic, run by the Deeg-roor Medical Organization’s aid group, is housed in a sheet-metal enclosure with an earthen floor. Mothers bring up children with thin arms. Some of the children struggle to keep their heads up.

Several malnourished children have died here recently, says Nur. Somalia has suffered two major famines in the last 30 years – in 1992 and 2011. The most recent famine killed nearly a quarter of a million people.


A child’s arm circumference is measured at a clinic in a camp for displaced people in Baidoa, Somalia. A measurement in red indicates that the child has “severe acute malnutrition”. Yellow means the child is at risk of acute malnutrition and green means the child is well nourished.

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A child’s arm circumference is measured at a clinic in a camp for displaced people in Baidoa, Somalia. A measurement in red indicates that the child has “severe acute malnutrition”. Yellow means the child is at risk of acute malnutrition and green means the child is well nourished.

Lucas Dray for NPR

While the current food crisis has yet to reach these proportions, the United Nations says more than 700 children died in nutrition centers in Somalia in the first eight months of this year.

Nur says that pediatric malnutrition can be easily treated, especially if caught early. Most malnourished children recover quickly, he says, if given fortified milk or high-calorie dietary supplements such as the Plumpy’Nut staple. Some just need a few extra cookies.

The problem, says Nur, is that many of the residents of these camps scattered around Baidoa have almost no food.

Abdinasir Abdullahi contributed to this report.

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