DADAAB, Kenya — Malnutrition stole most of Habibo’s eyesight and left the 1-year-old close to death. Medical personnel tried to pump life back into the toddler, but she only moved when her stomach fitfully spasmed.
As her mother tried to feed her, her frail hands tried to resist the small cup placed between her lips.
“My prayer is ‘God, heal my daughter,'” said Habibo’s mother, Marwo Maalin, in a resigned tone earlier this week.
East Africa’s drought is battering Somali children, hundreds of whom have been left for dead on the long, dry journey to the world’s largest refugee camp.
UNICEF on Thursday called the Somalia drought and resulting refugee crisis “the most severe humanitarian emergency in the world.” The international Red Cross also warned that one in 10 children in southern Somali suffer from acute malnutrition.
Thousands of Somalis are walking days and sometimes weeks to reach the refugee complex known as Dadaab, in hopes of finding food. But the journey is claiming untold numbers of children as victims.
Young, lifeless bodies abandoned by their parents lie on the sandy path to the camp. In other cases parents perish during the journey, leaving children in the wilderness, alone.
UNICEF says that more than a half million Somali children face life-threatening conditions with long-lasting consequences for their physical and mental development.
For example, Habibo was suffering from a lack of vitamin A, which can lead to permanent blindness, according to Dr. Luana Lima of Medecins Sans Frontieres which was treating her.
The U.N.’s refugee agency says about 40 percent of the Somali children arriving at Dadaab are malnourished.
“We are finding children who are arriving in very poor conditions. It is clear that families are waiting until the last moment to leave their homes, once they exhausted all their resources,” said Allison Oman, a UNHCR nutritionist.
Somalia’s most dangerous militant group, al-Shabab, began banning aid groups from operating in the territories it controls in southern Somalia in mid-2009. Because of the severity of need in Somalia, though, the al-Qaida-linked group this month dropped the ban and said aid groups could return.
On Wednesday, UNICEF made what appears to be the first outside aid drop by air to the al-Shabab-controlled town of Baidoa, flying in 5 metric tons of food, clean water equipment and medicine.
The agency said the health supplies would provide materials for 10 health facilities and reach up to 100,000 people over three months.
“We are ready to work anywhere in Somalia, provided we get unhindered access to reach the most vulnerable children in need” said Rozanne Chorlton, the UNICEF representative to Somalia.
UNICEF has been operating in south-central Somalia, including Baidoa, but hadn’t been able to use the airstrip.
However, UNICEF spokeswoman Iman Morooka said that it coordinated with the community there, including elders and civil society members, and that they received clearance from “local authorities” for a flight to land there.
Asked if “local authorities” was a euphemism for al-Shabab, Morooka said yes.
Back at Kenya’s Dadaab camps – a sprawling complex filled with makeshift homes of sticks and tarps – more than 380,000 people have crammed into a camp built for just 90,000.
An already built camp that can house about 40,000 people, named Ifo, lies unused. Kenyan Prime Minster Raila Odinga visited the camp Thursday and said it would be allowed to open. A UNHCR official at Dadaab, Fafa Attidzah, said the government’s change in position was a big relief.
“We are just happy and again we are thankful and we are grateful to the Kenyan government and to the Kenyan people for having allowed these refugees who are suffering to have a little bit of dignity by having somewhere they where they could be accommodated” Attidzah said.
Andrew Wander, a spokesman for Save the Children, said his agency provides care to more than 300 unaccompanied children who were found on roadsides after their parents died or abandoned them. More children have died in Dadaab in the first four months of the year than all of last year.
More than 1,000 people are arriving here every day in search of help. They are funneled to the Dagahaley camp, where MSF’s facility is receiving 15 malnourished children a day.
The facility director, Dr. Edward Chege, said 13 children died of malnutrition in the hospital last month alone, the highest one-month toll since MSF opened its doors here in 2009.
“Dagahaley camp is going through a nutritional emergency,” said Chege. “There is a fear that if the rate remains the same we may not get spaces to accommodate all these children.”