As the last bit of life drained from his frail body, Ahmed Nur was still tethered to an intravenous tube. His father brushed his fingers over the boy's eyes to close the motionless eyelids. He gently pulled a sheet over his son's face and removed the tube from his thin arm.
"Don't cry, don't cry," the neighbours said to his mother, Khadijo Mumin. "God gave him to you, and God is taking him back."
But she wailed with grief, even as they hugged her. "I'm losing all my children now," she said through her tears.
Of her five children, two have perished since Sunday, and two more are lying sick and weak in the same Mogadishu hospital room where eight-year-old Ahmed slowly faded away on Monday.
Ms. Mumin and her dying family, who have trekked from camp to camp in search of food for the past year, are an omen of a much greater disaster that threatens to come. The United Nations announced on Monday that four million Somalis – more than half of country's population – are now living in famine zones, and 750,000 are at risk of death within the next few months.
Tens of thousands have already died in the famine this year, killed by a lethal combination of protracted drought, decades of war, and a ban on food aid by Islamist extremists who control most of southern Somalia. Across much of East Africa, including Kenya and Ethiopia, more than 12 million people are in desperate need of food aid.
"The latest round of surveys shows a continuing deterioration in Somalia," said Mark Bowden, the UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Somalia. "More people are in need of assistance and in some areas there has been a deepening of the crisis. … We cannot underestimate the scale of this crisis and we cannot afford to let our guard down."
Hundreds of people are dying every day in southern Somalia because of the famine, and at least half of the victims are children, the UN said.
A sixth region of Somalia, the Bay region in the south, has been included on the list of famine zones in the country. This adds about 350,000 people to the 3.7 million who were already in famine zones. In the Bay region, nearly 60 per cent of people are acutely malnourished – four times more than the threshold for an emergency.
Famines, relatively rare in Africa in recent years, are officially declared when at least 30 per cent of children are suffering from acute malnutrition, food supplies are far less than adequate, and two adults (or four children) are dying of hunger daily in every group of 10,000 people.
Emergency conditions are expected to persist in Somalia until the early months of 2012, if not longer. Within a few weeks, the rainy season will begin in Somalia, heightening the risk of cholera, measles and malaria, which are already contributing to the death toll.
As the famine deepens, more than half a million people have been displaced from their homes. They have travelled huge distances, often on foot, to seek haven in refugee camps in northern Kenya or in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, where nearly 200 camps are dotted around the city. Most of the displaced families are living precariously in makeshift shelters of sticks, twigs, plastic bags and empty food sacks.
Fadumo Hashi and her 10 children fled last month from the port city of Kismayu, controlled by the radical Islamist militia known as al-Shabab, which has banned any food aid by international relief agencies. "If you die, they don't care," she said. "They're against the government, so they don't allow any food aid."
For 17 days, the family trudged along the 400-kilometre road to Mogadishu. By day, food was scarce, and the children grew weaker. By night, they slept outside, quaking in fear of hyenas.
As their food and water supplies ran low, two of the children died. "I was too weak to bury them," Ms. Hashi said. "I had to keep walking. We just left them in an open space and someone else buried them."
They finally reached Mogadishu last Friday and found space in a fast-growing new camp for displaced people. They eat twice a day – small meals of corn-and-soybean porridge or cooked rice provided by relief agencies. Her children are begging on the streets for food. At night, they sometimes hear the distant noise of gunfire as al-Shabab insurgents continue to battle African peacekeeping troops on the outskirts of the city.
The children sleep in their tiny hut on a thin mat, lent to them by a friend. But now their friend is reclaiming the mat, leaving them to sleep on the dusty ground. "These are the last clothes I have," Ms. Hashi says, pointing to her sleeve. "I'm at zero, I have nothing."
Every morning, sick children are carried into Banadir Hospital in Mogadishu, mostly from the dozens of camps for displaced families. Many have symptoms of measles or severe malnutrition – or both. Many are skeletal infants or young children, their eyes wide and their limbs as thin as sticks. The official diagnosis on their hospital charts is "severe wasting."
In a special ward for malnourished children, some infants of three or four months are still at their birth weight. When they die, nobody can even be sure whether they died of malaria or measles or some other illness.
"Sometimes you don't know why they die – their system has totally broken down," said Yasmin Hiller, a nurse at Banadir Hospital who works for a German relief agency. "Their immunity is hugely low."
CONTRIBUTIONS WORTH DOUBLE UNTIL SEPT. 16
The UN has received just under 60 per cent of the $1.1 billion (U.S.) it requested to respond to the emergency. Canada has contributed $72.35-million. It has also established the East Africa Drought Relief Fund, with which the government will match each dollar Canadians contribute by Sept . 16 to registered Canadian charities responding to the East Africa drought.
Eligible organizations include:
- The Canadian Red Cross
- CARE Canada
- Oxfam Canada
- Action against Hunger
- World Vision Canada
- Plan Canada
- UNICEF Canada