DESPERATE: Women carry firewood back to a makeshift camp on the outskirts of the city of Baidoa, in south-western Somalia, where thousands arrive daily, fleeing drought and famine. Pictures: AFP
DESPERATE: Women carry firewood back to a makeshift camp on the outskirts of the city of Baidoa, in south-western Somalia, where thousands arrive daily, fleeing drought and famine. Pictures: AFP
DISPLACED: A child stands at the entrance of a hut at a camp on the outskirts of Baidoa, Somalia.
DISPLACED: A child stands at the entrance of a hut at a camp on the outskirts of Baidoa, Somalia.
Mariam Ibrahim, her seven children and two neighbouring families were the last to leave their village in south-western Somalia.

They loaded their combined belongings – blankets, cooking pots, sleeping mats, jerry cans, clothes – onto a hired donkey cart and walked beside it for 20km to Baidoa, the closest city.

“There is nobody left now."

Ibrahim, 28, joined thousands of others arriving in Baidoa each day, staggering from the parched countryside into the garrison city, cloaked in rags and dust.

Clusters of stick and cloth domes are appearing across the outskirts of Somalia’s regional capital.

Somali and Ethiopian soldiers – part of an AU force – secure the town against the al-Qaeda-aligned al-Shabaab militants, whose control begins just 15km away.

Successive seasons of poor rains and failed harvests have left farming families like Ibrahim’s destitute and on the brink of famine. The UN is warning of an unprecedented global crisis with famine already gripping parts of South Sudan and looming over Nigeria, Yemen and Somalia, threatening the lives of 20 million.

For Somalis, the memory of the 2011 famine which left a quarter of a million people dead is still fresh.

But Ibrahim said what is happening now feels worse.

First the food ran out, then the wells emptied. When her village of Aliyow Mumin suffered an outbreak of cholera in late January, Ibrahim decided to leave.

Born into famine

Muslima Kusow was born into famine 25 years ago and survived 2011 but this year’s drought forced her to abandon her home for the first time. She left the farming village of Roobey earlier this month, trekking four days with her six children to Baidoa.

Asked why, Kusow feathers four slender fingers down her throat to mime swallowing, then holds out an empty hand: “Thirst. Hunger.”

Her youngest child, 2-year-old Asiba, is skinny and pale and lacks the strength to hold her head upright.

At the Deeg-Roor Medical Organisation – the name means “first rains” – Abdirahim Mohamed says new outpatients are registering for the Unicef-backed feeding programme at an exponential rate.

DISPLACED: A child stands at the entrance of a hut at a camp on the outskirts of Baidoa, Somalia.

Last month, 75 children were admitted to the clinic, more than double the number in January and a figure he predicts will double again this month.

The worst cases – youngsters too weak to feed, or those suffering from outbreaks of cholera that have killed 286 and infected over 11 000 nationwide this year – are taken to the city hospital.

‘Hungry all the time’

Inside, cholera patients lie on blankets on the concrete floor or on metal bed frames, attached to intravenous drips.

Tuk-tuks race in disgorging new victims. Visitors are sprayed with chlorine on the way out.

In the intensive care unit of the hospital’s malnutrition centre, nine beds are packed into a hot, dim room, occupied by mothers with their slowly recovering children.

Hamsia Ibrahim, 32, swirls breast milk in a plastic bowl before trickling it into a syringe and feeding it, through a nasal tube, into the stomach of her 7-month-old daughter Shamso.

Her husband and five other children stay in a makeshift camp for the recently uprooted where they arrived last month.

“My other children are hungry all the time, but they are not sick like this,” she said of Shamso.

A local businessman handed out cooked food at the camp a week ago: “That was the last time we had three meals in a day.”

The growth of the camps is accelerating.

The UN records new arrivals by the household and says 2929 arrived in the first week of this month. The figure for the whole of last month was 3967.

The average household is estimated to number six people meaning roughly 2500 people are arriving in Baidoa every day.

‘The time of dying’

By mid-afternoon in the camps, the temperature tilts towards 40°C, a hot wind conjures dust devils and thorny trees provide little shade.

Everyone is hungry at ADC-3, a camp named, ironically, after Somalia’s defunct Agricultural Development Corporation that used to distribute surplus grain.

Children lie listless in their families’ tattered huts waiting to see if there will be anything to eat today, apart from the cup of sugary black tea that passed for breakfast.

Slowly, purposefully Habibo Abdo walked into the camp looking for her relatives. The old, frail woman had walked for two days with nothing to eat or drink and collapsed in the dirt after taking a deep draught of water.

With meteorologists pessimistic about the prospect of rain, hope is scarce. In this part of Somalia, the country’s traditional breadbasket where surpluses of sorghum once grew, the 2011 famine is known as “the time of dying”.

This year does not yet have a name. – AFP