Mothers bury their children for fear of famine in Somalia

Faced with starvation, Hassan took her remaining eight children with her and began a 15-day journey to reach the capital of Mogadishu. Near the end of the journey, her two-year-old daughter collapsed and died. They buried her along the way.

“I cried so much that I passed out,” she said. But we have so many problems. We don’t have food or shelter.”

Sitting on a plastic chair at the International Rescue Committee (IRC) clinic in Mogadishu, Hassan is expressionless with fatigue as the doctor examines the tiny girl curled up in her lap.

Her daughter Muslimo is 18 months old but weighs just over 10 pounds. The paper skin is tautly stretched over the protruding ribs. She doesn’t cry. The doctor measures her tiny forearm. The tape shows red, indicating severe malnutrition.

Ijabou Hassan sits in an ambulance waiting for help she couldn't get at home.

The clinic has seen an 80 percent spike in cases in the last month alone and a staggering 265 percent rise in severe malnutrition in children under 5, according to IRC Senior Nutrition Manager Mukhtar Mahdi.

“We have never seen levels like this before in our clinic. This breaks my heart. That’s why I’m still working in the field to prevent disaster.”

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Somalia has been here before. In 2011 hunger claimed more than 250,000 lives. In 2017, another famine was averted thanks to an influx of aid from the international community and the Somali government, which vowed it would never happen again.
But this year, the country is in for the perfect storm. Four unsuccessful rainy seasons in a row and the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic have plunged this country into crisis. Then the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its blockade of Ukrainian wheat exports disrupted the global supply chain. Sanctions against Russia have sent fuel and food prices skyrocketing, threatening to push Somalia to the brink.

Mohamud Mohamed Hassan, regional director of Save the Children, says the situation is worse than ever before.

“92% of the wheat that is consumed in Somalia comes from Russia and Ukraine,” he said. “Wheat prices have doubled in some areas.”

“The war in Ukraine really exacerbated this situation.”

Further exacerbating the problem is the fact that the attention of the whole world is riveted on the conflict in Ukraine. According to the UN, less than a third of the $1.46 billion needed for Somalia was provided.

“What is happening in Ukraine is understandably absorbing a lot of oxygen,” explained Lara Fossey, Deputy Director of the World Food Programme. “So drawing attention to what’s going on here was really difficult.”

Fatima Abdullahi reaches out to touch her 8-month-old daughter Abdi, who has been hospitalized due to severe malnutrition.  Doctors say that she, like the vast majority of patients whom they detect in time and are able to treat, will recover.

According to the UN, about 7 million people, almost half of Somalia’s population, are malnourished. An estimated 1.5 million children under the age of 5 suffer from acute malnutrition, and about 448 people have died this year. Relief workers warn that the real number is likely much higher than the number of deaths of many children here, such as those of Hassan, remain unreported.

On the outskirts of the capital, a fierce wind blows through the makeshift tents at the newly established Al-Naim camp. It is one of many informal settlements that spring up and then receive limited support from the neighboring community, government, and relief groups. Camp administrator Zamzam Mohammed says the population has mushroomed over the past month, with 876 families now living there.

Camp leader Zamzam Mohammed is responsible for helping the families and burying their dead.

This is just a fraction of the roughly 800,000 people displaced this year by drought and famine, according to the UN. A record 36,000 newcomers arrived in camps across Somalia in the last week of June, according to UNICEF. The agency and its local partner organization are working to improve sanitation and distribution of aid in Naima and other camps on the outskirts of Mogadishu, but say they are struggling to keep up.

UNICEF’s Victor Chinyama says local communities around Mogadishu, known for their support of newcomers, are currently fighting with themselves. “Host communities cannot support newcomers as they used to, however much they want to,” he said.

Little is available to mark graves.

Camp director Mohammed walks to the edge of the camp, where she says she watched the funeral of 30 children. Mounds of freshly dug earth, marked simply by aloe leaves and acacia twigs, are dotted with a dotted line.

“From that corner to this, this line of graves is all children… You feel such pain, sadness when you bury a baby. There is nothing you can do to help. I am a mother and I can feel their pain as a parent,” said Mohammed .

She takes off her handkerchief to wipe the tears from her eyes.

About 500 yards away, Nurta Ali Humi sits outside his tent. Three of her children are among those buried here. They all suffered from malnutrition and died after measles infection in the camp. She has yet to visit their graves.
Nurta Ali Hyumi only has the strength to take care of his living daughter.  She has yet to visit the graves of the three children she lost.

“I can’t walk,” she told CNN. “The grief that I would have experienced…”

She pauses and turns her attention to her little daughter sitting next to her.

“She was very sick. I’ll visit them when she gets better.”