Somalia is in ruins. Much of Mogadishu, its capital city, lies in a state of pockmarked, decrepit disrepair. International aid agencies struggle to find efficient ways to help a population living in a perpetual state of insecurity and violence. Food distribution is interrupted by gun battles by greedy militias stealing from the poor and weak, and donations are routinely looted upon arrival at the airport. It is almost impossible for foreigners to move around to provide aid without hiring their own militias to avoid kidnapping.
Drought has plagued the Horn of Africa, and the U.N. estimates that while thousands have already died from hunger, three quarters of a million more might still perish from starvation in Somalia if sufficient aid doesn’t reach them in time. It is hard to grasp the scope of a famine so far away. In the U.S., we struggle to fight obesity in our youth while children in Kenya and Somalia, and throughout the Horn of Africa, die daily from malnutrition or complications from malnutrition due to a weakened immune system.
In Mogadishu, Banadir Hospital had run out of beds. A scattering of patients were lying on the steps outside and in the main foyer, IVs poking into their fragile wrists. Inside, down a long hall to the right, wan mothers sat over their limp children under bug nets, their eyes hollowed by days, sometimes weeks, of diarrhea, dehydration, and malnutrition. Others suffered from measles. In a waiting room, families laid their children out two, three to a bed, while others were sprawled out on the floor. Dirty water leaked into the halls, and garbage littered the floors. There were few doctors around.
Upstairs, in the ward reserved for the malnourished, beds and floors were jammed with more children, more mothers, and some fathers. Desperate mothers, trying to compensate for the absence of trained doctors, jammed syringes full of milk into feeding tubes duct-taped onto their children’s faces and through their noses. They were given instructions on how to feed their children and left to their own instincts.
In the fourth room on the left, a woman named Rukayo and her sister, Lu, prayed over Rukayo’s dying son, Abbas Nishe, as his eyes rolled back into his head, and his rib cage bounced up and down. He was taking his last breaths. In the midst of his labored breathing, Rukayo and Lu decided he was not going to survive and started closing his eyes, his mouth, trying to save him from suffering any longer. They began to wrap up their things to take him home for burial—though he was still alive. The other mothers in the room protested, begging them to let him live as long as God willed. When I returned the next morning, they were all gone.
At the cemetery outside one of the makeshift camps for the internally displaced, where thousands live in tents pieced together by ragged fabric and pieces of tarp and plastic, I visited three homes with half-dead children with full-blown measles. They barely opened their eyes at the sound of my camera’s shutter. A father walked past me holding his son wrapped in a floor mat—his second son to die in two days from measles. I followed him to the cemetery, where handfuls of men dug graves for the newest victims of Somalia’s famine. Five children were buried that morning, and the gravediggers convinced me this is nothing: usually, there are many more.
I watched several children die in the Somali refugee camps in Kenya and Somalia in August. A woman named Fatuma, eight months pregnant with her third child, sat over her two daughters for five days in a Doctors Without Borders clinic in the Dadaab camp, futilely trying to revive them. On the fourth and fifth days I was there, her two daughters died.