The drought gripping East Africa has put more than 10 million lives at risk. BBC’s Anne Mawathe talks with host Marco Werman about the crisis. She’s spending time with refugees who’ve trekked across the desert seeking aid.
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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and this is The World, a coproduction of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. A devastating drought is gripping the Horn of Africa region and has put more than 10 million people at risk. There’s been little rain for the second straight year in an area where the borders of Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya meet. That sent tens of thousands of refugees on long treks toward crowded cramps in Kenya and Ethiopia. More than a thousand arrive in those camps on foot each day. The BBC’s Anne Mawathe is in the town of Dadaab, in eastern Kenya, near the border with Somalia. Anne, you spent several days with drought refugees in the camps there on the border. These people we understand have walked for days across the desert to get aid? What shape are they in?
Anne Mawathe: Most of them are malnourished. We’ve seen women too weak even to take care of their own children. We saw at one of the camps, I saw a woman who had a child who had died on her back, and she didn’t know, she was still cueing to get registered at the refugee camp. And that’s just one of the challenges that they have to face once they cross the border, because most of them cross with the notion that once they come in they’re going to get food and aid, they’re going to get shelter as soon as they get here. But it can take as long as 12 days to first get food once you’ve come into the refugee camps. Now, today, I went to a town very close to the border of Kenya and Somalia, this is a border town, it’s called Liboi. And along the way we met women, we met children, we met men walking toward the refugee camp. Some of them told us that they’d been walking for 40 days. Some of them have been walking for more than that. And these were families who have very small children. One of the women gave birth yesterday night and all she had taken was black tea, that’s all she had. And then she tied a piece of cloth around her waist and she said she was too weak, so she did not even breast feed that child.
Werman: Anne, why does it take so long to get that food to those refugees once they arrive in those camps? I mean 122 days, that’s a long time?
Mawathe: The problem is overcrowding. I mean there are 30,000 refugees who have arrived at the refugee camp and are living on the periphery; they do not even have proper shelter. We saw one who had just arrived and was making a very…the house that we saw was made of tree branches and she didn’t even have material to cover that house with, she’d just arrived. And whatever she had was some yellow containers of water that the refugees that have been here much longer had given her. Most of them also are depending on most of them that have been here much longer to give them food, to give them water, at least some form of help.
Werman: You know, aid groups, Anne, are comparing this drought to the one that hit the Horn of Africa in the early 1990s. In the way you’re describing it I can see the comparison. What are people saying about what’s going to happen this time?
Mawathe: You know there’s so much hope within these people that they believe that once they get into the refugee camps that this is the promised land. But, what I’ve seen and what…the stories they’re telling us, we heard a story of a mother who left a child along the way because the child was too weak to walk, was sick, and she had other children that she had to cross the border with. And she decided to leave this child on the other side of the border. And she was talking about how she still sees the eyes of this child staring at her and the guilt that she feels now that she has arrived here. Most of them are not even talking about the devastation that they are facing along the way and what shocked me was the way they pushed through their stories, their journey into the refugee camps, in a very detached way. I asked one of the doctors who said that that is one of the signs of trauma. I mean after you’ve given up everything that you have and now you’ve crossed onto this side of the border, and you find that actually what you are coming to is actually nothing, and you have to wait for another 12 days, perhaps even longer, for you to get food aid.
Werman: You spoke of the security situation back in Somalia. Our listeners will remember that much of Somalia is controlled by the Islamist rebels known as al-Shabab, and they in fact band aid groups from working in the territory they controlled back in 2009. But now they’ve reversed that decision. Is aid now getting to the areas under control by these insurgents?
Mawathe: I think it will take time for that to take effect, even for the aid agencies to organize themselves around this new decision that has been made by al-Shabab. It’s not as easy as just waking up one day and deciding now they are going into Somalia. Because even if they said they are going to Somalia to give aid there, there are no structures — there’s not one point where they can get people to come and collect this aid. And also, there’s also a little bit of skepticism because we talked to one of the new arrivals, the ones walking toward the refugee camp. And they said they’d been stopped by al-Shabab militia along the way and they’d been told to stay within Somalia, that it is better to die within their country, and to pray — pray that the rains will come. So, yes, al-Shabab might have said that it’s okay that aid agencies can go in, but on t he ground we are hearing mixed reactions to that announcement by the group.
Werman: The BBC’s Anne Mawathe in the town of Dadaab, on the Kenya-Somalia border. Thank you very much, Anne.
Mawathe: Thank you.
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