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‘We’re left to die of snake bites, hunger, disease’: Somalia’s people of the drought – a picture essay


Photographs by Gary Calton for the Guardian
by Tracy McVeigh in Galmudug
Friday December 2, 2022


Degaan camp, one of the 74 camps outside housing a total of 130,000 people outside Galkayo town in Galmudug regio

Out on the red earth plain, scattered with shards of thorny shrub, the graves are shallow. Not even a strong, well fed man or woman could dig far into this baked ground.

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There are a few concrete marker stones with names scratched on and dates of death in the past month or so, but most are simple mounds of earth patted into shape over whoever lies below, and topped with bouquets of thorns. This morning, Minhaad Abdi Khalif was buried here, in a row, it looks like, of mostly children. But already the grave appears timelessly embedded in the landscape.


Fadum Mohamoud Gure, who is looking after her grandchildren after the death of her daughter, Minhaad Abdi Khalif

Her daughter had been very stressed, says Fadum Mohamoud Gure, who lived with her at the displaced persons (IDP) camp at Xaarxaar, south of Galkayo town in the region of Galmudug. Gure believes it was high blood pressure that killed her 38-year-old daughter, who was worried sick about the lack of food for her hungry children. She had no medication for the condition, and was seventh of 12 siblings to die prematurely.

Minhaad’s 10 orphaned children sit on the ground around their grandmother, ranging in age from eight months to the eldest boy of 12. “She was a cattle farmer and came here when the cattle all died from the drought. Her first husband had died of cancer and her second died nine months ago. I don’t know why,” says Gure, who is 80, rocking the sharp-cheeked baby.

“Sometimes they eat and sometimes they don’t,” she says. “They drink water if they can and they try to sleep. We can sleep but the children cannot sleep because their hunger makes them scratch their bodies and then they wake up.”

Last year two other grandchildren, aged two and three, died of measles. Like pneumonia, measles preys on the weakness of a malnourished child. Around Galkayo town there are 74 camps and in this camp, which houses more than 10,000 people, children are dying. Acute malnutrition rates are running at 52% among under 5s, the highest in Somalia, and this region is on the brink of famine.

Asked how many funerals she has attended this year, Gure shakes her head: “A lot.”

Bashir Abshir Jama is a single father to Mohamed, four. He has been sitting in South Galkayo Hospital for three days with his 11-year-old daughter, Yusur, helplessly watching fever rack the body of the malnourished boy, who lies under a mosquito net hung askew over a mattress.

“Only God knows what will happen,” he says. “The children are my priority, of course, but finding work is hard. Sometimes you earn a little money, sometimes you don’t.”

The hospital has a stabilisation centre for malnutrition cases with severe complications, supported by the UN children’s agency (Unicef). Asked if he blames abaar – the drought – for Mohamed’s condition, his father shrugs. “The drought is everywhere, this place is no different, nowhere is any different. There is no place to go where there is not drought.” As of Wednesday, Mohamed’s condition remained critical.

Hani Ali Osman has just arrived at Degaan IDP camp east of Galkayo town. The single mother is with her three-year-old son, Suliman, who is disabled although no one has ever given her a name for his condition. About 700 people are already at the camp, having left homes and farms hundreds of miles away because of the drought. The food that is available has risen 125% in price since February, aggravating the severe hunger and child malnutrition. Osman has come from Beledweyne in Hiran district, which has seen a rise in attacks by Al-Shabaab militants and where drought has scraped the earth clean of plants and animals.

“There was no one to support me there so I came here. I was told there was food here,” she says. Suliman has been given protein paste at the medical tent and other women have gathered to help find them a place to sleep.

“[Osman] is vulnerable and so the community will make a contribution to help her. If we have space we will host her in our shelters,” says Malyaun Osman Omar. “It is best for her to stay here because some of the other camps have no toilets and lots of women get raped when they go to the bush.”


Malyaun Osman Omar (right) with her daughter, Khadro Qalbi Abdullah, and her grandchildren

Omar is from the same area and clan as the young mother but she has her own worries because her daughter is severely depressed. Khadro Qalbi Abdullah’s mental health has deteriorated since her husband divorced her and left her alone with their four children, says Omar. Last week neighbours rescued her after she tried to burn down a shelter around her; they brought her here to her mother.

“She has a kettle,” says Omar, getting upset and covering her eyes briefly with her scarf. “That is it. That is all she has, she doesn’t even have a mat to sleep on. Last night she wandered off and left the children here alone.”

In the camps around Galkayo there is little evidence of any food. About 130,000 people are living in mostly empty shelters with bare earth floors, though a few people have sleeping mats or tarpaulins and many have brought a kettle.

Mohamud Adan Barte has built a raised platform for the sleeping mat of his 90-year-old mother, who is blind. He has seen too many puff adders slither through the tent to where Maryam Mohamud Gutale sleeps, and says he knows of five deaths in the camp from snake bites.


Mohamud Adan Barte sits by the platform bed he made to protect his mother, Maryam Mohamud Gutale, from snakes

Barte, 65, is proud of his former life as a businessman dealing in livestock, and of the cement house that he built for his family. This is the first time he has been in an IDP. “This is the worst I have seen. The drought has borne down on the animals and left us like this – without any food. We came here two months ago but it is only a poor shelter we can build here. People come and register our names and ask questions but no one has anything to give us.

“My mother sleeps all the time and I am close to being blind, too, as my own eyesight is fading. It seems we are people left to die of snake bites and hunger and disease.”

Nafiso Mohamed Osman, 37, arrived in Degaan camp three days ago and has not managed to find a shelter for herself and her children. She is pregnant and feels nauseous from hunger. “I left my village because of the drought and was in a camp near Mogadishu, but my husband has gone and I left because of the explosions. I know no one here and I’m scared because there’s no food. But at least there are no explosions.”

Sadaf Asdinasir Hasi is receiving antibiotics to fight a severe infection in his leg. The 20-year-old was bitten by a snake two months ago in Degaan IDP camp. He and his family had travelled 150km (93 miles) to get here, fleeing the conflict and drought in their village, where Al-Shabaab militants forcibly recruit young men like Hasi.


A young girl shows her foot, disfigured due to constantly walking barefoot

Snake bites are one of the dangers of living in the camps, which are erected on plains where puff adders and other poisonous vipers live. The camp’s doctors have no antivenom and much of the skin on Hasi’s right leg has been destroyed by an infection caused by the bite, leaving him with a large open wound. He needs a skin graft or he could end up losing the leg, but he has no way of finding the $200 (£168) fare to travel the 750km (466 miles) to the hospital in Mogadishu.

Nuro Yusef is a 60-year-old birth attendant who says she has delivered about 500 babies in the Xaarxaar camp in the 18 months since she arrived here. “Babies are much smaller than normal now. A lot of pregnant women are aborting in the first trimester. The women are very hungry, so when they are giving birth they are very weak. They have a lot of difficulty getting their milk to come.


Nuro Yusef, a midwife in the Xaarxaar camp

“But the big problem in the camps is that there is so little protection, especially at night,” she says. “There are no lights, no fences and violence and rape against women is a problem. When women go to fetch water or look for firewood or even to the toilet. If there is a rape or attempted rape, it is impossible to find the perpetrator and the men who do this know that.”



 





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