The most poignant sight, in the
vast sea of humanity that surrounds me, in among all the rags that flap, in the
unrelenting sandstorm, against thighs that are mere bones, is one little boy who
is wearing a pair of pink flip-flops.
These are girls’ shoes, with
little rosebuds and one remaining sequin dangling by a thread. They are far too
small for him, so end halfway along the sole of his foot, making it painful and
awkward to walk.
I have come to Dadaab to see for
myself the vast refugee camp on the border between Kenya and Somalia which has
become the magnet for victims fleeing the drought and famine in the Horn of
Africa. Millions are facing starvation, and more than 29,000 children under five
have died in the past 90 days alone.
It’s early morning, but already
40 degrees and the wind makes it feel as though I’m inside a giant hairdryer.
I am surrounded by children — there are 300,000 of them here, none of whom has
even the basic means to wash themselves or owns a pair of underpants. These
children, when they have the strength, use twigs to clean their teeth.
One tiny, filthy tot, like something out of a Dickens
novel, is scraping at her teeth in front of me. I ask how old she is, thinking
she is maybe four or five. She tells me she’s 13.
Last year, the average British
woman spent £2,055 a year on her face, hair and body. Men spent £1,154. Still
The chasm between our world and
the one I am visiting is brought starkly home to me when, shortly after arrival,
I feel tiny fingers probing my pocket. Immediately my hand shoots there. I’m
worried about my Blackberry, my electronic umbilical cord to the world I
I look down, and a little boy aged
three, called Hassan, is looking up at me with a great big snotty grimace.
He’s not about to steal my phone: he’s just trying to put his tiny fist in
In any case, I realise, my fears are ridiculous. Who would he call? What
would he look up on the internet? The fact the worst drought in 60 years has hit
his home, and he has had to walk for 28 days without food to get here? That
Hillary Clinton is arguing with Islamist militia group Al-Shabaab, who are
refusing to allow aid into Somalia?
He wouldn’t understand, because
I don’t understand, how it can be that this morning I left my hotel in
Nairobi, with its all-you-can-eat buffet, and eight hours later I’ve arrived
in a place that is pre-historic?
If I had found pterodactyls flying
above my head, I’d have been less bewildered.
I find myself staring at these
children’s feet — not because I’m wondering what they wear, but because
I’m too ashamed to meet their huge eyes.
I go in search of Hassan’s mum.
I have a crowd of children with me now. One little boy wears a football shirt as
a dress, with the word ‘Fabregas’ across his narrow back. I wonder what
he’d think if he knew how much footballers earn.
A little girl with tawny
highlights, which in the West are the height of chic but here denote severe
malnutrition, keeps doing an impression of me, hands on jutting hips, giving me
a toothy grin. I wonder how she can smile in such a place, when her home is a
makeshift teepee covered in plastic rubbish bags.
When I find her, Hassan’s mum,
40-year-old Jamilla, is sweeping her ‘front door’ with twigs, a pathetic
attempt at pride. She invites me, with my combat trousers and bottle of
antiseptic handwash, inside.
Jamilla tells me she walked with her five children for four weeks to get here. She demonstrates how she would bind her stomach with rope to quell the hunger pains.
She didn’t have the strength to
carry little Hassan, so he had to walk, too. Some days, he just wanted to lie
there and she would have to pull his matchstick arm — so narrow it might snap
— and he’d make a trail in the sand.
I think of the baby in the seat in front of me on the flight out from
London to Nairobi, with his papoose and brightly coloured changing mat and Wet
Ones, and a mum about to go on an eco-safari.
I hatch a plan to steal Hassan, put him in the back of my 4x4, and drive him somewhere safe. But why him, when there are horror stories wherever I turn?
I meet Salatho, who arrived this
morning with her three children aged seven, six and four. To save these three,
she left her three youngest children behind in her village of Dinor in Somalia
to die. I ask how on earth she could do that — leave her little ones behind?
My translator tells me she cannot
answer because Salatho has never been asked how she feels before. It turns out
that human emotion, grief, is the biggest luxury of all here.
This woman did what she had to do.
If she allowed herself that ultimate Western accessory depression, then she
would just lie down in the sand and die.
Then there’s 50-year-old Osman,
who has eight children clustered around him. His youngest, aged one, died on the
way here. Unable to walk any further, the family had hitched a lift in a truck.
The truck was so crowded that the baby had suffocated.
Another of Osman’s sons is blind
in one eye. Yet another has a hare lip.
That will never be mended, I
think, instinctively putting a hand to my facelift. I have tried to reverse the
signs of ageing: this boy will go through life, if he is lucky, with a gaping
window to the inside of his skull.
It is a savage irony that despite
the horrror of their circumstance, Somalis are probably the most naturally
beautiful women in the world. At the camp’s reception centre, where between
1,400 and 1,700 people queue every day at dawn to be allowed in, I see face
after face that reminds me of the supermodel Iman, who also came from Somalia.
The difference, of course, is that Iman escaped.
These women won’t look like her for much longer, desiccated as they are by the sun, exhausted by constant child-bearing. (There is no concept of contraception here.)
I tell Jamilla, with her tiny
waist, that women in the West strive to be thin. That if you are rich and
privileged in my society, you stay young and thin forever, and fit into tiny
clothes. She thinks I’m joking. She simply doesn’t believe me.
I tell her I used to starve myself to be beautiful. ‘I starve myself to
feed my children,’ she says. And then, puffing out her hollow cheeks, she
adds: ‘I thought everyone in the West was fat.’
‘Yes, that is true, too,’ I say — for what else can I
tell her? That our government spends millions trying to tackle the growing
problem of obesity? There is no way to explain to Jamilla how we live in the
West. We might as well inhabit not just a different century but a different
At 5pm, I climb into my
air-conditioned SUV — there is a strict curfew here — and am driven the few
hundred yards to the Save The Children compound.
In this camp, it’s the aid
workers who are the ones behind high fences and barbed wire — offering
protection from bandits and Islamist militia streaming over the porous border.
Every nationality is represented
here: groups from Norway, Sweden, France. It reminds me of MASH. Except in this
war, on hunger, it’s not clear who the enemy is: global warming, world
commodity prices, Al-Shabaab
The UN protection is necessary not
only to ensure the safety of the relief workers, but also to ensure the food
that arrives daily in giant World Food Programme lorries.
I admire their courage, though I
do wish the UN did not hose down its fleet of snowy SUVs every night. Not with a
drought on, surely? Not when no one thinks to give water to the donkeys — the
only other mode of transport.
But then compassion itself has
become a corporate affair. On arrival, I’d been given a set of rules: the half
million people in the camp are not called famine victims, but
‘beneficiaries’. I swiftly learn the charity-speak: an OVC is an ‘orphan
or vulnerable child’; a POC a ‘person of concern’.
Talk in the UN High Commission for
Refugees bar that night is of the extreme demands of the press, celebrities and
dignitaries who are clamouring to come here. Kristin Davis caused a stir here a
week or so ago, and Angelina Jolie is expected soon. The most high-maintenance
VIP so far has been the President of Kenya. He required a red carpet and an
It’s easy to be cynical —
especially when you’re sitting safely at home. But people in the UK have been
the most generous in the world, giving £45 million in just four weeks.
The relief effort needs many millions more. Will it — can it — make a
difference in a region where famine seems, well, so wearily familiar?
The next morning, I drive out with
my armed guard to see where our money is being spent. We arrive at one of the
three feeding stations. Every day, at each feeding station, 20,000 people are
given the basics of rice, flour, sugar, pulses, oil and tiny bags of sugar.
Despite the widespread criticism
that the U.S. has not responded to this crisis, every single sack I see is
stamped with the Stars and Stripes and the words ‘From the American People’.
One of Save The Children’s
biggest expenses is to give each mother with a child between six months and a
year a voucher for fruit and vegetables, in an effort to stamp out the ancient
affliction of scurvy. (It’s the old-fashioned diseases that kill here. Measles
is aother one.)
Each ‘beneficiary’ has a card,
with a bar code, which means no one ever gets more than their fair share. Even
so, a loud fight breaks out among the men, and the women, despite their burkas,
weigh in too. A tiny child is dragging a sack bigger than she is.
I think of Sainsbury’s on a
Saturday morning, trolleys piled with ready meals. A little girl, whose mum is
unwrapping a blanket, is handed a set of primitive cooking utensils. She gives a
tired little jig. You’d think it were Christmas morning and she’d been given
I climb back into the car. The
Save The Children worker comes to see if I am OK. I tell her I can’t take it
any more. How can this still be happening? After Live Aid and Live8?
This refugee camp has been here
since 1992, which is when the last famine struck this region. It was built to
shelter 90,000 people, but the current population is more than 400,000, with
thousands of new arrivals crammed into areas outside, waiting to be admitted.
And this is just one camp. In
total, the UN estimates that 3.2 million Somalis need ‘immediate
life-saving assistance’, including 1.25 million children.
Can aid ever make things better?
Or does it simply make benighted nations hooked on hand-outs and prop up wicked
dictators? There are no easy answers. But you try explaining compassion fatigue
in a place like this.
We drive to another compound. This
one is very quiet. It is home to a clinic run with money given by the German
people. I lift open the canvas and step inside. It is stiflingly hot, and eerily
I count about 30 thin mattresses
on the dirt floor, with a pile of rags on each — which turns out to be a mum
holding a baby. The babies make no sound: they’ve already learned there is no
point in crying. Fatima arrived today with Ayan. He is two years old but weighs
just 6 kg. He has not eaten for 15 days.
Another child, like an alien,
tries to stand on her bed — but she falls down; again and again. She lies
down, her face on the dirty blanket, unable to lift it.
Next, I notice Dahiro — mainly
because she has such a beautiful face. She is only 23 but already has three
children. I look at her gnarled bare feet, like those of an 80-year-old, and
tuck my own beneath my combats.
‘I could no longer breastfeed, so I gave my daughter water,
and now she has diarrhoea,’ she tells me. The doctor lifts seven-month-old
Khadi and takes her to be weighed. The baby’s huge eyes are wide with terror;
she does not have enough fluid to make tears.
Whatever the cause of the famine,
whatever the politics, we surely cannot look the other way.
The next day, I walk across the
makeshift airstrip to catch a UN flight out of here. I don’t think I will ever
say I am starving again. Or thirsty, or miserable. I close my eyes as the plane
lifts off, not wanting to see the thousands of tiny graves on the ground below.
But there is one face that simply
will not disappear. It belongs to Shuhiti, who is 15 and arrived, like so many
children, at the camp on her own. Sitting in the dust, she told me her story.
Shuhiti lost her entire family in
Mogadishu in 2008, as Islamist guerillas battled government troops for control
of the city. She had been sent to the shops, and when she returned her house had
been hit by an explosion. A suicide car-bomber had targeted the area nearby, and
her parents, brothers and sisters were all burned alive.
The fighting escalated, and
finally the famine came. And so she walked for days and days to get here — the
place she longed to reach and I can’t wait to leave.
I ask what she wants for herself
in the future. ‘A calm place,’ she says. ‘I can still hear my parents’
As I drove away, she put her hand
to the car window and begged me to take her with me. As she became smaller in
the wing mirror, she already looked like a ghost.