Published on
The Associated Press

Fighting Fractures Families in Somalia

Children Lost to Hunger, Chaos

Katharine Houreld

AFGOYE, Somalia - Aid workers are calling it Africa's biggest humanitarian crisis, but no one has to tell Fatima Usman how rapidly conditions have disintegrated in Somalia.

The23-year-old lost two children to hunger and one to cholera. 1122 04

"I am praying to God that he will not take this baby yet," she says while cradling her 4-month-old son, whose ribs poke out from hunger. "But I do not have enough milk to give him."

In the face of an increasingly brutal insurgency, Usman left behind her three buried children in the capital Mogadishu and fled 20 miles east to Afgoye, the town that has swelled with 200,000 refugees.

Half of those refugees have arrived within the past three weeks. The fighting intensified after Islamic insurgents killed and publicly mutilated several soldiers from Ethiopia, which is allied with the government here.

In all, 1 million Somalis have been displaced by the violence, the United Nations refugee agency said Tuesday.

In Afgoye, thousands of makeshift huts have been erected. Many of the fruit groves have been stripped of their branches. Lucky families receive plastic sheeting from an aid agency to use as a roof against the cold autumn rains.

For the others, sodden lengths of fabric strung over twigs will have to do. Under them families huddle for warmth in the mud. More arrive daily.

Many have stories like Hawo Abdi Baro, who arrived Sunday pushing her three youngest children in a handcart. On Nov. 16, a shell exploded on her house in Mogadishu while the family was sleeping. The 40-year-old only had time to scoop up her youngest three and run out into the street.

In the panic, she lost sight of her oldest four sons, screaming their names above the explosions as she huddled in a doorway.

"I don't know where they are. I don't know if they are alive or dead," she said, crying.

Like many of the others, the family arrived with no food, clothes, or shelter.

The timing is bad. The harvest here is the worst it has been for 13 years. Among children under 5, nearly one of every five suffers acute malnutrition, according to UN figures.

© 2007 The Associated Press.

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