Children: one camp's catalog of death

August 23, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Staff Writer

MOGADISHU, Somalia -- It was important to find the book of the dead children, for the sake of the record.

The old man across the street from the feeding center had it one day, and so he was asked to bring it back. Why he wanted it was unclear, but it had to be returned. Everybody agreed.

At the same time they had to be respectful of him; that's the Somali way with the old. After some persuasion he gave it up, and so they had the list of the 30 children who died at the Sherei feeding center from Aug. 4 through Aug. 10.

The names were all there in the copybook, penned in neatly by Kin, one of the two young women who help run the center, for no pay. The Italian word "morto" was written across the top of the page where the list began.

Ibrahim. Raxmo. Laylo. Abdullahi. Sadiyo . . .

The living children sit in the courtyard on the ground, waiting for ,, the food. There are about 100 of them on this day, and some mothers, still feeding, or pregnant. They are quiet, lined up in rows. The sun is steady; the shadows cast down by the leaves of the lone eucalyptus near the wall dart like fishes across the sand. The single mango tree, without fruit, makes a black shade.

Gudrun Engstrom is pleased with what she sees. She stonds in the shade of the veranda of what was once a fine house of stone, with floors of glistening Italian tile, a breezy house of spacious rooms and wide windows. No longer. The window frames are gone, the floor tiles, too, and the roof. All the plumbing, the wiring, all gone. Along with almost every other house here, it has been stripped, left a lifeless cavity.

Still, Gudrun Engstrom is happy. Life, such as it is, is here in the yard. "When we first opened, always in the morning you would find dead people outside the wall," she says. That was July 21. These days it doesn't happen that often here.

Which is not to say they aren't still dying in the streets of Mogadishu, and in other Somali cities. In Baidoa, about 150 miles northwest of here, about 50 people a day die of starvation or related diseases. Most are children.

In Mogadishu it is more difficult to make estimates, owing to the congestion and the danger of just going out. This is one reason why the book of the dead and the other records kept at this feeding center are so important. They are barometers.

"We can use the registration here and in other centers to assess the general situation in the country. From that you can determine more or less how much food is needed in the city and the country," Gudrun Engstrom says.

Food that will never help some.

Abdullaah. Mohamad. Abdikerim. Malyuun . . .

Gudrun Engstrom is a Swedish nurse who works for the United Nations Children's Fund. A month ago, she founded this feeding center on the edge of the Sherei camp, a congestion of round huts built the way Somali nomads have been building them for centuries. Some 60 families are in the camp, displaced by the turmoil of Somalia's disintegration.

Many of them come into Mogadishu for food and safety from the fighting in the countryside. Mogadishu has about 1.2 million people, but it is almost an entirely new population. The people who originally lived here, fled into the country and across the borders of neighboring states. Or they were killed during the fighting, which began in 1988 and grew especially intense last fall, when all the diplomats departed.

Gudrun Engstrom's children come from the camp. The idea, she explains, was to invite the youngest in, 6 years old and younger, register them, compare their weight to their height and try to bring their bodies back to some semblance of normal health through regular feedings of super-nutrious porridge.

Of the 458 registered, 331 were found to be at below 80 percent of the normal weight for their height. That is bad. A child at a ratio of 70 percent or less can be on the edge of death. In Sherei a fourth of the children are below 70 percent. They need intensive feeding, four times a day. But there really isn't enough food for that, and so the list in the book of the dead keeps lengthening:

Wagtiyo. Mahamad. Faryiyo. Aabdiyo. Aabdulaahi. Nurr . . .

Listlessness of hunger

The 6-year-old girl in the blue dress stares bleakly ahead; she can hardly move her limbs, and her joints are like knobs on a tree. She advances behind her brother, who leads her patiently on. She is not waiting for the food with the others: she is just wandering, aimlessly, just like the thousands of other children, and adults, outside the compound, wandering stuporously through the streets of Mogadishu, sleeping in alleys, infants supine under burlap bags; they are like shadows seen through the dust, day and night, just drifting.

At a certain point the appetite disappears and the pain of the hunger goes away. A glow comes into the eyes; first there is a fitful restlessness, and then indifference takes over.

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