Starvation beat Marines to Bardera Few children left as aid approaches OPERATION RESTORE HOPE

December 24, 1992|By Kristin Huckshorn | Kristin Huckshorn,Knight-Ridder News Service

BARDERA, Somalia -- The main street is quiet.

No babies cry.

Only a handful of children, all boys, play in the road, using sticks and rocks for toys.

Today, when U.S. Marines plan to arrive at this southwestern outpost in Somalia's hardest-hit famine zone, they will find silent testimony that, for many children here, help comes too late.

"This is a place without children," said Abdullahi Dirie, a former teacher in Bardera. "We used to have no room in our school. Now, I think, we will have empty space."

As many as 75 percent of the children under age 5 who lived in Bardera are dead, victims of starvation, relief workers say. No one knows exactly how many children under age 12 have died, but the estimate is about 15,000.

"It's the adults who are dying now," said International Red Cross worker Dale Khalil, who set up a field hospital here. "There are few children left to die."

Measles and typhoid epidemics still could kill the children who have survived the worst months of famine but haven't regained their strength.

One of those children, 10-year-old Shimo Ahamed, walked 100 miles from Baidoa two months ago after her mother and three younger brothers died of starvation. She huddled outside a Red Cross tent, her head bald, her arms as thin as broomsticks, suffering from malnutrition and fever.

"I am too sick to take food," said Shimo, who is so weak she can't eat the porridge or drink the camel's milk sitting in a pitcher at her feet.

Unlike those in Baidoa, where the people are recovering, feeding centers and camps for displaced people in Bardera are full of starving and skeletal figures with chests so concave the outline of each rib shows through the skin.

Up to 80 people die each day, far better than the 300 to 400 who died each day in October, when the town needed 40 porters to collect the bodies each morning and pile them at the cemetery for burial, creating "a hill of bodies" every day, according to Red Cross worker Khalil.

Though the daily death toll is down, the death rate in Bardera relative to its population -- 16,000 in town and 16,000 at a camp outside town -- is one of the highest in Somalia, relief workers say.

The starvation is happening in an incongruous setting.

The town is surrounded by fertile, green valleys and fields where sorghum and bananas once grew. Panoramic vistas stretch from the muddy Juba River.

When people began dying of hunger here, gravediggers buried the bodies along the river bank. The river rose when the rainy season began, uncovering the bodies. Bodies floating down the river became a common sight. Now they are buried in the cemetery, several bodies in each grave.

No one keeps track of who they are or where they are buried. There are too many for that kind of record-keeping, the gravediggers say.

Some of the dead were shot. Clan warfare still rages here. About 20 percent of the patients at the Red Cross hospital come in with a gunshot wounds, the staff said.

Only four relief agencies are working in Bardera, and the staffs are small. It is considered a dangerous place, where food supplies are frequently looted. A driver for UNICEF was shot and killed three weeks ago.

Complicating relief efforts, roads to surrounding villages are mined. And unexpectedly heavy rains during what is supposed to be the short rainy season have made some of those roads impassable anyway.

"We've got to get food to those people," said David Stables, a relief worker with CARE in Bardera.

He said removing the mines and improving the roads should be the military's top priority once it arrives.

Main roads from Bardera to the port at Kismayu and to the Kenyan border are too dangerous for bringing in food. Instead, the aid is flown in. But the dirt airstrip and the dirt road that leads back to town become unusable in heavy rain.

Medical help is scarce. The Red Cross' 10-tent hospital was set up a month ago after it was learned that the Somalian man running the local hospital was masquerading as a doctor to procure medical supplies from relief agencies.

"He had absolutely no medical training," said a Red Cross worker, who discovered the fraud when some of the patients developed gangrene.

The field hospital, with one local doctor and two nurses, is attempting to provide treatment for two epidemics as well as malnutrition and cases of cerebral malaria, which can kill victims in 72 hours.

Malnourished children are especially difficult to treat. They need to eat six meals a day, compared with one or two for starving adults. They also need milk and easily digestible food.

Because shelters don't have roofs, workers worry that soaking rains will increase the number of sick children and make them more likely to catch serious diseases.

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