- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 30, 2011

DOLO, Somalia — As she celebrated the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr on Tuesday, Somali mother Quresho Mohmoud Dahir counted her blessings: All her children were alive. They had food. They were safe.

“We will eat very well today,” she said proudly, gesturing at the food rations she received that morning. Her 12-year-old daughter sat protectively atop the two sacks of corn and the beans her mother would prepare.

Ms. Dahir is one of hundreds of thousands of Somalis forced to flee their homes by war and famine. She and her six children, the youngest 3 years old, walked 12 days to get to this U.N.-run camp on the Ethiopia-Somalia border after her husband disappeared during a bout of fighting in their area.

Some days they were so hungry that they ate leaves from trees. At night, she agonized over lighting a fire; it would protect her children from hyenas but might attract criminals or militias.

Finally - sick, starving and exhausted - they stumbled into Dolo, a wind-swept outpost of brushwood buildings scattered among the twisted thorn trees and red sand.

Now the seven of them live in a ragged shelter made of plastic scraps and torn clothing stretched over branches. They depend on donors for cooking pots, sleeping mats, food and other supplies.

Ms. Dahir remembers years when she would mark Eid by slaughtering her own goats, having a feast for friends and family and giving charity to her poorer neighbors.

This year, she said, she will cook her donated rations gladly and give thanks for the kindness of the people who let her family survive a famine that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.

“Thank Allah that we were welcomed here and given food and we are safe,” she said, squatting in their makeshift shelter. “We are blessed. So many people helped us along the way.”

Many times, her children were so weak that she had to leave the younger ones under trees and go begging, she said.

There was never much to give - parts of the region where they walked are suffering from the worst drought in 60 years - but impoverished families they passed spared a bottle of milk or a handful of millet, she said.

It kept them alive until they reached Dolo three months ago.

The United Nations estimates that 3.7 million Somalis need aid. Five regions in Somalia are suffering from famine, and officials say that will increase in coming weeks.

Hunger also is widespread in Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti. Overall, more than 12 million people need help, according to the U.N. The situation is most dire in Somalia, where Islamist rebels fighting the weak U.N.-backed government have barred many aid agencies from their territory.