MARADI, Niger — The heavens opened at dawn over the deserts of southern Niger, and the torrents blasted through the reed shacks of a feeding center for the starving. Inside, women sat amid pools of water, their skeletal children wrapped in their arms.
Hassan, a 6-month-old, had sickly, wrinkled skin through which his tiny ribs protruded. He was so thin his heart could be seen beating rapidly against his chest. He was so frail that at first the aid workers thought he had been born prematurely. In fact, he was in the acute stages of starvation.
For three weeks in a row, Hassan’s mother had carried him on her back in the searing sun to join the massive line for the feeding center.
Like most here, their harvest was destroyed by last year’s drought, and the mothers walk up to nine hours for the chance of food.
Yet the centers are open only once or twice a week. Hassan’s mother was turned back time after time because of the crowds. Hassan’s twin, Hassana, died of hunger before his mother could return home from one journey.
Fewer than 10,000 children have been admitted to feeding centers in Niger, out of 150,000 children estimated to be in the advanced stages of starvation. Hundreds of thousands of others are considered to be at risk.
Aminu, age 4, is covered in suppurating skin lesions, open wounds that won’t heal because his immune system is collapsing and his emaciated body cannot fight infection. His ankles and lower legs are swollen, a sign that the water lodged in his lungs is also collecting in his limbs — and another symptom of starvation.
The doctors fear for his life on two counts: that the infection in his lungs and skin will spread to his brain, or that the buildup of water will bring on a heart attack.
At centers where they are handing out what little aid there is, there are chaotic scenes, with mothers pushing and shouting, desperate to save their children.
“As far as I’m concerned, God did not create people equal. Just look at us here — none of us have food,” said one mother, Tima Adamu.
In the tent next door to Hassan lay Namam Nousbaou. The French doctor shook her head sharply and looked nervously at the ground when she talked about Namam.
Her stomach was a concave hollow that sunk sharply toward her back. Her skin was pulled tightly over her skull. She came to the center two weeks ago with septic shock and had virtually no reactions.
By last Tuesday, though, she had gained some weight, giving the doctors a glimmer of hope. But she was still vomiting up any food. In the final stages of starvation, the body rejects food. The next day, her weight plunged again. She had parasites in her mouth, a condition suffered by most of the starving as disease feeds on their weakness.
Namam began slipping in and out of consciousness. Her mother, sitting on the end of her bed, wept all day on Wednesday and begged the doctors to take her daughter out of the intensive-care tent. She knew that this was the tent where children die.
At dawn on Thursday, Namam’s bed was empty. Her mother was not there either. When children die here, the mothers seldom cry in public. They wrap the child’s body on to their back with a piece of cloth, walk out and bury them.
Niger’s government warned of a food crisis as early as last November, following the drought and a plague of locusts that destroyed most of the crops.
For months now, the United Nations has also been appealing for donations from the international community. But donor nations have only given a fraction of the money asked for.
The United Nations has now decided it needs to feed three times more people than it had initially thought.