- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 4, 2006

EL WAK, Kenya — In the scorching heat of drought-stricken northern Kenya, an exhausted Khadija Osman offers a dry breast to her severely malnourished and emaciated baby as some 20 hungry children eat porridge around her at a Red Cross feeding center.

Their dry mouths open and their stares vacant, Mrs. Osman’s infant and four other young children loll listlessly on a dirty tarpaulin in temperatures close to 104 degrees Fahrenheit.

“I’m trusting God and asking for more assistance; otherwise, we will just die,” she said weakly from her spot on the plastic sheet where she has spent every day for the past two months waiting for the two daily portions of porridge she hopes will save her starving family.

Mrs. Osman and the more than 100 others here at the feeding center in El Wak, about 510 miles northeast of Nairobi, on the Somali border, are among the more than 6 million people in Kenya, southern Somalia and southeast Ethiopia facing famine amid a two-year drought that has gripped the Horn of Africa.

Aid agencies warn that conditions exist in large swaths of the region, where extreme hunger and thirst have been reported for the past month, killing at least 20 people in northeast Kenya and prompting President Mwai Kibaki to declare it a national disaster.

Last week, Mr. Kibaki appealed for $100 million in assistance and ordered the military to help with relief work, including food and water distribution and well-drilling, but the scale of the need in this arid region populated mainly by cattle-dependent nomads may overwhelm those efforts, aid workers say.

Rotting animal carcasses litter the dusty roads across the area, where the only visible vegetation consists of scraggly acacia trees, and cows have died by the hundreds owing to lack of fodder and water.

“The situation is quite desperate,” said Farid Abdulkadir, chief of disaster operations for the Kenya Red Cross Society. “It’s the hardest drought that has ever faced this country.”

“The current aid relief is planned to end in February, and there is a big gap” between what is needed and “the available resources,” he said, referring to the number of Kenyans expected to require assistance in the next two months, which is expected to nearly double from 1.3 million to 2.5 million.

“The situation is getting worse day-by-day,” said Mr. Abdulkadir, noting that the failure of rains again this year will make the approaching dry season even more difficult and has already increased the number of affected districts from 18 to 26.

At the district hospital in Wajir, southwest of El Wak about 360 miles from the capital, there is desolation on the faces of the emaciated children, two of whom died last week from severe malnutrition, according to Dr. Aluvaala Seme.

“The drought has worsened the situation,” he said. “The malnutrition cases are double this month. We need more sugar, milk and oil to feed these children.”

In the choking heat, 16-month-old Muslima Daoud lies crying on an iron bed, her tiny, emaciated body hidden beneath dirty cloth as it struggles to fight off malaria, severe malnutrition and gastroenteritis.

“She’s been sick for nine months,” said Muslima’s mother, adding that she had only been able to bring her daughter to the hospital six days ago.

“I can only afford some camel milk,” she laments.

In the next bed, a 2-year-old girl, her face deformed by swelling, sobs. She is suffering from the one of the most acute forms of malnutrition, kwashiorkor, the often-fatal condition in which bellies distend, skin pigment and texture degrades and hair loss is common.

“It’s an emergency, and it’s getting worse,” said nurse Dia Abdia Adan. “Of 10 patients admitted per day, five are for malnutrition. The problem we have is that the mothers don’t want to stay with their babies at the hospital because they are worried about the other children at home.”

“The kids in the field are more affected than the ones brought to the hospital,” Dr. Seme agreed.

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