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Prolonged drought brings hunger, death and fear to Somalia

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DOLLOW, Somalia — A man in a donkey cart comes circling through the dust, carrying two small, silent children. The sky is cloudy. It could rain. he won’t. Not long ago.

Mohamed Ahmed Diriye is 60 years old and completing the darkest journey of his life. He set out from a coastal town in the far north of Somalia two weeks ago. People were dying. The cattle were dying. He decided to quit his job as a day laborer and flee to the other side of the country, crossing a landscape of dead bodies and territory controlled by Islamic extremists along the way.

Seven hundred miles later, he’s exhausted. The food is over. He clutches a battered stick in one hand and the nearly empty cart in the other. His children are only 4 and 5 years old.

They had tried to escape, says Diriye. “But we’re running into the same drought here.”

More than 1 million Somalis have fled and discovered it too.

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This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

In Somalia, a nation of poets, droughts are named for the kind of pain they cause. There was Prolonged in the 1970s, Cattle Killer in the 1980s, Equal five years ago for its nationwide reach. A decade ago, there was a famine, which killed a quarter of a million people.

Somalis say the current drought is worse than any they can remember. It doesn’t have a name yet. Diriye, who believes that no one can survive in some of the places he traveled through, suggests one without hesitation: White Bone.

This drought has stunned resilient herders and farmers by lasting four failed rainy seasons, which began two years ago. Season five is underway and will likely flop as well, along with season six early next year.

A rare famine declaration could be made as early as this month, the first significant anywhere in the world since the Somalia famine a decade ago. Thousands of people have died, including nearly 900 children under the age of 5 being treated for malnutrition, according to United Nations data. The UN says that half a million of those children are at risk of dying, “a number, a pending nightmare, that we have not seen in this century.”

As the world grapples with food insecurity, Somalia, a country of 15 million people shaking off its past as a failed state, can be seen as the end of the line. The nation of proud herders that has survived generations of drought is now stumbling amid several global crises unfolding at once.

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They include climate change, with some of the harshest effects of warming being felt in Africa. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, which crippled ships carrying enough grain to feed hundreds of millions of people. A drop in humanitarian donations, as the world shifted its focus to the war in Ukraine. One of the deadliest Islamic extremist groups in the world, limiting aid delivery.

The Associated Press spoke to a dozen people in rapidly growing displacement camps during a visit to southern Somalia in late September. All say they have received little or no help. A day’s meal can be plain rice or just black tea. Many camp residents, mostly women and children, beg neighbors or go to bed hungry.

Mothers trek for days or weeks across arid landscapes in search of help, sometimes discovering that the withered, feverish child tied to them has died en route.

“We would grieve, we would stop for a moment, we would pray,” says Adego Abdinur. “We would bury them by the side of the road.”

She holds her naked 1-year-old son in front of her new home, a flimsy shack of plastic bags and cloth tied together with rope and stripped branches. It is one of hundreds scattered across the mainland. Behind a barrier of thorns that separates their hut from another, giggling children pour water from a plastic jug into their hands, drinking and spitting with delight.

The home Abdinur, 28, left behind was far superior: a corn farm and dozens of head of cattle in the community where he was born and raised. The family was self-sufficient. Then the water dried up and his four-legged wealth began to die.

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“When we lost the last goat, we realized there was no way to survive,” says Abdinur. She and her six children walked 300 kilometers (186 miles) here, following rumors of assistance along with thousands of others on the move.

“We have seen so many children die of hunger,” he says.

At the center of this crisis, in areas where famine is likely to be declared, is an Islamic extremist group linked to Al Qaeda. An estimated 740,000 of the people most desperate from the drought live in areas controlled by al-Shabab extremists. To survive, they must escape.

Al-Shabab’s control over much of southern and central Somalia was a major contributor to the deaths in the 2011 famine. Not much aid was allowed into their areas, and not many people were allowed out. hungry. Somalia’s president, who survived three al-Shabab attempts on his life, described the group as a “mafia wrapped in Islam.” But his government has urged him to show mercy now.

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In a surprise comment on the drought in late September, al-Shabab called it a test from Allah, “the result of our sins and misdeeds.” Spokesman Ali Mohamud Rage said the extremists had provided free food, water and medical treatment to more than 47,000 people affected by the drought since last year.

But in rare accounts of life inside al-Shabab-controlled areas, several people who fled told the AP they had seen no such help. Instead, they said, extremists continue to severely tax families’ crops and livestock even as they wither and die. They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

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One woman says that al-Shabab taxed up to 50% of her family’s meager harvest: “They don’t care if people keep something.”

Some flee their communities at night to escape the attention of fighters, and men and even boys are often barred from leaving. One woman says that no one from her community was allowed to leave and that people receiving help from outside were attacked. Weeks ago, she says, al-Shabab killed a relative who had managed to take a sick father to a government-controlled city and then back.

Those who escaped from al-Shabab now cling to a bare existence. When what should be the rainy season arrives, they wake up in camps under a purple or gray sky that offers the slightest specks of moisture.

Children fly kites, adults their prayers. Black smoke rises in the distance as some farmers clear the land for good measure.

At the only treatment center for the most severely malnourished in the immediate region, 1-year-old Hamdi Yusuf is another sign of hope.

She was little more than skin and bones when her mother found her unconscious, two months after arriving in the camps and living on leftover food from neighbors. “The boy wasn’t even alive,” recalls Abdikadir Ali Abdi, acting nutrition officer for the Trocaire aid group, which runs the 16-bed center and has more patients than it can accommodate.

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Now the girl revives, slumped on her mother’s arm but blinking. Her tiny toes tremble. She bandages a wrist to prevent her from pulling out a feeding tube port.

Ready-to-use therapeutic food, so crucial to the recovery of children like her, could run out in the coming weeks, says Abdi. Aid workers describe having to take limited resources from the hungry in Somalia to treat the hungry, complicating efforts to get out of the drought.

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The girl’s mother, 18-year-old Muslima Ibrahim, anxiously rubs her daughter’s little fingers together. She has saved her only child, but her survival will require the kind of support she has yet to see.

“Yesterday we received a food distribution,” says Ibrahim. “He was the first since we arrived.”

Food is hard to find everywhere. At noon, dozens of hungry children from the camps try to sneak into a local primary school where the World Food Program is offering a rare lunch program for students. They are almost always rejected by school workers.

The mothers remember having to eat their grain reserves and sell what few goats they had left to pay for the journey from the homes and lives they loved. Many had never left until now.

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“I miss fresh camel milk. We love it,” says Nimco Abdi Adan, 29, smiling at the memory. He hasn’t tasted it for two years.

Residents outside the camps feel a growing desperation. Trader Khadija Abdi Ibrahim, 60, now keeps her goats, sheep and cows alive by buying valuable grains, grinding them and using them as fodder. She says the price of cooking oil and other items has doubled since last year, making it difficult for displaced people to get food with WFP-issued vouchers.

Hundreds of families continue to emerge from the empty horizon across Somalia, bringing little more than pain. The true death toll is unknown, but people in two of the country’s many camps for displaced people in the worst-affected city, Baidoa, say more than 300 children have died in the last three months in rural areas, according to the organization of Islamic Relief aid.

One day in mid-September, Fartum Issack, 29, and her husband carried a small body down a dusty road to a graveyard. Her 1-year-old daughter had arrived at the camp sick and hungry. She was rushed for treatment, but it was too late.

The cemetery opened in April especially for newly displaced people. It already had 13 pits, seven of them for children. There is easily room for hundreds more.

Issack and her husband chose to bury their daughter in the middle of the open field.

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“We wanted to easily recognize it,” says Issack.

Eight more hungry daughters are waiting in the camp.

Associated Press reporter Omar Faruk in Mogadishu, Somalia, contributed.

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