Kenyan Camp Seen by Angelina Jolie Is Last Stop for Somalis

When Angelina Jolie visited Dadaab two years ago, she described conditions as “dire.” The world’s biggest refugee camp today is bursting with the daily arrival of 1,500 Somalis escaping Africa’s worst famine in six decades.

The three-settlement complex in Kenya, 100 kilometers (62 miles) south of the Somali border, was created to house 90,000 people displaced by the Somali civil war that followed the 1991 ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre. It’s now hosting more than 420,000 and a fourth camp is being built to ease the overcrowding, the State Department said today.

“A lot of people have died just trying to get here,” said Jeremy Hobbs, executive director of Oxfam International, in a telephone interview from Dadaab, where a quarter the children arrived malnourished. “It’s overwhelming.”

Once at Dadaab, a tent city spread over 50 square kilometers, refugees are supposed to get a three-week ration of food -- corn meal, sugar, and beans -- plastic sheets, cooking utensils, a jerry can, sleeping mats and soap.

Instead, they are met with endless lines at the registration office as aid agencies such as Oxfam International and CARE struggle to meet the demands of a drought-triggered plight that threatens to engulf almost half of Somalia’s 7.5 million inhabitants. Food prices in Somalia have more than tripled from a year ago because of scarcity.

About 29,000 children have died from the famine in the last 90 days, said Gayle Smith, special assistant to President Barack Obama, who briefed reporters by conference call.

Babies and Cows

One mother, having walked weeks to get to a clinic, realized upon lifting her child off her back that the baby had died, said CARE worker Alexandra Lopoukhine, describing what she witnessed in Dadaab. Most new arrivals are women and children. Many of the men have stayed behind to tend dying livestock.

“I met a father who recently lost his wife, and he was there nursing his five remaining cows,” Wouter Schaap, assistant director for CARE in Somalia, told a U.S. Senate committee at an Aug. 3 hearing. “The cows were bleeding from their noses, and he was trying to do something about it but not really knowing what to do.”

Famine has been declared in five regions of Somalia and the United Nations expects it to spread across all regions within two months. Dadaab, a focal point of the humanitarian effort, has drawn international attention.

Additional Aid

Obama has approved adding $105 million in famine relief for the Horn of Africa. A U.S. team, led by Jill Biden, wife of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, visited yesterday, adding more high-level attention.

“The demands and the needs are growing faster than what has been provided,” said former Senator Bill Frist, a Republican from Tennessee, who accompanied Jill Biden.

Nicknamed ‘Saint Angelina’ for her humanitarian work as a UN goodwill ambassador, Jolie observed in a September 2009 tour of the camp how people in Dadaab lived among garbage and sewage.

“If this is the better solution, what must it be like in Somalia?” she asked in a video posted by the UN refugee agency.

The answer lies with the 116,000 starving Somalis that so far this year have braved bandit-infested hinterlands, where women are frequently raped during a journey that can last weeks, to reach by foot what for them is the promised land.

The stricken head to one of three locations where they’ve been told they can be saved: the capital Mogadishu, Dadaab or neighboring Ethiopia.

Factional Fighting

Somalia hasn’t had a functioning government in two decades and the factional fighting makes aid delivery risky. The UN Refugee Agency flew to Mogadishu yesterday to deliver its first shipment of emergency supplies in five years.

Al-Shabaab, which has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda, withdrew from the capital in a move that may offer residents of the war-torn country some respite. The militant group had banned the UN World Food Programme and other aid agencies from working in areas under its control.

Schaap, who just returned from inspecting famine-stricken parts of Somalia, said the worse is ahead as the deepest part of a drought typically hits a month before the start of the rainy season in October. That in turn triggers a new set of problems with the spread of waterborne diseases such as cholera.

The UN said $2.5 billion is needed to confront the humanitarian crisis, with only $1.4 billion pledged.

“The worry is that the scale of the unfolding tragedy is so massive and the response so far has been too little,” Schaap in a telephone interview from Nairobi.

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