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The forgotten victims of the East Africa famine

As aid organizations and governments ship food and supplies to the relief camps to deal with the worst famine in decades, uncounted refugees are still seeking help far from the camps.

By Correspondent / July 22, 2011

A Somali girl stands by her family’s newly constructed shelter near the Dagahaley camp outside Dadaab, Kenya. Her family traveled five days on foot to escape their drought-stricken home in Somalia.

Rebecca Blackwell/AP

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Fini, Kenya

Fini, a village so small it doesn’t appear on any maps, is growing every day. In tired groups, carrying their few belongings, people trek in from the wilderness, their livestock nearly all dead, their ability to cope exhausted.

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They are coming to this cluster of three dozen stick shacks by a rarely used sandy track because they have heard someone is bringing water. Out on the empty plain, parched to dust by a drought stretching back three years, there is no water. There is no pasture for their animals.

Even for a hardy people who have adapted for generations to survive in this arid emptiness, this drought is daunting. Like 11.5 million others across Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia, they may starve to death unless outside help reaches them.

On July 20, the United Nations, which had warned of this looming crisis in January, said that parts of Somalia were now in a state of famine. Famine was last declared in 1984, when almost a million Ethiopians died, and again in 1991-92, in part of Somalia.

International aid agencies, governments, and the UN are appealing for a total of $1.6 billion to deliver supplies to help the worst affected in this latest drought to sweep the Horn of Africa.

Already, one Boeing 747 has landed in Kenya full of food, medicine, and tents. More aid is expected. In Somalia, UNICEF has sent supplies by plane to an airstrip that’s been off-limits for more than a year, under a deal with Islamist rebels there.

Ships carrying tens of thousands of tons of corn from warehouses in Kuwait have docked in Djibouti, to the north, and Mombasa, to the south. More food is on its way. “There’s no doubt that lives have been lost, but there are many, many more that will be saved if the world responds as it must,” says Mark Bowden, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Somalia.

The US State Department has announced partial easing of laws that prohibit it from funding appeals if there is any risk that supplies could benefit terrorists.

There is a growing sense that the world response is gearing up.

Real crisis lies outside camps

Some 80 miles southeast of Fini lies Dadaab refugee camp, featured on television as the epicenter of the disaster.

There, aid agencies rush to transfer truckloads of supplies to the 1,400 people arriving daily from Somalia. Already the camps, built to house 90,000 people, are overwhelmed with almost 400,000. Emergency wards are filled with babies. Dozens have died – but most are safe now that they are receiving help.

The real crisis, though, lies far from those camps. Uncounted numbers of people are still walking, sometimes for weeks, to reach safety. Uncounted others are gathering in villages like Fini, far from the relief supplies of what has suddenly become the world’s most urgent humanitarian operation. “Why have we been forgotten? I cannot tell you,” says Dekow Farah, who walked with his two wives and nine children to Fini a month ago.

His 500-strong herd of sheep, which marked him as a man on his way to being wealthy, has been decimated. Today he has fewer than 50, all in such poor condition that they are near worthless.

Beneath a leafless thorn tree in Fini, his last cow, once the best milker in his herd, needs the help of three men to stand and shuffle into the meager shade. “She is dead already. There is no strength in her to eat even if there was food,” Mr. Farah says.

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