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Somali children bear brunt of flood, drought misery


WAJID, Somalia (AFP) - Whimpering quietly as she is placed in a sling to be weighed at a feeding station here in flood-stricken southern Somalia, emaciated two-year-old Habiba Somo peers listlessly from sunken eyes.

Still severely malnourished from a searing drought that struck east Africa last year, she is among thousands of the children in this impoverished, lawless nation now bearing the brunt of devastating floods that have hit the region.

Too young to understand the cycle of natural disasters that have ravaged her country, Habiba's ribs protrude and the scale records her weight at 6.3 kilos (14 pounds), half the normal weight for a toddler her age.

If she was any smaller, she would be too fragile to hang in the sling and would be put in a red bucket to be weighed, but her mother, Salada, 30, is thankful the youngest of her four children is at least alive.

"If I did not come here, my child would die," she said, her head wrapped in a black scarf, as a nurse examined her daughter at a clinic run by the France-based aid agency Action Contre La Faim (ACF - Action Against Hunger).

Unusually heavy seasonal rains that began across east Africa in October have compounded the misery of people in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia who were just recovering from the drought that scorched the earth and left it unable to absorb water.

But it is here in Somalia, without a functioning central government since 1991 and now on the brink of all-out war between a weak transitional administration and powerful Islamists, that conditions are perhaps most dire.

Already, the worst floods in 50 years, man-eating crocodiles they have unleashed and waterborne disease have killed about 120 people here with hundreds of thousands homeless and potentially up to a million affected if the downpours continue as expected.

For families like the Somos, the effect has been catastrophic as the drought killed off most of their livestock and they now watch raging waters simply engulf fields too dry to grow staple crops of maize and sorghum.

"There are no crops in the area, there is hunger, there is disease," Salada Somo said. "There was the long drought, now the water has washed everything away."

UN World Food Programme spokeswoman Penny Ferguson, here on an aid distribution mission, echoed the sentiment.

"The effects of a devastating drought are not wiped out by a rainy season," she said. "Once your cattle and your goats are dead, even when it rains they don't come back."

"It is going to take several growing seasons for people to get back on their feet and have enough to eat," Ferguson said.

While adults have lost property, animals and in some cases their lives, it is the children of Somalia, which is swimming in a sea of grim health statistics already, that are suffering the most.

Even before the drought and floods, life expectancy at birth is 46, 25 percent of children die before they reach five and in many areas, malnutrition rates hover at 20 percent or above, according to UN figures.

Since this feeding station opened in March, ACF has treated more than 600 and there are now 24 in-patients, most of them children under the age of five but fewer than 10 admissions have died.

"When they come here their metabolism is upside down, they are very irritable, very weak, of course," said Vanessa Cagnion, the nurse in charge of the general nutrition program here. "The first week is always a bit sensitive."

The children are given a special, fortified milk for the first week before they are really even able to start gaining weight, she said. Treatment can take up to 45 days.

Breast feeding her malnourished four-month-old daughter Rukia, 30-year-old Hediga Mohamed said her child had been at the clinic for two weeks and nearly doubled her pre-admission weight of about 1.5 kilos.

Rukia's twin sister was not so lucky, dying on a green mat covered by a mosquito net several weeks ago, and Hediga has wrapped a necklace of wooden charms around her scrawny neck.

"It is so she won't smell the other sick children, it's to protect her," she said. "It's working. She's getting better."

Somalia government warns of "grave danger" of regional war

MOGADISHU (AFP) - Somalia's government has said its stand-off with the country's powerful Islamic movement posed a "grave danger" to the region and urged the world to step in and avert a looming all-out conflict.

As Islamic and government forces faced off in southern Somalia after two days of deadly clashes that claimed dozens of lives, the government said Monday a full-scale war in the lawless country would spill across borders.

The government "draws the attention of the international community to the grave danger that the current situation poses to peace and stability in Somalia and the region and would like the issue addressed urgently," the information ministry said in a statement.

It claimed foreign fighters, notably from Eritrea, were streaming into the country to support the Islamists, who control swathes of south and central Somalia.

"Thousands of Eritreans and other foreigners, who are answering Islamic Courts Union's call for 'jihad', are pouring into ICU-held regions," it added.

"Our intelligence sources also indicate increased flow of arms shipments from Eritrea and abroad," the statement said.

Last week, Islamic fighters and government troops, backed by Ethiopian forces, exchanged artillery fire for two days south of Baidoa, the seat of government in a deadly escalation of the fighting.

Both sides accused each other of starting the conflict in Dinsoor, 110 kilometres (70 miles) south of Baidoa, with the the government accusing the Islamists of "constant aggression, war mongering and the influx of foreign terrorists."

"Furthermore, the government views the attack on the garrison in the Dinsoor district as a blatant attempt to expand into areas in Bay and Gedo regions," it added.

The Islamists have declared jihad, or holy war, against the thousands of Ethiopian soldiers it says are in Somalia protecting the government and pledged to extend the fight to any peacekeeper entering the country.

Ethiopia denies having deployed combat troops to Somalia, but admits sending several hundred military advisers and trainers to help the government at its base Baidoa, the only town held by the two-year-old administration.

Many fear that full-scale war in Somalia will engulf the Horn of Africa region, drawing in arch-foes Ethiopia, on the side of the government, and Eritrea, on the side of the Islamists.

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