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Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 July 2005, 15:39 GMT 16:39 UK
Niger's 'silent hunger'

By Hilary Andersson
BBC News, Maradi, southern Niger

Young child suffering from severe malnutrition is treated at an MSF centre in Maradi

People heard that help had come, and they were desperate to do anything for the lives of their children.

Old and young, women and children, fought to get hold of some medicine, and were mercilessly beaten back by the authorities.

There is still no full-scale foreign food aid in this town.

Aid agencies are struggling to cope with the thousands of malnourished children facing starvation.

Charities have accused the developed world of ignoring earlier warnings and turning their back on a looming crisis.

Persistent drought and an invasion of locusts have destroyed much of the harvest in the world's second-poorest nation.

Our camera was seized as we filmed. Niger has begged the world for foreign help, but they do not want it to look like frenzy.

'Choice of God'

A few miles away, another crowd hoped their sick children might be fed.

At least in this place, French doctors planned to give emergency food rations to the starving under five.

People had been here since six in the morning.

The very weakest in this famine were faint from hunger and from the searing heat.

Most of the people have been short of food for several months now and this is the first sign they have seen at all of any foreign food aid.

Of all the people here, about a third of the children are malnourished, many severely.

We came across one child, five months into this world and barely clinging on to life.

He is so small the aid workers thought he had been born prematurely at first. In fact, he is in the acute stages of starvation.

"Our harvest failed and we have no food. It is the choice of God," said his mother.

One group of people said they had been told to go home - because their children were not hungry enough to qualify for the little food there is.

Devastating poverty

Around 150,000 children in this country are starving. The scale of the crisis here is vast.

"The figures, the number of children between January and June, we received 10,000 severely malnourished children," said Bernoit Leduc of Medecins Sans Frontieres.

"These figures are enormous even if you compare to Darfur and Angola - these are very high figures for an organisation like MSF."

Out in the deserts, people are eating leaves from brittle trees to survive. The land here has yielded virtually nothing.

Even in good years, only just enough grows in this barren expanse for people to survive.

Just one in 10 of the starving has reached the few clinics.

It is being called the hunger that is silent.

One in four young children die each year here anyway, because of Niger's devastating poverty.

Few noticed in time, when less rain pushed Niger over the edge.

Amina, the six-year-old, whose story we told in a previous report, has stopped vomiting when she eats and has taken some milk.

But her responses are still disturbingly slow.

Elsewhere, a family prepares to bury its one-year-old child - he could not fight a famine far bigger than him.

No-one has even counted how many others may have already died.

It all shows quite clearly that Africa is easily forgotten until, yet again, it is too late.


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