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 Monday, 11 November, 2002, 11:20 GMT
Ethiopia's new nightmare
Children in Dir Fakar
Children in Dir Fakar have lost hope

To see the true extent of the crisis now facing Ethiopia I travelled to the village of Dir Fakar, 200 kilometres south of the capital Addis Ababa.

At the time of my visit, the village's communal pond should have been a deep pool of water where livestock could drink.

Hussein Muhammad
Hussein Muhammad: 'I am going to disappear from this place unless aid arrives soon'

But, instead, it was a parched dustbowl.

Beneath my feet huge cracks scarred the landscape like grotesque crazy paving while all around almost everything was slowly dying.

In the surrounding fields all that one could see were oceans of lifeless maize and wheat stalks, barely recognisable as crops.

Open in new window : Ethiopian food crisis
Voices of those struggling to avoid starvation
The annual short rains had failed and the long rains arrived too late to save the crops.

A local farmer, Hussein Muhammad, rubbed two sheaves of wheat together to show me how the husks turned to dust in his hand.

"We have never had this type of experience in our lives," he said.

"As you can see, the crop has nothing inside it. I am going to disappear from this place unless food aid arrives soon."

In previous droughts, the locals have got by by selling livestock, but now the animals are dying before they can be sold.

Incomes collapse

All of which leaves mothers like 25-year-old Rahima Fako, who has four children, in a desperate situation:

"Due to rain shortage we lost everything that we planted. There is nothing in the fields to harvest and our animals are dead."

I asked her what she fed to her children.

"Nothing! I have nothing to give them. I don't know what I am going to feed them."

Sitting on a rusty can a few yards away, 8-year-old Fayo Hadji was drawing shapes in the dust with a small stone.

A fly landed just under his left eye but Fayo seemed resigned to its presence, just like he appeared to be resigned to a terrible fate.

"I know I am going to die and so are my brothers and sisters because we are all so hungry," he told me in a matter-of-fact way.

Appalled, I asked if he really believed he was going to die?

"Yes." Fayo said he had lost hope as his parents' cattle had died and their crops had failed so they had nothing to feed him with.

"I would prefer to die rather than keeping waiting for food. I prefer to die," he said.

Eclipsing southern Africa

At the health centre in the nearby town of Dera there was further evidence of the terrible toll that the drought is taking.

Nurse Senait Alemagenu said that six out of 10 babies and children brought to her were suffering from severe malnourishment.

Rahima Fako and her children
Rahima Fako: 'We have lost everything'
She said that often she had no food or medicine to give them and that she had no option but to turn people away knowing they were going off to die.

Some help is arriving but Georgia Shaver, the World Food Programme's Director in Ethiopia, says that so far it is just a trickle in comparison with what is needed.

In her office in Addis Ababa, she laid out the scale of the problem in stark terms:

"In Southern Africa there are 10 to 14 million people needing food aid across six countries. In Ethiopia we could have the same number in just one country.

"The international effort that will be required to meet the food resources alone is enormous.

"We need the resources today so that we can prevent a deterioration of the situation. We don't need the resources six months from now when we see terrible images on the television."

Praying and waiting

Back in Dera, some are seeking help from higher powers.

At the Ousman Ben Afan Mosque, the Imam, Sheik Abdullah Mahmoud told me:

Nurse Senait Alemagenu
Hospitals have to turn the needy away
"We pray day and night, every day, to get rain. So many people are dying and it's very difficult for me to explain how difficult the situation is."

Making an appeal for the international community to send food aid to Ethiopians, he said that this drought was much worse than those in the past.

"The livestock has died and people don't have any reserves. It's so serious that it's beyond our capacity. So the only thing we can do is pray and wait for assistance."

But time is fast running out for the people here.

For many, hope has already gone, disappearing in dusty sacks slung over old donkeys that stumble and sway on the roads to Ethiopia's already over-burdened towns and cities.

Others choose to stay peering intently through the swirling dust-clouds that choke the air.

None work, few eat, whole families just stare out waiting for help that may never come.


Key stories

Horn of Africa

Southern Africa

West Africa

Ways to help

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11 Nov 02 | Africa
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