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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 August 2005, 15:38 GMT 16:38 UK
Drought diary VI: Signs of hope
Mark Snelling
Mark says a piece of his heart will remain in Niger and Mali

Mark Snelling is a member of the British Red Cross Society's Emergency Response Unit in Niger.

He has been keeping a diary for the BBC News website.

In his sixth - and final - entry, Mark returns from Mali to Niger, to see first-hand food distributions to some 24,500 malnourished children there.

Monday 22 August

And so finally back in Niamey. I fly home to London tomorrow. I'm looking forward to seeing friends, to getting some sleep, to going for some long walks. But Niger and Mali will be with me for a long time.

A Red Cross colleague once said to me that you will always leave a piece of your heart behind wherever you have been on mission. I believe that to be true, at least in my experience.

Zara and her grandmother, Chamcia
Two-year-old Chamcia is still vomiting - but is on the mend

I will think of Rabi and Chamcia and Jacouba and the many others that I have met in the last month and I will wonder how they are doing.

My thoughts will also be with colleagues who are still here, still working, still distributing. And I will wish them well.

There will be many lessons for the world to learn from Niger once the emergency has passed.

Donors, governments, NGOs and the media must examine why we need to wait for a crisis to erupt before we fully respond. But we can also be proud of work well done.

Aid work must not be sentimentalised. Narcissistic rescue fantasies do not save lives.

There are ugly politics and crazy decisions here, just like everywhere else.

I have encountered some of the best people I've ever met in the humanitarian world, and on occasion some of the worst.

Blanket criticism of aid intervention will not help anyone either. Human suffering will always be with us, whatever we might say about making poverty history.

Sunday 21 August

Today is the last distribution that I will see before I go home.

Red Cross Relief Delegate Mohamed Radhi
Red Cross' Radhi lets the women - in groups of 40 - into the compound

More than 650 children have been registered for this one, in Mobeya, a district of Tahoua town itself.

About 400 mothers and their children will be receiving their first ration, and the rest are coming for their second.

As always at the start of a distribution, there is a brooding tension in the air when we arrive at about 0700.

Hundreds of women line the perimeter wall of the local health centre, clutching their babies and pressing towards the main gate.

I don't have children, but I have often thought about what I would be prepared to do if they were starving and there was some food about. I'd say pretty much anything.

The planning, though, is immaculate. Red Cross Relief Delegate Mohamed Radhi, a Mauritanian, briefs the 20 or so volunteers from the Niger Red Cross who will be channelling the mothers into the compound.

Into action, they slowly but determinedly move the crowds back a good 50m from the gate, setting up a cordon system to keep things in order.

The first truck arrives from the warehouse and the food is unloaded through a separate entrance into an adjoining courtyard.

Rabi Ibrahim and her daughter Hadiza
Hadiza's hair is rusty red - a clear symptom of malnutrition

Then in groups of 40, the women are let inside. First their registration cards are checked, then they move onto a shaded area where a volunteer explains how to prepare the Unimix correctly.

Their cards are then checked again before they move on to receive the black plastic bag of precious flour.

One more check and they are handed the family ration of oil, rice and beans that will ensure that relatives do not share out the child's ration.

"Without this help, it would have been a really, really desperate situation," says Rabi Ibrahim, one of the first mothers through the gate.

Rabi's 21-month-old daughter Hadiza looks weary. Her hair is thinning and has turned rusty red, textbook symptoms of malnutrition.

Rabi and Hadiza make their way through. Their documents are processed, their rations safely collected.

Out the other side, family members help Rabi get the sack of rice and the rest of their cargo back to their home near the local airport.

Rabi loses no time in cleaning out a pot and boiling up some water for the Unimix.

A few minutes later, she is in a shady corner, feeding her child.

"I just can't imagine what we would have done without this," she says. "Tonight I will be able to feed my family." We sit and talk for a few minutes.

There are times when the unspeakable tragedies of Africa seem too overwhelming to contemplate.

There are also times when the unanswered questions over how we respond to them are too heavy to bear.

But for these few minutes, none of that matters. This is what it's all for.

Saturday 20 August

Back to Tahoua, the town some 550km north-east of Niamey and right back where I started in Niger.

Road to Illela
Everyone is praying for good crops

It is a little more than three weeks since I was last here, but it feels like months. With days as long as ours have been, it becomes curiously challenging to keep track of time.

I want to come back and see for myself what kind of difference our distributions have been making in Niger. I don't have far to look.

In the commune of Illela, some 30km south of Tahoua, I come across Jacouba and his mother, Halima.

She is feeding the 10-month-old spoonfuls of a nutritious porridge made from the enriched Unimix flour supplied by the British Red Cross that was handed out here last Friday.

Jacouba's belly is still visibly distended from the chronic lack of food in his short life, but his eyes are bright and his breathing is easy.

Halima and her 10-month-old son Jacouba
Jacouba's appetite is back, his mother says

Halima is happy to report that he has started breast-feeding again, his appetite is back.

"Our situation was a catastrophe, I was so worried about Jacouba," she says. "But he's got so much better; it's a total change from how he was before."

Back on the road, the crops we drive past are looking good. There has been plenty of rain.

Although Niger's needs will remain pressing, the country will get its harvest this year and with it a chance to return to something approaching stability.

A few kilometres down the road, in the village of Guidan Karo, I meet Chamcia.

The two-year-old is clearly not recovering as rapidly as Jacouba.

Her grandmother, Zara, says she is still vomiting, a sign that she has yet to metabolise her nutritional supplements. But she is on the mend, albeit slowly.

"She has improved," says Zara, who has been looking after Chamcia since her mother died from gastric illness last year.

"She's been sick ever since she was born, she couldn't get any milk from her mother, it was terrible. The only thing we've had to eat has been grass."

Zara says she could hardly believe it when the town crier announced that families with malnourished children should go to Illela, where they would receive food; not just for the children, but for their relatives as well.

"It made me so happy, I'm very grateful."

Friday 19 August

Back in Niamey, it is truly impressive to see how the operation has evolved and expanded, even in the week since I've been in Mali.

When the team of six that I belong to arrived a month ago, there were only four international staff already in the capital.

We set out a few tables and chairs at the Niger Red Cross offices, fixed the air-conditioning, hooked up the satellite phones, and off we went.

Now, though, that same room is a fully functioning operations centre, complete with faxes, printers, photocopiers, wireless internet, and about 30 international staff.

Planes of food aid, mainly from Britain and Germany, arrive at Niamey airport almost nightly.

And the fleet of Norwegian Red Cross trucks is plying the highways of Niger, ferrying the enriched flour, rice, lentils, oil, vitamins and medicines to our supplementary feeding centres.

About 90 metric tonnes of Unimix flour has already landed, and at least another 120 are due.

Aside from the flour, at least 2,000 tonnes of rice, lentils and beans are on their way for the families of the children who we are feeding.

The World Food Programme (WFP) has also asked us to distribute a general ration to about 220,000 around the eastern town of Tillaberi, and the Red Cross is looking closely at expanding the supplementary feeding programme to include pregnant women.

Alongside our Niger colleagues, the operation now comprises a remarkable span of nationalities.

Looking around the room, I count nationals of Britain, Denmark, France, Germany, Guinea, Iceland, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Norway, Senegal, Serbia, Spain, Switzerland and the United States.

There is a lot going on.

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