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Sunday, 30 April, 2000, 13:10 GMT 14:10 UK
Eyewitness: Where hunger reigns
Catherine Bertini talks to children in Gode (Pic WFP)
Catherine Bertini talks to children in Gode (Pic WFP)
By World Food Programme Director Catherine Bertini for BBC News Online

As we flew south-east from Addis Ababa, the last vestiges of scrubland disappeared and the scorched plains of the Somali region stretched ahead of us.

Looking out of the window, I started preparing for the scenes that awaited me at Gode - a refuge for thousands of starving women desperate to save their children.

Freshly carved wooden crosses bear witness to the human price of Ethiopia's worst drought in 15 years

In my job, I often come face to face with the heart-wrenching images of hunger.

There are no words to describe how I feel when I see a child dying.

Like most humanitarian workers, I have never grown used to the suffering, whether it is in refugee camps in Albania, feeding centres in Rwanda or starving children in North Korea.

Gode was no exception.

As I was led through makeshift rooms, where branches were the only shelter from a burning 45 degrees Celsius heat, mothers lay on straw mats alongside their children.

Struggle for life

A doctor broke the silence to tell me how most of these mothers had carried their children for nearly two weeks across the parched lands of Somali.

A young child receives treatment (Pic WFP)
A young child receives treatment (Pic WFP)
He explained that most children should weigh 10kg - most hardly disturb the scales.

For some the struggle is simply too great.

Outside our group was taken to the local graveyard, where freshly carved wooden crosses bear witness to the human price that is paid daily for Ethiopia's worst drought in 15 years.

For a few moments it was possible to stop for a quiet moment of reflection.

Of course, attention has tended to focus on Ethiopia where eight million people affected by drought in the Greater Horn live. But in reality millions of others are in danger throughout the region.

Failed harvest

This was apparent on my visit to the north of Eritrea, on the border with Sudan.

The effects of the drought were not as dramatic as Gode but the early warning signs were there in abundance.

A therapeutic feeding centre in Gode (Pic WFP)
A therapeutic feeding centre in Gode (Pic WFP)
Time and again, women had the same tale to tell. When last year's harvest failed, their families sold their livestock in order to buy food and fresh seed.

The rain did not fall and the crops did not fully develop.

By selling their only assets, these people have been able to cope until now. But to do so, they are using up all their resources.

Male suicide

Now they are living on a knife-edge of hunger.

Suicide rates are rising in direct proportion to the severity of the drought

In the north of Kenya, in the drought-hit region of Turkana, it is the same story. Aid workers told us that there are other prices to pay for hunger.

Livestock is the main source of status in these pastoral communities. Forced to sell their oxen, cattle and goats just to survive, men have lost all meaning in their lives.

Male suicide rates are rising in direct proportion to the severity of the drought.

It was another indication of the drought's dramatic effect on east African society. And there is no quick solution.

People here still talk about the rains coming and saving crops. But the reality is it will make little immediate difference.

Even if rain does come, these villages no longer have the oxen to plough the rocky, sun-baked earth.

It is the international community that must save the lives of these people - by acting now in a timely and co-ordinated manner.

Catherine Bertini is also United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special envoy on the drought in the Greater Horn of Africa.

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See also:

21 Mar 00 | Africa
Rain failures threaten Horn
01 Apr 00 | Africa
Why is famine back again?
04 Apr 00 | Africa
EU famine relief for Africa
04 Apr 00 | Africa
Ethiopia: 'Too little too late'
05 Apr 00 | Africa
UN to distribute Ethiopia aid
14 Apr 00 | Africa
Africa Media Watch
18 Apr 00 | Africa
Long wait for food aid
07 Apr 00 | Africa
Disasters: Why the world waits
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