Page last updated at 16:50 GMT, Monday, 9 June 2008 17:50 UK

Desperation as Ethiopia's hunger grows


Gavin Hewitt's report from south-west Ethiopia

By Gavin Hewitt
BBC News, Ethiopia

It is a strange and unsettling ride west from the Ethiopian town of Shashamene. The fields are vibrant green. There is water in the creeks. The soil is a deep rich burgundy.

However, the people here speak of a "green drought".

It is the time when the land is full of new shoots but there is no food. It happens because the last rains failed and few crops were planted.

Ethiopian child
In every village there were vulnerable children
You can sense the desperation when you arrive in a village.

A crowd gathers quickly. Some hold up their children. They want us to see the distended stomachs which are one sign of hunger.

The parents hope that, by seeing, we will take their children to a treatment centre.

This happened in the village of Odo. A local priest had visited last week and had taken the most severely malnourished children for emergency care.

But others had been left behind, including a 12-year-old with shrunken limbs who suffered from malaria.

Walking for hours

It is hard to know the scale of this. For several hours this morning women walked into the tiny village of Garagoto.

Most had young children slung on their backs.

What we have seen in the villages is not famine but it is a crisis - some say tens of thousands of children are at risk

Some were carried in bundles of cloth. All were sick. Some had the bloated faces of the severely malnourished. Others were covered in flies.

One of them, eight-year-old Tareking, was starving. His eyes sunken, his head swollen.

His mother had walked for several hours to bring him to a treatment centre. We all questioned whether it was too late for Tareking.

Another mother called Muner said she had walked for four hours to get help for her son Sparku.

"I was so tired, she said, and it was very difficult getting here. The cattle are dying and there is hunger."

Challenge ahead

For a time, Ethiopia was associated with famine. The country has come a long way since then.

What we have seen in the villages is not famine - but it is a crisis.

Some say tens of thousands of children are at risk. I can believe that.

We travelled through five or six villages. In every one were vulnerable children who will not survive until the next harvest without emergency food aid.

One aid agency has said there is not currently enough food in the country to meet this crisis.

I met Daniel Hadgu, who works for the International Medical Corps. He was clear that, without help, 50% of the most needy children would die.

We went to an emergency centre in the village of Eddu that was run by the Missionaries of Charity.

They have already cared for more than 400 of the most seriously ill children.

The vast majority survive but a few have died. Some are so weak and vulnerable that the slightest setback can be fatal.

And here lies the challenge: what will become of so many poor, frail children in the months ahead before the next harvest in early autumn.

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