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Page last updated at 22:10 GMT, Wednesday, 11 June 2008 23:10 UK

Ethiopian children face starvation

By Gavin Hewitt
BBC News, Ethiopia

Ethiopian boy Tareknge and his mother
More than 126,000 Ethiopian children could be affected by malnutrition
A woman walks slowly down a track between eucalyptus trees. On her back is a boy, his head emaciated and swollen.

She is just one of several hundred mothers who have walked for hours to find help. But her son, whose name is Tareknge, is starving.

His is the face of hunger and the face of a crisis that is developing in Ethiopia's south-west.

Later, we wanted to find out what had happened to Tareknge, and what it could tell us about the growing food crisis. We returned to the village of Garogoto and showed people a picture of the boy and his mother. Very soon someone told us the name of their hamlet.

We drove for half an hour along narrow, mud-packed roads past traditional thatched-roofed houses. Here the children run towards a car - particularly one with foreigners inside. They hoped we would give them some food.

Many of the children were ragged. They had flies around their mouths and eyes. Some had distended stomachs.

The grain has never been so expensive - it has never reached this level before
Idris Mohammed, trader

We arrived at the hamlet of Dache Goffara. We were surprised to find Tareknge had returned home. His father invited us inside.

Tareknge was sitting beside the coals of a small fire. He was weak and listless.

His father said that they did not have the money to take him to hospital, so his mother brought him home. At the feeding centre, they gave the mother a few high-nutrition biscuits.

I could not tell the age of Lekmo, the father. He sat between the grey smoke of the fire and the shaft of sunlight through the door. Lekmo had no answers - he was resigned to what he feared.

"We used to give Tareknge some corn bread and sweet potato," he told us, "but we no longer have any of these things. We have nothing at the home at the moment. Nothing."

Lifeline

Outside his house was the rest of the village. Most of the children were malnourished.

It was a strange sight. The houses were surrounded by green stalks of corn, but the harvest was still three to four months away. A drought and a failed crop had left them with almost nothing.

There were the tall fronds of what they call "false banana" - a drought-resistant plant, for many a lifeline.

There are two ways of eating false banana. One is cooking the roots, while the other is taking parts of the trunk and burying it, allowing it to decompose before eating it - but it has to stay buried for three months, and even then it is of low nutritional value.

Villagers in Dache Goffara
Late rains and the high cost of food mean millions will need food aid

The villagers watched us, curious as to what our visit would mean for them. Through an interpreter I asked them who was eating less than one meal a day. Every hand went up.

And then one hand became two, out-stretched, pleading for help.

They knew they had to scrape by for two to three months.

If there is no emergency food aid, tens of thousands of children will die. The under-fives are the most vulnerable. A few have died already. Their immune systems are so undermined that a small setback can be fatal.

About an hour by car is the larger town of Boddetti. The market bustled. There was food here. Small piles of maize, barley, teff, lentils and beans.

The prices had doubled in just five months. The traders struggled to make a sale. The people could not afford the price.

At the grain market in Addis Ababa, the capital, some said the price of teff, their most important grain, had trebled.

"The grain has never been so expensive," said Idris Mohammed, one of the traders. "It has never reached this level before."

And that is Ethiopia's problem. As many as 4.5 million people are judged to need critical, emergency assistance. Not only are food prices soaring but there is not enough food in the country.

The choice is stark. Without help, thousands of children will not survive the next few months, but as we travelled through the villages there was no sign, as yet, of the kind of operation that would save lives.

The children may be poor but, with help, most of them can survive.





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