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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 August 2005, 08:53 GMT 09:53 UK
Reporting the crisis in Niger

By Hilary Andersson
BBC News

Many of you have asked about the BBC's coverage of Niger. How did news crews hear about the crisis and has the resulting footage helped? Hilary Andersson reports on her assignment and what it achieved.

The province of Maradi, devastated by Niger's famine, lies on the southern edge of the Sahara desert, in the vast wastelands of Africa's Sahel.

It is an epic journey just to get there. Our team left Johannesburg on a Tuesday, and arrived there in the evening three days later after flights all over Africa and a nine-hour drive through scorching desert.

Boy suffering from malnutrition
We would explain with great pain that we were not doctors but journalists - and that all we could do was pass the message of their suffering onto the world

At first, we were surprised by the greenery that hugs the southernmost belt of Niger. Crops were growing because it had been raining, yet we'd been told there was a drought.

As we travelled north, the landscape began to change dramatically. The land turned brown and parched.

We began to pass carcasses of cattle on the sides of the roads. Donkeys were emaciated. Horses looked like skeletons, the bones of their haunches and their ribs painfully visible.

Niger is a vast and under-populated country and we hadn't yet seen many people. Nor had we seen much sign of foreign aid.

Appalling conditions

Our hotel in Maradi was virtually empty, we were the only foreign journalists there. In the world's eyes, Niger was just having another hard year - as far as the world was concerned, this was not a famine.

Our first morning we went to a remote village where French doctors tend the sick. Hundreds of women turned up with their children looking for food and medicine.

Mother and baby in Niger feeding centre
Though the mothers wanted to be filmed and pushed their babies towards the lens, we were left feeling helpless and crude at filming such terrible pain.

It was shocking to see how emaciated the children were. In covering starvation in Angola after war, in Malawi in 2002, and in Darfur last year, I had not seen people in such appalling condition in such numbers.

In the throng of infants, one girl stood out. She was tall, almost naked and skeletal. Her legs were so thin it was a miracle she could stand at all.

She bore a sullen, angry expression. Her name was Amina.

Her mother had to pretend the six-year-old was four to get her in to see a doctor, as the aid was only available for children under five.

She was taken off to a feeding centre, an hour's jolting drive away. In the car next to her was Hassan, six months old, so famished and wrinkled, so tiny he seemed he might die on the way.

Parasites, infections, lesions

These two children were put in a tent with rows of the starving. Many of the children were so thin their heart could be seen beating through their ribs.

The skin of their stomachs was lying horrifyingly close to their backs. They had parasites in their mouths, terrible lung infections and lesions.

Over the next two weeks we watched Amina, Hassan, and other children struggle to survive. Children we had been filming died in their tents every day.

Plane with food aid
Within a few days of our reports...Britain had doubled aid to Niger [and] aid began flowing in

We watched their mothers' pained expressions as they sat by their children watching them suffer an excruciating death. A boy called Aminu had terrible skin infections which would not heal.

The children would stare at the camera with hungry and exhausted eyes. The mothers would ask us for help.

We would explain with great pain that we were not doctors but journalists - and that all we could do was pass the message of their suffering onto the world, so that people would know.

Though the mothers wanted to be filmed and pushed their babies towards the lens, we were left feeling helpless and crude at filming such terrible pain.

Searing pictures

Within a few days of our reports though, Britain had doubled aid to Niger, aid began flowing in, the UN talked about how the power of television had woken up the world to Niger's crisis.

We will never know exactly what part we played in all of this but we were the only television crew there.

By the time our team left Maradi, our hotel was so full of journalists and aid workers that there were no rooms left at the inn.

French TV had even taken our spot in the corridor that we used to hook up our TVZ which feeds television pictures through a laptop back to London.

Glenn Middleton packed up his camera through which he shot the most searing pictures of starvation I can remember and we both headed home.

David Loyn, Barnaby Phillips and their team have flown in to take over.




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