Glen Johnson

The horror of small graves

August 28, 2011 Herald on Sunday

The graves lay in a clearing beside a potholed road at the south end of Mogadishu. Each was small, 1m long, and covered by an oval mound of red soil, water sprinkled on top to keep it in place.

Some were protected by scrubs, brambles and small branches, and surrounded by small rocks. None was marked with names.

An aged man, Ali, who watched over the makeshift cemetery, said there were dozens of graves in the area. Every day more appeared.

“They are all children’s graves. Mostly children are dying here,” he said.

They died from malnutrition or diarrhoea, Ali said.

They came from the makeshift Internally Displaced Persons camp across the road, a sprawling, cramped collection of huts built from cloth and pieces of tarpaulin that’s home to 5000 displaced families.

Most of the people in the camp had fled South and Central Somalia, trekking to Mogadishu in search of food and water, before ending up in one of the dozens of camps in the capital.

Somalia is in the midst of a severe drought following the failure of the secondary rains from October to December last year and the delayed and below normal primary rains from April to June this year. Crops failed and livestock died.

According to the World Bank’s August Food Price Watch report, food prices in Somalia have soared – the staple cereal sorghum has increased by 180 per cent and maize 107 per cent.

Around 3.7 million Somalis need aid, with 3.2 million in need of life-saving assistance. Hundreds of thousands are displaced and the United Nations has declared famine in five regions of the country, and it is expected to spread to all of the south within two months.

An estimated 29,000 children under the age of 5 have died.

In Mogadishu’s Banadir hospital, the entrance to the paediatric clinic is full. Women sit on the floor clutching children connected to drips.

A corridor is crammed with around 50 women and children. One child vomits a white liquid. It dribbles down his chin as his eyes swirl. Flies buzz around incessantly. Another small child sits weakly above a bedpan.

A rail-thin woman called Amira clutches her 19-month-old infant to her chest. His eyes loll from side to side as flies land on his face and arms.

“He is not improving,” Amira said. “They have given him vaccines and medicines. He has bad diarrhoea.”

According to Dr Lulu Mohammed, head of the paediatric department at the hospital, mortality rates in children sit at 10 per cent. She said they hoped to get mortality rates in children down to 5 per cent.

In another room a young mother stands over a bed where the outline of a small child can be seen, pressing through a pink striped bedspread.

The mother’s eyes are dry and empty as she says, “she is a girl”.

Then she picks up the bundle, carefully wrapping it tightly around the limp and dead 19-month-old child.

She walks quickly out of the ward to look for somewhere to bury her child.

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