The rains have failed Hawa Ali, a shepherd from Ethiopia, over and over again for three years straight. Before all her animals succumbed to thirst, hunger and disease, she made the decision to join other families in her village and trek to neighbouring Somaliland.
Putting the children on donkeys, Hawa and her villagers – all of them ethnic Somalis – walked for 30 days to reach Lughaya, a coastal town in Awdal region, Somaliland. Along the way, more animals died, and eventually there were no more donkeys left to carry the children. The group decided to stop. They came here because they thought there would be pasture and aid. But they couldn’t find either – Somaliland was also gripped by drought.
With the help of the locals, they started moving again. Too weak to walk, they were put in trucks and brought to a village outside Boroma, the capital and the largest city of Awdal region.
When I met Hawa, she was sitting quietly in an open area filled with small rocks. There was no shelter, nor the sight of any food, or a single bit of shade to shield her from the blazing sun. There were no men in the group. She was surrounded by 20 people, all women and children.
“The men went to look for pasture with our remaining animals,” explained Hawa, 70. “We were left here to wait for aid, but we have only received very little. The situation is not good here – we have no food, no water, and on top of that, no shelter. It is cold and windy in the night, the children are suffering.”
“The drought has been going on for three years. It keeps on getting worse and worse, to a point that we had to leave everything behind,” added Hawo Rayab, 35, holding her crying baby next to her chest, trying to breastfeed. “We were told that there were pasture on the other side of the border. But when we got here, we didn’t find anything.”
The drought that has hit Ethiopia and northern Somalia (especially Somaliland and Puntland) is the result of four successive seasons of below-average rains, exacerbated by El Niño. Farmers and herders are hardest hit, and they make up three-quarters of the Somaliland and Puntland’s population. Failed crops, severe water and pasture shortages have pushed these communities – known for their extraordinary ability to withstand harsh environments – to the limit.
Mohamed Omar, 80, used to have plenty of goats. But when we met him and his family in Habasweyne (“huge dust”) in his village on the outskirt of Hargeisa, he had only two left. He led us to see the two remaining goats. Both were kneeling on the ground, showing no interest in the corn kernels purposely sprinkled around them. They were too weak to stand or eat.
“I am 80 years old,” said Mohamed. “In the 80 years of my life this is the first time that I have seen a drought this bad. It has killed so many animals and caused so much hunger. Our lives are in danger.”
Another ugly effect of the drought is the rising malnutrition cases among children. Nearly 100,000 children under five years old are acutely malnourished in Somaliland and Puntland. Malnutrition-related deaths have been reported in areas such as Awdal region bordering Ethiopia, where we met Hawa and other refugees.
The UN is now mobilizing resources so that its agencies, such as UNICEF, can provide lifesaving assistance to some 1.7 million people affected by drought in northern Somalia. Among them, 385,000 are in need of immediate assistance, while another 1.3 million are on the brink of slipping further into hunger and destitutution if rains continue to fail and aid is too slow to come.
Before I left Hawa and the rest of the refugee women and children, I caught up with a little girl, Raaho Osman Ahmed. She told us that she was carried by a donkey when her family made the journey to Somaliland. “We didn’t have enough food back home, so we left,” said the bright-eyed four-year-old. “I had a lot of friends back home,” she went on saying. “Mohamed…Aya…Omar…Fatuma…We always play together. I want to go home.”
Her talk of play and home made me remember that I had a small furry, cuddly backpack with me that resembles a teddy bear’s head. My children used to play with it when they were younger. So I went and found it in my luggage and brought it over to her. She was very happy, immediately putting the straps around her shoulders and started wearing it on her chest. May it give her some warmth and comfort when she sleeps in the open tonight, I said to myself as I waved Raaho, Hawa and the rest goodbye.
And may help come soon so that the Raaho can go back and play with her friends in the comfort and safety of her home again.
Kun Li works as a Communication Specialist for UNICEF Somalia. Chinese by birth; American, African and world citizen by heart.