BARDERA, Somalia -- They walk in out of the desert from places not even on the map. They stagger through the sandy gullies where water once splashed, pushing themselves on with sticks, clawing with their skeletal hands, stumbling over the debris of rock and brittle dry brush.
They have heard there is food in Bardera, and there is. But it is not enough. Down here in this universe of red earth and perpetual dust, the story is the same as everywhere else in Somalia. There is not nearly enough food.
It was only on August 10 that Dr. Ayub Sheikh Yerow reached this place in the empty center of the country by the Juba River. He set up the first UNICEF feeding center for children, and a rudimentary clinic. But things were so bad he found they had to start feeding everybody they could. The first day they fed over 2,500. The second day it went over 3,000.
Still, it was not enough. More and more came. There are about 10,000 people in Bardera, once a prosperous agricultural region. Those are people who staggered in out of the bush, from even more remote regions. The original inhabitants have wandered off somewhere else. It has been like that: the townspeople go off into the country, or make it down across the border into the refugee camps in Kenya; the nomads, who know nothing of houses, take over the towns.
But the towns are destroyed anyway, just an accumulation of shell- holed rubble, box-like houses without roofs, some blue or yellow paint still clinging to their perforated walls. Vines grow through the windows; the bush is advancing, taking back the town. Here and there are the rusty remains of farm machines, all destroyed by the years of civil war.
Dr. Ayub says half of those who come here will die. He stands behind the wall of the compound. A sour smell pervades the air. The hungry clamor against the gate, their heads visible at the top of the wall, those in the back pressing those in front forward. They are desperate and can only be kept away by guns and sticks and men determined to use them.
In the yard they weigh a child in a sling to see how close to death it is. Most of them are suffering acute starvation.
As Dr. Ayub tells of the work at the center, Abdulai Hussein sits on the ground rubbing his head. His fingers play over his joints, which are enormous, and a strange questioning look comes across his face, as if he is asking himself how he got this way.
He is 30; all in his family are gone. He arrived not long ago. With many of the others he survived by eating leaves and animal skins.
4 "What I can see in front of me, I eat," he said.
Yet not everyone is starving in Bardera, not the soldiers of Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed. He is one of the two warlords who keep this land in a state of perpetual conflict.
General Aideed's headquarters are ten minutes from here by truck. There is food in that compound littered with rocks, armored vehicles and here and there a dusty howitzer, and young men and boys adorned with cartridge belts. Most of the food is thought to have been stolen from the relief shipments coming into the country. He needs it to keep his soldiers fit for future battles. But mostly he needs it to keep them with him.
There seems to be little concern among the warlords and their men at arms for what is happening at Dr. Ayub's clinic. One of the spokesmen there assures a few reporters who made it out this far that surely there is food in the region, that reports of starvation ar exaggerated.
Away in less remote Baidoa things may be worse. It is a half hour to the northeast from Bardera by plane. Nobody travels there by road from here; there are too many bandits. Baidoa is big, which means more suffering. There may be 300,000 people in that region, and 30,000 in the town itself, again nomads. They stream in out of the bush looking for food and water, just as in Bardera.
Amina Chek Muhamud is a nurse trying to keep several hundred children alive in one of the four feeding centers run by the charity Irish Concern, coordinated by UNICEF. There are also 23 kitchens in Baidoa of the International Committee for the Red Cross, the organization which has been the most effective and formidable in confronting the tragedy of Somalia.
"Today I've had five die," says the nurse. "I need drugs. I need drugs. More food, but mainly drugs."
Another Somali employee for UNICEF, out from Mogadishu, comes over. He is affected. "We are trying. We are trying our best to get the medicines." He shakes his head helplessly.
All about, children from the ages 2 to 5 squat on the earth, ridden by dysentery, hacking with bronchitis. Their mothers attend them as best they can. Five to seven die a day in this center, but oddly that shows great improvement. When Irish Concern first set up here, 300 people a day were dying, mostly children.
Also, much of the dysentery is caused by the food itself. It is rich and they are unaccustomed to eating it, says Anita Ennis, a coordinator in Baidoa for Irish Concern.
She draws attention to the absence of children under two. "We don't have infants. We simply assume most of them are dead."
Ms. Ennis raises the same dilemma that confronts all the relief workers, or anybody who even thinks about what is happening here with the aim of trying to reach a solution. She speaks of the success of the feeding program: "We can succeed with some of the children here. We can actually fatten them up. But we cannot discharge them; if we sent them out in a couple of weeks they'd be in the same condition."
So the problem is quite simple and the solution is known. There are starving people in Somalia because there is not enough food. There is not enough food because the security situation is so bad, it cannot be distributed to where it is needed. And so much of it is stolen.
Somalia needs 350,000 metric tons of food over the next year to avoid the catastrophe many people around here think might already be unavoidable: the starvation of over a million people. Nowhere near that amount has come in.
E. Scott Osborne, with the Catholic Relief Services in Nairobi, says that possibly the only way to avoid that is "to flood the country with food, perhaps even by airdropping it, though that is dangerous."
But getting food in massive amounts, she says, "is the only way to stop people fighting over it." That is the only way to take away some of the power from the warlords and to devalue food as a currency. But how to do it? There are too many guns, too many freelance bandits and food looters, too many half-organized militia standing in the way.
Nobody in Somalia believes that the 500 United Nations troops from Pakistan, who will soon arrive in Mogadishu, will be able to ameliorate the situation. They will have their hands full just guarding the docks and the airport, possibly protecting food convoys just in Mogadishu.
Catholic Relief Services is running a feeding program out of two Kenyan border towns, Mandera and El Wak. The Baltimore based agency has 7,000 tons of food it intends to truck into southern Somalia, taking it from village to village, where the need is.
"But that is just a drop in the bucket," said Ms. Osborne.
NO HORROR LEFT
Back in Baidoa there is a problem one day at one of the Red Cross general feeding centers. No water has arrived to the center so the beans cannot be boiled. There is no drinkable water in Baidoa, and most people have no fuel to boil the contaminated water that exists here.
There is a great impatience outside the gate that develops into a faint ripple of panic as more and more people gather, realizing something is wrong. They are totally dependent on these kitchens, even though they are not enough. Those in the yard, standing in line, begin to jostle one another. Others are lined up on the earth, sitting one behind the other.
Then the relief workers begin scooping out the beans uncooked; these are carried away by old men or little children too old to be in the feeding centers. How will they be consumed if they cannot be cooked? If eaten dry they will make the people sick. Still, there is nothing to do but give it to them.
Outside the gate a man falls to the earth. He cannot get up; he is about to die. Some people stand back; others approach. There are no tears or expressions of fear or horror. These sentiments have been lost a long time ago. The people just stare, curiously; a few of them laugh when the man's leg twitches.
It clouds up briefly over Baidoa; it showers for a few minutes, the drops exploding in the dust. The man lies in the road. The people watch for a while, then move back toward the gate. Later someone will bury him in a shallow grave outside the wall, with the others who have died while waiting to be fed.
HOW TO HELP
Here is a list of some agencies helping in Somalia:
*UNICEF, 331 East 38 St., New York, N.Y. 10016, (212) 686-5522.
*American Red Cross, Box 37243, Washington, D.C. 20013, 1-800-842-2200.
*Catholic Relief Services, P.O. Box 17090, Baltimore, Md. 21298, 1-800-736-3467.
*Lutheran World Relief, 390 Park Ave. South, New York, N.Y. 10026-8803, (212) 532-6350.
*Doctors Without Borders USA, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, Suite 5425, New York, N.Y. 10112, Phone (212) 649-5961.