Children: one camp's catalog of death


MOGADISHU, Somalia -- It was important to find the book of the dead children, for the sake of the record.

The old man across the street from the feeding center had it one day, and so he was asked to bring it back. Why he wanted it was unclear, but it had to be returned. Everybody agreed.

At the same time they had to be respectful of him; that's the Somali way with the old. After some persuasion he gave it up, and so they had the list of the 30 children who died at the Sherei feeding center from Aug. 4 through Aug. 10.

The names were all there in the copybook, penned in neatly by Kin, one of the two young women who help run the center, for no pay. The Italian word "morto" was written across the top of the page where the list began.

Ibrahim. Raxmo. Laylo. Abdullahi. Sadiyo . . .

The living children sit in the courtyard on the ground, waiting for ,, the food. There are about 100 of them on this day, and some mothers, still feeding, or pregnant. They are quiet, lined up in rows. The sun is steady; the shadows cast down by the leaves of the lone eucalyptus near the wall dart like fishes across the sand. The single mango tree, without fruit, makes a black shade.

Gudrun Engstrom is pleased with what she sees. She stonds in the shade of the veranda of what was once a fine house of stone, with floors of glistening Italian tile, a breezy house of spacious rooms and wide windows. No longer. The window frames are gone, the floor tiles, too, and the roof. All the plumbing, the wiring, all gone. Along with almost every other house here, it has been stripped, left a lifeless cavity.

Still, Gudrun Engstrom is happy. Life, such as it is, is here in the yard. "When we first opened, always in the morning you would find dead people outside the wall," she says. That was July 21. These days it doesn't happen that often here.

Which is not to say they aren't still dying in the streets of Mogadishu, and in other Somali cities. In Baidoa, about 150 miles northwest of here, about 50 people a day die of starvation or related diseases. Most are children.

In Mogadishu it is more difficult to make estimates, owing to the congestion and the danger of just going out. This is one reason why the book of the dead and the other records kept at this feeding center are so important. They are barometers.

"We can use the registration here and in other centers to assess the general situation in the country. From that you can determine more or less how much food is needed in the city and the country," Gudrun Engstrom says.

Food that will never help some.

Abdullaah. Mohamad. Abdikerim. Malyuun . . .

Gudrun Engstrom is a Swedish nurse who works for the United Nations Children's Fund. A month ago, she founded this feeding center on the edge of the Sherei camp, a congestion of round huts built the way Somali nomads have been building them for centuries. Some 60 families are in the camp, displaced by the turmoil of Somalia's disintegration.

Many of them come into Mogadishu for food and safety from the fighting in the countryside. Mogadishu has about 1.2 million people, but it is almost an entirely new population. The people who originally lived here, fled into the country and across the borders of neighboring states. Or they were killed during the fighting, which began in 1988 and grew especially intense last fall, when all the diplomats departed.

Gudrun Engstrom's children come from the camp. The idea, she explains, was to invite the youngest in, 6 years old and younger, register them, compare their weight to their height and try to bring their bodies back to some semblance of normal health through regular feedings of super-nutrious porridge.

Of the 458 registered, 331 were found to be at below 80 percent of the normal weight for their height. That is bad. A child at a ratio of 70 percent or less can be on the edge of death. In Sherei a fourth of the children are below 70 percent. They need intensive feeding, four times a day. But there really isn't enough food for that, and so the list in the book of the dead keeps lengthening:

Wagtiyo. Mahamad. Faryiyo. Aabdiyo. Aabdulaahi. Nurr . . .

Listlessness of hunger

The 6-year-old girl in the blue dress stares bleakly ahead; she can hardly move her limbs, and her joints are like knobs on a tree. She advances behind her brother, who leads her patiently on. She is not waiting for the food with the others: she is just wandering, aimlessly, just like the thousands of other children, and adults, outside the compound, wandering stuporously through the streets of Mogadishu, sleeping in alleys, infants supine under burlap bags; they are like shadows seen through the dust, day and night, just drifting.

At a certain point the appetite disappears and the pain of the hunger goes away. A glow comes into the eyes; first there is a fitful restlessness, and then indifference takes over.

Gudrun Engstrom turns her diagnostic eye on the girl. "She has brain malaria," she says. "Her brother is very good to her. Tender." There is not much doubt she will soon be among the others:

Aadan. Omar. Omar. Duqu. Xusean. Ibraahim. Maryan . . .

The feeding begins around 5 p.m., as the sun sits just above the wall. Kin and Faxira direct the women from the Serei camp. They stir the porridge in a huge vat over a fire and ladle it into bright orange plastic cups.

It is grey and unappetizing stuff called UNIMIX. But it may have saved more lives than penicillin. It is one of various mixtures used by UNICEF and other helping agencies, a mixture of skimmed milk, soya, corn and sugar. There are other mixtures, like CSM, DSM, all of which are packed with vitamins, minerals, proteins and carbohydrates. Sometimes it makes the children sick, it is so rich. But they get over it, and it builds them back up again.

It doesn't taste good, but the children eat it, and it produces a change in the atmosphere. Before, they were listless, oddly patient for children, reticent. Once the food tokes effect they begin to emit the usual child noises: crying, shouting, laughing.

Feet flop in the dust; there is some tusseling. After eating, most of the children are on their feet; there is no running, but a kind of incipient juvenile energy is manifest. About half the children look healthy; the other half are at various stages of disintegration, or recovery. It is hard to tell which.

Kin and Farxia -- around the yard, their bright veils flying. They shout at the mothers, insisting they force the food into the mouths of the children. They are stern.

Sterness is the necessary attitude, necessary to prevent letting go, necessary to prevent the mothers from giving up. There is no place for much overt sympathy here.

The food brings the flies. The courtyard becomes a world of flies. They are everywhere, in the porridge, on the children's eyes and in their ears, trying to chase the food down their throats. The mothers vigorously brush them off.

There have been other mothers in this yard, struggling to save their children:

Khaday. Aamed. Jamilo. Abdi. Siciido . . .

Every day Gudrun Engstrom confronts the same question as everyone who does this work. Is it futile? Is it worth it? Especially here in Somalia, where the prospects are so bleak, why bring a child back to a semblance of health only to release it into a population that has no food, back into the same sink it was snatched out of?

The question is always there. The only human answer to it is another question: Why not? Gudrun Engstrom, with all the other heroes of this war against death, simply carries on, making new schemes, devising new strategies. Recently she discovered several tons of skimmed milk overlooked in a United Nations Children's Fund warehouse. This will allow her to give intensive feedings and bring back the near dead. She hopes to put a medical clinic in the round shed in the yard, to separate the sick children from the well ones. A Somali volunteer is whitewashing the inside walls.

After the feeding a woman comesinto the yard carrying her child on her back. He is about 6. He is skeletal and has the face of an old man with eyes that seem to have seen everything and found none of it worth seeing again.

The doctors and relief workers here almost all agree that people don't often die of starvation. Rather the lack of food weakens the immune system so utterly that a person can be killed by the commonest disease.

This is true, but starvation does have its symptoms: Nothing so shatters the human personality as perpetual hunger; nothing shows its corrosive effect more clearly on the face. There is a mask of famine, and the world knows it when it sees it.

"Has he eaten?" Gudrun Engstrom asks the mother in her brisk way. She shakes her head. He doesn't want to.

"Bring him some food," she orders. She is peremptory in everything; she is dispassionate, but there is a great heat to her dispassion, if such a thing can be imagined. Everybody appreciates it.

The food arrives, and the boy eats. Kin and Farxia both smile; everybody smiles, the mother, even the boy. It is a small triumph. Gudrun Engstrom turns away.

"I think the boy has tuberculosis," she says. It is like saying he is already dead, that he will soon be added to the list.





And all those others who will follow in Somalia.

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