DADAAB, Kenya — Jill Biden, wife of the U.S. vice president, led a high-profile delegation to northeast Kenya Monday as a humanitarian crisis sparked by war, famine and drought engulfed the Horn of Africa.
Biden visited the Dadaab complex of refugee camps to draw attention to the famine in southern Somalia that U.S. aid officials say has so far claimed 29,000 lives in the last three months.
“We need a greater awareness worldwide of what is going on here,” she said. “There is hope if people start to pay attention to this.”
Dadaab is a dust-blown sprawl of three refugee camps that was built for 90,000 but is now home to about 400,000. Most live in plastic-covered stick huts that cover the inhospitable landscape.
More from GlobalPost: Photographs of Somalis who have fled to Kenyan refugee camps
Every day its population is growing by about 1,500 as more Somalis arrive after walking for days or even weeks to flee the war and famine afflicting their home country. They carry with them tales of horror from their journey out of Somalia’s maelstrom.
Children are the first victims, their immature and malnourished bodies unable to cope when diseases like measles, pneumonia, malaria and diarrhea strike.
In a hospital run by the New York-based International Rescue Committee, 6-month old Hanad weighed just 3.1 kilograms. His mother, Ambia Abdi Ali, cradled his tiny form in her arms, feeding him sips of fortified milk hoping to add flesh to his exposed ribs and twig-like arms.
The International Rescue Committee's Dr. John Kingoria said Hanad would suvive but others have not been so lucky. He said that at least five others have died in this clinic alone in the last month.
More from GlobalPost: Rebels leave Mogadishu, will it help?
The refugees also face other dangers. Kadija Hassan Ali, 35, came from Mogadishu with her six children. As they headed for Dadaab bandits — “shiftas” she called them using a local term for gangs of gunmen – hijacked the vehicle they were travelling on with two dozen others.
All their possessions were stolen and her two teenage daughters and a niece were raped.
“I left Mogadishu when my husband and son were killed, we were looking for safety … . I could not imagine such a thing would happen,” she told GlobalPost.
Unable to bear the shame, her daughters have since returned to Somalia.
It was stories such as these that Biden had come to hear as she sat on a bench beneath a tree, the dust and wind swirling around her. She spoke to a refugee family during a brief tour of a reception center where new arrivals are screened for feeding and medical treatment.
Afterwards she described the influx of people to Dadaab as “overwhelming.”
Biden said that children were dying during arduous weeks-long journeys from the famine zones of southern Somalia to the refugee camps of northeastern Kenya and called for more to be done to help the starving people.
Her tour of Dadaab coincided with an announcement from the U.S. government of an additional $95 million in American aid to help alleviate the crisis.
The United Nations declared a famine in two regions of southern Somalia in July and last week that was expanded to five regions, including the camps springing up around the capital Mogadishu.
Last week, the United Nations said it had so far raised less than half of the $2.4 billion it needs to fight the famine in Somalia and the wider drought in the Horn of Africa that has left 12.4 million facing food shortages.
Raj Shah, a USAID administrator, travelled with Biden and warned that “hundreds of thousands” of children could die in Somalia in the coming months. “This is a unique opportunity to save children’s lives,” he said.
The problem humanitarian organizations are facing is that many of those worst affected live in areas controlled by Al Shabaab, a brutal Islamist militia that is a key protagonist in Somalia’s ongoing civil war and that has banned many Western aid agencies.
“There is no doubt the famine is the result of drought being superimposed on a political crisis,” Shah said.
Mohamed Ali, a tiny white-bearded man, from the Al Shabaab stronghold of Baidoa arrived in Dadaab a few days ago and said the drought and famine were the final straw.
“In the end it was the lack of food and water but before that we were colonized by Al Shabaab,” he told GlobalPost as he built his new hut on the outskirts of Dadaab. “They took my animals by force and taxed our use of water sources, they restricted my work and blocked humanitarian aid."
Refugees and aid workers alike acknowledge that the problem is less a lack of rain than the failure of the Somali state. “At its root this is not a food crisis, it is a political crisis,” said Gerald Martone, the International Rescue Committee's director of humanitarian affairs. “But [nonetheless] it is a terribly serious event; the worst I’ve seen in 30 years as an aid worker.”
More from GlobalPost: Bill Gates reinvents the toilet