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EDITOR’S NOTE - The international military intervention

January 9, 1993

EDITOR’S NOTE - The international military intervention in Somalia has reclaimed some hope for the devastated nation. But the tragedy is far from ended. Here is a report on one little corner of suffering.

Undated (AP) _ By CHARLES J. HANLEY AP Special Correspondent

BAIDOA, Somalia (AP) - The first morning light streams across the Somali plain, past sleeping villages, through lacy acacia trees, over a rough wattle fence onto a scene that would make even a heart of stone shudder.

On the black earth behind a whitewashed building, women slosh water from cups, cleaning away the night’s filth from cadaverous, helpless children.

One naked boy, 8 years old, weighing just 34 pounds, leans painfully against his mother, clinging to her as he clings to life, a skeleton wrapped in skin.

The mother, Hidigow Hassan Nur, tells their story:

The drought left the family farm with no grain. First her husband died of starvation, then five of her eight children, one by one. At last, the survivors began eating the camels, the family treasure. She sold others to buy food. But soon, looters made off with the herd.

With nothing left, she gathered up her three remaining children, carrying 8-year-old Oyow on her shoulders, and walked four days to this crossroads town. She found her way to the children’s therapeutic center run by Concern, an Irish relief agency.

In three days of a food-and-medicine regimen, Oyow has gained a bit of weight. He looks near death, but his mother is pleased. ″Before, he couldn’t eat,″ she said.

Oyow is an ordinary child at the Concern center. And an outsider’s daylong visit to the center is an education in the ordinary horrors of the catastrophe that has befallen Somalia.

The day shows, too, that the catastrophe is far from ended. Marines may be just down the road, and food may be on its way to villages, but victims are still wandering in from the countryside

On this December day, one of them is Isaak Mohamed Hassan - 14 years old, 35 pounds - waiting in the shadows by the front gate.

As the sun floats above the horizon, warming the cool morning, Irish nurses Margaret Reilly and Michelle Mackin arrive to begin their day at ″Isha Therapeutic,″ named for the section of Baidoa where it is situated.

Reilly, 32, and Mackin, 26, are the only foreign staff. They are assisted by four Somali nurses and two dozen ″helpers″ - women hired to care for children not accompanied by their mothers.

Isha Therapeutic, which has about 100 children, is a place for the worst cases, where the suffering of Somalia is distilled to its most basic, a place of shriveled 2-year-olds needing constant attention, of children with horrible swellings caused by malnutrition, of emaciated teen-agers whose blank faces tell of their disbelief of what has happened to them.

″When they found me,″ one older boy told the visitor, ″I didn’t know whether I was alive or dead.″

On this morning, they find Isaak Mohamed out front and lead him inside. His mother brought him to Isha Therapeutic.

Reilly swiftly examines the withered boy. ″Fourteen 3/8 Can he be 14?″ she exclaims. His ″chart″ card is begun and a numbered plastic band is wrapped around his reed-thin wrist. He and his mother are led off to one of five crowded rooms where they will spend the coming days.

The children and women sleep on green plastic floor mats laid wall to wall in the former malaria clinic, a one-story concrete building with few windows, many shadowy corners and the permanent reek of sick humanity.

The children, unable to eat much at one feeding, have eight mealtimes a day. For their first three days, they usually are given vitamin A and a mild mixture of milk and oral rehydration solution. Eventually, they settle into a diet of full-strength milk and specially formulated, high-nutrition ″biscuits.″

Three times a day, they are given their antibiotics or other medicines. The severest cases, usually bad infections, are sent across the road to an old hospital now run by the voluntary International Medical Corps.

With Somali interpreters in tow, Reilly and Mackin make their rounds of the rooms. ″What’s wrong with this child?″ is their frequent refrain.

As the heat of late morning sets in, a rumble from the road shakes the old building. Twenty trucks laden with grain, each emblazoned with a big ″U.N.,″ roll westward toward stricken farm villages, among them Oforu.

Gur Aden Abdi, 22, who has just carried her malnourished younger brother to the center, tells the visitor about Oforu, their home.

″It is peaceful now that the American troops are in Somalia,″ she says. ″But there is no food. There was good rain finally, but there is no sorghum on the farms because there was no seed and the people didn’t have the energy to plant.″

The compounded ironies and vicious circles of the Somali tragedy continue.

When the rains stopped in 1991, it was a deadly enough threat. But then the food shortage was worsened by interclan war. Farmers were killed. Militias pillaged and burned. Hungry militiamen turned into lawless marauders, stripping villages of everything from seeds to farm implements.

A small part of the human wreckage - crying, coughing children - fills Isha Therapeutic.

In one crowded room, a tiny child who refused to eat is slowly fed through a tube in her nose. She struggles pitifully as helpers hold her down.

In another room, they change the bloody dressing on an older boy’s ulcerated leg, burst open from swelling. In a side yard, Reilly checks on a girl quarantined with chicken pox.

″Chicken pox would spread like wildfire here,″ says Mackin. ″But measles is the biggest killer. If you’re malnourished, it attacks so much. Many other infections develop from measles.″

The nurses say the center’s regimen usually leads to a weight gain within two weeks.

Reilly proudly points out a 2-year-old girl.

″She arrived weighing 3.9 kilos (8.6 pounds),″ she says. The child’s chart tells the rest of the story: to 9 pounds five days later, to 10 pounds two weeks after that. Finally to almost 12 pounds, a major improvement, though still only 63 percent of what she should weigh.

Outside, the landscape bakes under a heavy afternoon sun. Inside, Reilly is asked what brought her to the heart of devastated Somalia.

″A nurse friend working in Baidoa called to say they needed help,″ she recalls. ″The day before, 200 people had died in town.″ She took a leave from her job at a Dublin hospital and arrived Sept. 3, two days after Isha Therapeutic opened.

Her first reaction? ″The suffering and sadness: I never imagined there could be such suffering.″

Mackin, who had to give up her job at a Belfast hospital to join Concern, was shocked when she came here in mid-November.

″On my first day, we were driving around and picked up a child on the road and brought him here,″ she recounts. ″I thought this was the most awful place. As we were leaving, my colleague told me, ‘This is where you’ll be working.’ ... I could have cried.″

But the two women, matter-of-fact professionals, push on hour by hour, measuring their success by the numbers.

″Let’s see,″ Reilly says as she pulls out her battered old ledger. ″In November, there were 198 admissions, 59 deaths, 147 referred (discharged). ... In December, we’ve averaged two deaths a day. It was as many as seven a day earlier in the year.″

The afternoon is waning. Reilly returns across the dusty road from a visit to three children being treated at the hospital. In the center’s front yard, Halima Moalim Mat, 55, waits with her year-old granddaughter for a truck ride back to her home village.

The child, whose parents are dead, has been nursed back to health at Isha Therapeutic. ″They’ve done good work for us,″ the grandmother says. ″Otherwise, my baby would be dead. ... I’m so happy.″

She rushes to Reilly, clasps the nurse’s hands and wishes her well.

A Marine armored patrol rolls by, its loudspeaker warning townspeople not to carry weapons. A short time later, a Huey helicopter clatters overhead, momentarily blotting out the sinking sun.

″It’ll be hard to leave, with things still a terrible long way to go″ says Reilly, whose tour ends soon.

″There are still many, many children who need help badly.″

The two exhausted nurses drive to their living quarters and a tropical dusk soon envelops the center. The children and an evening shift of Somalis begin an overnight routine of meals, medicine and, hopefully, sleep.

Out on the roads, other Somalis will be wandering - on the move, looking for help, waiting for the dawn.

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