False hopes draw the hungry to where the dead lie in heaps: James Roberts witnesses the grim daily routine in a starving town

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The Independent Online
DOWN the main street of Baidoa, 150 miles inland from Mogadishu, a truck with no windscreen moves slowly at dawn, flying a tattered Red Crescent and pulling a trailer with high wooden sides. Two men, cloths over nose and mouth, stand at either corner at the back of the trailer. Behind them, spindly bodies are laid out in sacks, soles of feet protruding from the inadequate wrapping. The pile grows steadily higher, as the dead are brought on crude wheelbarrows, or by hand, and lifted on to the heap, layer upon layer.

Last Thursday, the truck picked up 176 bodies. Yesterday, the Red Crescent collectors appeared likely to exceed this total.

On the approaches to Baidoa, families walk with a strength that seems beyond their frail bodies. They bring all they possess - mats, a water flask, the rags they wear. Some kind of hope drives them on, but desperate indeed are those whose last hope is in Baidoa.

This was a town of 60,000 people before it was destroyed in the civil war. Now, people are coming back, attracted by the relief organisations - Concern, International Committee of the Red Cross, Care - struggling to establish feeding operations. But there is no water, apart from one over-worked spring, no electricity, no sanitation.

Yet there is buying and selling in Baidoa. At night, men who look fit and strong, cradling AK47 assault rifles, sit in the Bikiin bar and restaurant, eating rice and goat's milk and drinking the sweet Somali tea. Outside, the lost and the starving mill around near the sight of food. Those who cannot stand lie in the street. Having fallen, many will never rise again.

As you leave Mogadishu for Baidoa, at first there are few signs of famine. Farmers expect to grow enough beans, pumpkins and maize to keep their families, if not any more. Hundreds of camels and cattle drink at the waterholes. The herders look healthy.

At Uanle Uen, 50 or 60 miles out of the capital, women sell sesame seed balls and a restaurant offers camels' milk, goat meat and rice. But here there are also children with no flesh on their bones. Without food, they must accept the mere proximity to food. Women, skin loose, tough and dry on their bones, point out a deformity - a twisted hand or arm, a crippled foot - in an attempt to persuade the better-fed to release a drop of sustenance.

Thirty miles on, a rocky outcrop breaks from the barren landscape. A skull in the dusty fields stares at the road. This is the village of Bur Hakabo. The dwellings are corrugated iron fixed to wooden posts or fragile constructions of grass. None has a roof. From one door, the body of a 50- year-old man, Hawe Aren, is carried out on a makeshift stretcher. He starved to death.

Next door Ali Osman sits on the floor with his legs stretched out, one foot putrefying. Next to him is his daughter, Kalija Ali, aged 4, curled under a faded cloth. She has no flesh, but her eyes are bright and still. Her sister helps her to her feet and she stands motionless. Her expression changes and she stares in quiet misery at the dirt floor. Ali Osman gazes at his visitors with something beyond reproach or anger, even beyond desperation. Across the dirty path between the houses another child, Hire Osman, aged 5, lies dead under a piece of sack.

This village has suffered worse. Six months ago, soldiers of an enemy clan came to Bur Hakabo. They cut off people's hands. They took nails from shoes and hammered them into men's testicles. They drowned men and women. They took away the grain and the camels. Nine-year-old Ibrahim Hassan, one of hundred of orphans, lost his small sister, Hawas. Now, he is dying because an orphan can only survive on what others give and others have nothing to give. An orphanage was opened, using food from the ICRC but, 17 days later, looters emptied the foodstore.

In villages beyond Baidoa, many more are surviving than dying. ICRC food is getting through, and though often looted and chaotically distributed, it is relieving much misery. Only those few without families starve in their tiny grass dwellings.

In Beledweyne last Friday, 150 miles north of Mogadishu, the Americans delivered several planeloads of grain. They had decided to give Baidoa a miss on their first run. A few heroic agencies - ICRC on a large scale, Save the Children on a smaller but highly effective scale - have taken the trouble to understand Somalia and distribute food so that the most needy receive it. Flying it in is the easy part. After that, the aid workers need planning, care, hard work and courage.