Aid too late for Niger's 'forgotten' children

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The Independent Online

But Zaina Habab is dying. Her golden curls are signs of acute malnutrition. Her weight of eight pounds and five ounces would be right for an eight-month-old, not for her, a girl of three-and-a-half years. Her mother, Sahei, who has already lost three children, shakes her head. "I do not know how much longer I will have her."

Eight months after the United Nations launched its first appeal, warning of famine in Niger, three months after assistant secretary general Jan Egeland called it the "the number one forgotten and neglected emergency in the world" graves are being dug every day. The warning of another senior UN official, Jan Ziggler, that "the children, the sick, the elderly are on the brink of being wiped out", is coming true.

Yesterday, there were 2,500 of the dispossessed lined up at the aid centre in Baoudeta in the stricken south of the country awaiting food and medicine. Many of them, especially the young, will not survive due to starvation and lethal diseases preying on weak bodies.

Vadur Issafou lies motionless, flies crawling over his shut eyes, as if death had already come to claim him. The four-year-old boy does not want to move and has to be dragged to his feet. Vadur is suffering from a severe yellow fever. Will he live? "If he is very lucky; we can only hope," said a nurse.

Here, among the poorest people in the second-poorest country in the world, hope is one of the few things left. Rachida Djibo, 25, paralysed in one leg since she was young, has dragged herself and her nine-month-old daughter Zunedia for five-and-a-half hours to the centre, run by the British charity, Save The Children.

"We have nothing back home," she said, sitting on the dirt. "Bacharou, my husband, has gone to Nigeria to get money and food, so the only thing we have now is what we get from here. My daughter is very ill, she keeps vomiting, she cannot keep anything down. I am very worried because so many of my family have already died. We need help, we all need help."

With 2.6 million people to feed, more than 800,000 children under five, only a fraction of the desperately needed food is getting in now despite emergency air-lifts by the UN and international aid agencies.

The cause is the delay in the international community's reaction despite repeated warnings of the unfolding tragedy. Alister Shields, a logistics officer with Save The Children, said: "We are now paying $3 a kilo to fly in aid, and it is not coming in fast enough. If only the appeal was heeded earlier, that money would have been used to set up local supplies in Africa and we could have brought in supplies by sea at one third of the price. This is a crisis which could and certainly should have been averted."

Niger hardly featured in the G8's much-vaunted Africa initiative with nothing said about its food crisis. Nor was it mentioned by organisers of the Live8 concert. Aid workers and locals talk bitterly about "bands playing as children were dying".

There are other factors blamed for the rapidity with which the problem descended into crisis. The International Monetary Fund and the European Union imposed economic conditions on the former French colony which, critics say, pushed up the price of food and allowed the Niger government to explore a disastrous "free market" programme to tackle a famine.

Dr Alka Oumarou, who runs a medical centre at Baoudeta, with just two nurses, said: "It took our government four months to do anything after we all started reporting how bad the situation was. Even then they did not give out free food but made people buy it. They offered a complicated loan scheme; it did not work, and people died.

"Our medical centre is government-controlled, and the government insists we should charge people. The number of patients has gone up from 25 to 75 per day. We had to turn away those who could not pay, and some of them died. They are getting free treatment only because of the agencies."

Sahei Habab, Zaina in her arms, ran her finger through her daughter's hair and said: "It came out this colour three months ago. One of my other daughters said it was pretty but we have seen this before and now I am very afraid.

"The crops failed last year and our troubles began. We had to sell things from our home and after a while we had nothing left. We have received no help from the government and I do not know anyone who has.

"I have lost children and my neighbours have lost children. It is hard and we often cry. The officials here say Zaina is very small for her age and they are very worried about her. But what can I do? I am already not eating and giving her my food, but she has stomach problems. Now, I'm getting food for her here, but I do not know if it is too late.

"All my life all I have known is struggle. We all wish our children would not have to go through this, but maybe that will never happen, we are poor people and we are meant to suffer."

Watching Sahei's grief, Raya Abdoulayi shook her head. "This is the worst time, knowing someone close to you may die and there is nothing you can do. I know, I have lost two sons and a daughter. I am 27, and I am a widow without any children."