Even blood runs dry in the nomads' vast landsof perpetual drought

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Our escorts from the Kenyan police were a shambling bunch, for all their smart new camouflaged fatigues. They were not exactly confidence-inspiring, considering we had been told the bandits roamed in groups 40 or 50 strong, were heavily armed and "can hit at any time andanywhere".

Our escorts from the Kenyan police were a shambling bunch, for all their smart new camouflaged fatigues. They were not exactly confidence-inspiring, considering we had been told the bandits roamed in groups 40 or 50 strong, were heavily armed and "can hit at any time andanywhere".

For the most part the escorts gazed aimlessly about them.And there was a distinct lack of purpose about the way they handled automatic rifles, whose barrels were plugged with cloth against the sand-choked wind.

We were part of a World Food Programme convoy, on our way to a distribution point for a clan of Turkana nomads, yet another of the vulnerable groups who make up the 16 million people at risk of starvation in the drought gripping the Horn of Africa and the surrounding regions.

There has always been something of a no-go area about this vast region, on the desert fringe of Kenya by the borders with Ethiopia, Sudan and Uganda. Even in colonial times district commissioners ventured there rarely. And for the indigenous peoples, the part we were entering was a buffer zone between warring tribes, entered only when necessary during the dry season.

This was the dry season all right. It has not rained here for two years, and the local elders report the drought to be far worse than anything they remember. Unlike the great famine of 1984-85, this one has killed off almost all the livestock on whose blood and milk the Turkana depend.

Drought also heightens the tensions that increase cattle-raiding and banditry. The tribes here are comparatively untouched by the Western way of life. They dress still in skins as well as the fine red blankets worn by the elders. The children go naked. The women are often bare-breasted, their necks wreathed in heavy beaded necklaces and bands of copper and silver around their arms.

Yet in one way the modern world has entered their lives with a vengeance. The first gun, one Turkana told me, arrived in 1896, given by the Ethiopians hoping to enlist the local people in their fight against the Italian colonisers. Wars since, in neighbouring Sudan, Somalia and Uganda, have filled the area with arms. An AK47 cost 50 cows a decade ago; now you can get one for just seven.

The Turkana are hemmed in by other warrior peoples - the Toposa to the north, the Pokot to the south and the Merille to the west. The cattle-raiding on all sides has always been bloody. Since the enemy kills anyone who got in its way, the replacement of spears with Kalashnikovs often turns a skirmish into a massacre.

We arrived in a tiny place called Loau, an hour's drive from the town of Lokichokio, which was once a nomads' school in the dry season. During earlier food distributions, it, too, had become a target for bandits who saw no cattle to steal. On the last occasion they even took the corrugated sheets from the roof, so now several hundred people gathered under leafless trees in the schoolyard. They were a proud people, firm in eye contact; they did not like being reduced to taking help.

"We tried to migrate to the place of the Toposa because it had grass and water but the Toposa chased us away," one woman told me. She was speaking, however, not of this year but of the one before. For 12 months now the Turkana have been dependent on food aid.

Their animals died - "in countless number" as their ostrich feathered chief, Amoni Ebi, put it - the previous year. "Once, if you had less than a couple of camels, 50 goats and two donkeys you were poor," he said. Now no one has that, although such is Turkana etiquette that it is rude to reveal that any of your animals have survived if your neighbour's have all died. Still, the impact on everyone is clear. The chief himself has lost two children.

The problem is not untypical. Of the 16 million at risk in the Horn at least 2 million have been on food aid for more than a year, many of them getting only half the emergency ration since donations from the West have been down. It brings with it a problem of dependency.

"What these people really need are replacement livestock," said Ton zan Zutphen of the charity World Vision, which is managing the food distribution to 260,000 people in the area. "When the rains come we would hope to buy animals in other parts of Kenya and then offer them to people as part of a food-for-work scheme or on a loan, which they repay with offspring from the donated animals, which can then be loaned to someone else."

But until rains come, the Turkana are sentenced to a life of food-aid dependency. Lack of dignity, however, is not the most pressing of their concerns. A group of women addressed me in an urgent chorus. "We need milk for the children," they said. "The maize [food aid] gives the children diarrhoea".

They held out battered old gourds, once beautifully ornamented. "We need tins for water. We need bags for storing food. We need tarpaulins to cover us against the sun and rain," they entreated.

All these they made from animal skins, or collected from the desert trees, in good years. Now there was nothing to replace those that withered in the scorching 40C heat.

Impotent in the face of their requests I promised I would tell people in the rich world of their plight. They applauded. With nothing to give them I left.

Some five hours' walk from the old school, we met another family sheltering in the shade of an edapal tree by a dried-up river. The land around was littered with the parched carcasses of cattle. In the river bed was a wide hole 3ft deep; inside that was a smaller one that went down another 5 feet; at the centre was a newly dug well. It went down 12 feet and at the bottom was a mud patch of dusty, thick water.

The family were too weak to go any further, and too proud to go for food aid. "There were 5,000 people with us once. But they have moved on or died," said the group's elder, Etukoyet Lemoru. "But my family are sick so I cannot move."

He swept his stick around the lifeless landscape. Across it a strong sandy wind blew like the hot breath of some malevolent desert beast. "I have no place to go," he said. "My animals died here. I will die here too."