Two weeks ago the UN asked the world for food aid. The response? Precisely nothing

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The Independent Online

There is nothing special about this place. It could be anywhere. All around are jagged peaks of sandy stone, covered in a dust-brown scree that cascades perilously down the mountainside. But then the same has been the case for hour after hour since we left the Eritrean capital, Asmara, and drove through a monochrome landscape of ochre and brown for 100 miles northwest, towards the border with Sudan.

But then its unexceptionality is the point. Across the Horn of Africa, and extending into the countries which surround the Abyssinian highlands, some 16 million people are said to be at risk of famine - a number which increases day by day as fresh reports come in from across the region.

The world's media has concentrated its gaze on one place - the lowland desert between Ethiopia and Sudan where drought has turned to famine and the graves of hundreds of young children lie newly turned. Yet if things have deteriorated more quickly there - producing the television images which seem to be the grim prerequisite for action by the international community - the refugee camps in the towns around Gode do not tell the real story of the starvation which threatens this region on such an epic scale.

It is places like Giset which do that. For most of the millions at risk in Africa are not Gode's desert-fringe nomads whose camels and cows have died, leaving children without the milk which is their chief source of nutrients. The vast majority are like the people of Giset, whose crops have failed for two years running - and for whom the rich donor nations have pledged not one penny in aid despite the launch of an appeal by the United Nation's World Food Programme (WFP) at the start of this month.

They are not starving. Not yet. But they are already hungry. Children are not dying, but they are being fed only once a day. And instead of meals, meagre though they might have been by Western standards, which in good times might have included a few vegetables - or perhaps once a week an egg, or once a month some meat - they are eating only carbohydrate, and in tiny amounts.

Squatting on her heels outside her round raffia-sided thatched hut Fatima Adam revealed in a matter-of-fact way that she and her three children had not eaten at all that day. The previous day they had eaten only a small amount of injera - a sour pancake bread made from the last of the grain in her store mixed with water. Now her cereal storage pot was empty.

At the door stoop of the next tukul her neighbour Fatima Suleman sat with five of her six children (the eldest had gone to fetch water, an hour's walk away). Her family had eaten that day, but only porridge made from sorghum with nothing to season it, and "no oil or lentils" to add flavour.

The story is the same in the other 800 households dotted around the mountain edges. In Giset the children are not obviously malnourished, but they are thin, and many have the eye and skin ailments that come from an impoverished diet.

At present they are hanging on. One of the people's coping strategies is the extraordinary generosity by which those who have so little share with neighbours who have even less. Another is migration. A good number of the tukuls had padlocks on the door; their inhabitants had moved to the towns, four day's walk away, in search of food. The families who remain are mostly without men. They have, like Fatima Suleman's husband, Sala Ali, gone off to seek work as labourers on the handful of irrigated farms or as waiters in the towns' tea-shops.

"He sends grain back when he can, but he does not always get work," said Fatima. Wages are around 10 nafka a day. It costs 14 nafka to buy arabit of sorghum - up from 6 nafka in August. "That used to last the family two days but now I have to make it last four or five." The World Food Programme on 3 April launched an appeal to the rich nations for $7.9m (£5m) to help feed the 212,000 most vulnerable of the 367,000 people at risk in Eritrea. The response has been zero.

"What we have in Giset is a very tight food situation," said the WFP's director, Catherine Bertini, who visited the village yesterday. "If it continues like this the nutritional status of the people will slowly deteriorate into famine. If we can get food aid to them we can avert a major disaster. I appeal to international donors."

With perverse irony it rained in Giset the day of the UN special envoy's visit. It was the first rain for 16 months and it was too late to save the sorghum crop planted by Fatima Adam's husband, Hammad, on the extensively terraced slopes which show why this area was, until recently, self-sufficient.

"To be useful it would have to rain every three days for three months," said Fatima's daughter, Nasareet. "We are in the hands of God." And, she might have added, of the politicians of the Western world.

External links: All you ever wanted to know about Ethiopia but never dare ask | Famine Report | Famine page | Oxfam | Save the Children | CAFOD | Cafod Ethiopia page | Medicins sans frontiere |

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