Araba, 5, makes her last march: Karl Maier finds the US marines arriving too late for many in Bardera

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The Independent Online
Operation Restore Hope arrived too late for Araba Aden.

As 900 American marines were making a 100-mile, 10-hour journey to this western town of stick huts and crumbling masonry in a 90-vehicle convoy, Araba was walking 15 miles from her village of Salakle with her mother and three brothers. It took three days.

When she arrived at a feeding centre four miles outside central Bardera, Araba collapsed in the sand, lying on her side, struggling to breathe through an incessant, rasping cough.

'I do not think she will survive,' said Abdi Mohammed Aden, the Somali supervisor of the feeding centre run by Care Australia. 'These people are coming from so far away, travelling by foot, that when you give them food, they fall sick and die.'

Araba's mother Abiba, 40, said the girl was five, but she had the body of a two-year-old. Around the camp the story was the same. No child looked its age. 'My husband died and I could not find the strength to bring the family here,' said Abiba. 'But when there was no food at all, we had no choice.'

Sometimes, as in Araba's case, the decision to move comes too late. 'Even if she lasts a week or two, there has been too much damage. Her body can no longer defend itself against illnesses like measles, malaria, tuberculosis,' said Mr Aden.

The Care camp was filled with several thousand people, including a dozen rows of children whose bodies were stunted, their outlook bleak. Their parents were in a nearby food aid camp or in a settlement of egg-shaped houses, no bigger than Volkswagen 'beetles', fashioned from twigs and shreds of green plastic.

Yet the situation in Bardera, one of the worst-hit areas in Somalia's famine belt, has improved vastly in the past two months since international aid agencies began delivering food. The death rate at the Care camp is 20 a day, and for all of Bardera, between 60 and 70 a day. Many are victims not of starvation but of illnesses such as measles, tuberculosis, diarrhoea and malaria.

In October up to 200 people were dying each day. Fifteen gravediggers worked from dawn to dusk to bury them. Nationwide, 300,000 people are believed to have starved to death in the past two years. 'Twenty per cent of these children will die,' Mr Aden said, surveying the camp scene. 'We used to lose 80 per cent.'

That was at the height of the local clan war between two of the country's most important warlords, General Mohammed Farah Aideed, a member of the Hawiye clan whose forces dominate southern and central Somalia, and General Mohamed Siad Hirsi Morgan, from the Darod clan and son-in-law of Siad Barre, the president of Somalia for 12 years until his overthrow in January 1991. Bardera, a one-street town of about 18,000 people, appears to have no strategic value. But prestige was on the line. The town was General Aideed's regional base until General Morgan, a minister of defence in the Barre government, drove him out on 16 October.

Because both sides had mined the roads leading into town, villagers suffering drought and theft of their livestock by maurauding armed gangs could neither get to Bardera nor be reached by food relief trucks. That is still true today. 'We have sent only two vehicles out and both hit mines,' said James Fennell of Care International. Last week an American intelligence officer preparing for the arrival of the marines, died when his car hit a landmine on the airport road about one mile from Bardera.

On Friday, small groups of marines were stationed on the dirt tracks that lead to the camps, to deter looters. 'We saw one man carrying a really thin boy in a wheelbarrow up towards the camps. The father waved, but the boy just looked numb,' said Lance-Corporal Paul Komesar, 21. 'It is a lot different than seeing it on TV. It's about the saddest thing I've ever seen.'

Up at the feeding centre, the crowds - shielded from temperatures of 100F by a blue tarpaulin - were waiting patiently for brown gruel, boiling away in black cauldrons fashioned out of oil drums. Discipline collapsed when Mr Aden ordered his assistants to start the feeding. The youngsters broke ranks and some, carrying their younger brothers and sisters on their backs, raced towards the food.

That is when Mr Aden's assistants unleashed their switches to restore order and to chase out adults and teenagers from neighbouring settlements who were trying to take advantage of the confusion. In the end, the children in the queues got their ration: two big cups of boiled Unimix, a mixture of wheat, lentils, sugar and oil.

(Photograph omitted)