Death stalks a Somali town

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BARDERA, Somalia - An odour of putrefaction hangs over Bardera, the smell of death. Many people have died here. More will.

Starving men, women and children walk its earthen streets. But not many. Most of Bardera's people have fled to escape war. It seems as if the business of living is too hard in Bardera. Once a bustling district capital of 100,000 people in southern Somalia, it now is home to only about 5,000.

It is one of five Somali towns to which the United Nations hopes to begin delivering food by air or sea in the coming days and weeks. Food is already reaching four communities, including the divided capital of Mogadishu. When the food arrives in Bardera, some of the people will come back.

An estimated 20,000 live camped out in the desert brush or in small villages surrounding Bardera. They, too, are starving. Children eat grass and the dried stalks of millet and maize. Mothers boil camel skins for food, the meat of the animals having been consumed long ago.

Kurt Nielson of the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) visited Bardera to assess its needs and discuss them with town elders. It was his second visit. 'If you look into the huts you'll find someone dead or starving in every one,' Mr Nielsen said.

Brigitte Doppler, accompanying Mr Nielsen on a separate survey for the French relief group Medecins Sans Frontieres, estimates that 30 to 40 people are dying every day in Bardera. 'I keep hearing Somalia being compared with Ethiopia,' she said. 'It is worse than Ethiopia. There it was mostly confined to one region. Here it is the whole country.'

Ms Doppler, a nurse from Paris, was referring to the great famine that claimed more than 1 million lives in Ethiopia in 1984-85. She was there, too. 'We are losing an entire generation of children here,' she added. 'There will be nobody coming along to build the country, even if the fighting stops.' The UN estimates that 1.5 million people are in danger of starving to death in Somalia if food does not reach them soon. The Red Cross and other humanitarian agencies have called for a doubling of relief efforts.

In the capital, Mogadishu, 200 children are dying every day, Olivier Brochu, of Medecins du Monde said in Paris after returning from a 10-day trip to Somalia. He said that relief groups around the world should urgently send aid to the country. Medecins Sans Frontieres said on Wednesday that around 4 million people faced death from starvation, war and sickness.

Bardera has been without food for months, and only became accessible to relief agencies in recent weeks as the clan warfare that engulfed the city earlier in the year moved further away. Forces led by General Mohamed Farah Aideed, the warlord ruler of southern Mogadishu, captured Bardera in late June from a militia loyal to the former president, Mohammed Siad Barre. Mr Siad Barre had been waging a hit-and-run campaign in central, southern and western Somalia ever since he was ousted from Mogadishu in January 1991. He finally fled to Kenya in May and later was granted political asylum in Nigeria.

Mr Nielsen, Ms Doppler and their companions were taken on a walking tour of Bardera by elders and Mohammed Geffe Kahie, a colonel in General Aideed's army. They strolled through the largely deserted market, its empty shops and stalls mute testimony to hunger. The streets were littered with rotting rubbish and bones.

The bones, a dull white in the reddish earth, were of camels, goats, sheep and cattle that once formed the principal wealth of this region along the Juba River. The United Nations estimates that more than 70 per cent of Somalia's domestic animal herds have already been slaughtered to feed people who are starving.

'It is very, very bad here, as you can see,' the colonel told his visitors. 'We need aid from the West, a great deal of aid. We do not understand why it is so slow in coming.' Aid has been delayed to Bardera and the rest of Somalia because vast amounts of it have been stolen by clan militias.

After the tour, the aid workers visited the two-story villa on the outskirts of Bardera that General Aideed has made his temporary field headquarters. There, with starving children just outside the gates of the compound, they were invited to join military men and politicians for lunch - huge helpings of boiled rice and meat served from communal platters. The only source of rice in Somalia for months has been aid shipments.

(Photographs omitted)

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