Sprawling refugee camps have sprung up recently in the parched deserts of East Africa to handle the mass exodus from famine-stricken Somalia. Aid agencies at first scrambled to keep pace as countless starving families arrived seeking help. Child mortality rates skyrocketed to several times above emergency levels. A massive infusion of humanitarian resources, though, now appears to be turning the tide.
Dr. Monica Thallinger treats dozens of severe malnutrition cases each day at Hilaweyn, the newest of four Somali refugee camps in Ethiopia.
"This is a severely malnourished child who did not have proper intake of food for a long time, so we're giving a certain type of milk, because the body cannot handle to take food in the beginning," said Thallinger.
Doctors Without Borders
When Doctors Without Borders opened the Hilaweyn clinic in a still unfinished corrugated metal building in August, children were dying of malnutrition at the rate of more than one a day. Two months later, the clinic's emergency coordinator Aria Danika said they treat 1,000 cases a day, and only one child has died in the past two weeks.
"The crude mortality rate is under 1% right now. And this information we get, it's indicated when we talk to the community, when we do the grave count on a weekly basis, we see that the death rate is decreasing, but malnutrition is still prevalent," said Danika.
Hilaweyn is one of four camps at Ethiopia's Dollo Ado complex, home to 125,000 refugees fleeing Somalia's famine and the harsh rule of Islamic extremists known as al-Shabab.
5,000 more recent arrivals are in a temporary shelter waiting for completion of a fifth camp that will be ready in a few weeks.
Security becomes priority
30-year old Amina Salat Saman arrived at Dollo Ado days ago on a donkey. She proudly displays the new baby son she delivered soon after reaching the refugee reception station. She said her family survived the famine, but made the hazardous journey from Somalia when security conditions suddenly deteriorated.
She said they were frightened when fighting broke out in the neighborhood between government troops and al-Shabab fighters.
The Hilaweyn camp coordinator, Samuel Emmanuel said security is becoming as important as starvation in Somalis' decisions to become refugees.
"They say we are lucky to get peace and security. Now they are stable, they are sleeping without any suspicion about the surrounding. This is better for them to be here rather than hearing the sound of weapon, hearing when someone is slaughtered in front of their home," said Emmanuel.
Top-notch health care
Camp residents admit they also are drawn to refugee status by the prospect of quality health care, something unheard of in rural Somalia.
At the Hilaweyn clinic, where the malnutrition death rate has fallen so sharply, Dr. Thallinger is tending to another scrawny baby girl who has been brought back from the brink.
"She's going to survive... We just have to take time for her to get her appetite back," said Thallinger.
With one ear on the radios that bring news of the Kenya military offensive into al-Shabab held territory, camp residents wonder if peace may soon allow them to return to their homeland. They know life in a refugee camp is an existence of nothingness, but they also know that the availability of food and health care compare favorably with the hardship they have known in Somalia for the past few years.