Forgotten Faces of Famine: UNICEF Aid Mission Heads to Kenya, Devastated by Drought

It has fallen off the front pages.  It rarely makes the evening news.  But the humanitarian emergency in East Africa continues.

The officially declared famine now long past 100 days.  It is hard to do justice to the extent of the human suffering. Hard to absorb the misery of so many who trudge for weeks through the scorching sun to arrive at the Dadaab refugee camp — designed for 90,000 people now housing over 400,000.  And now, to add to the suffering from the drought,  increasing violence.

Yesterday Kenyan police and Somali government forces said Al Shabaab fighters launched an assault on a police station near the border town of El Wak.  Two Al Shabaab fighters were reportedly killed.  It is just the latest salvo.  The security situation has been degenerating rapidly over the past few weeks with the kidnapping of two Spanish aid workers, believed to have taken by Al Shabaab militants.  Kenyan forces are retaliating,  and some aid agencies have pulled out of the Dadaab camp in north eastern Kenya, as a result.

UNICEF remains, but says for them to keep the aid flowing through an increasingly fragile pipeline, they need $30 million additional dollars before the end of the month or they fear the lives of the 320,000 children in the region who depend on them will be imperiled.

Nightline” producer Bartley Price and I went to Africa, invited by UNICEF to join a supply trip and meet some of those children not in Dadaab  but in Turkana.

I confess,  not only had I never been to Turkana, a region in northwestern Kenya, I had never even  heard of the place.  It is remote.  And poor.

Most people live on less than a dollar a day.  Over 800,000 people  live in the area; few of them have access to clean water. There is one doctor for every 50,000 people.  By way of comparison… there is about one doctor for about every 270 Americans.   There has always been extreme poverty in Turkana but the drought which devastated their neighbors in Somalia, has also brought much new suffering here.  Especially for the children.

A week ago I got a message from Caryl Stern, the president of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF,  asking if I would like to go to the massive UNICEF emergency warehouse in Copenhagen and fly into Kenya with 50 tons of life-saving aid.  It would be a unique chance to report on this on-going  humanitarian crisis.

And, oh,  said Caryl,  the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (aka Prince William and Catherine) would be in Copenhagen packing boxes and providing some much needed attention to this under-reported issue.  I jumped at the chance.

A red-eye from New York got us to Copenhagen just in time to see the young royals work their magic on the assembled representatives of the world press.

With that, we headed to the airport where British Airways had donated a 747 to deliver the aid.

Not only that, the entire British Airways crew donated their time to the cause. (A second flight was donated by UPS.)

Most of the aid would be held in Nairobi for several days for inspection, but Caryl had arranged to bring some boxes on-board so that she and the co-chairman of her board (and major UNICEF donor),  Peter Lamm, could deliver some help to Turkana immediately.

You can see for yourself what we found in Turkana on our “ Nightline“ report, which will air tonight at 11:35 p.m. ET. Much of it heart-breaking, all of it deeply moving.

The health clinic where 87 children are being given nutritional supplements that are keeping them alive.  The lean-to mobile school where a first generation of pastoral children are learning to read and write so that their survival will not be chained to whether it rains or not.

We met this little girl named Patricia at a hospital in Turkana, Kenya where the drought has endangered tens of thousands of kids lives.

In truth, I was prepared for the sadness, and there is still much of that, what I was not prepared for was the extraordinary spirit and hope the people of Turkana display.  The women in their colorful beads,  greeted us with songs and dances.  Their joy was infectious.  Their gratitude, humbling.

The people of Turkana have much of which to be proud.  As one mother told me,  thanks to UNICEF, she dares to have hope for her children.

Read more about UNICEF’s lifesaving work and see more photos and video at Treating malnutrition through therapeutic feeding centers is just one part of the job. UNICEF is also providing safe water, education supplies, vaccinations and more.

See a visual infographic about UNICEF work in the region here:

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