A famine spreading through Somalia is killing more than a hundred children each day, the U.N. said Monday, and warned that hundreds of thousands more people may die in the coming months unless they receive urgent help.
The starvation is mostly taking place out of sight of the world media, in areas of southern Somalia under control of violent Islamist insurgents.
"Hungry people are only waiting for death," said Nor Anshur, a father of five who lost one of his children in the Bay region, a former agricultural breadbasket that the U.N. declared Somalia's sixth famine zone on Monday. "We saw our neighbors' children and elderly people dying every day for lack of food."
Like tens of thousands of other Somalis, Anshur left his drought-ravaged home and trekked to Somalia's capital hoping for help. But delivering food is difficult and dangerous. Even in the government-controlled capital of Somalia, where 9,000 African Union peacekeepers are on patrol, organized theft of truckloads of food aid is rife and shootouts at aid distributions are frequent.
Conditions are even worse in areas controlled by the Islamist insurgency, which holds much of southern Somalia. It has forbidden many aid agencies to work in its territory where the famine is most severe.
The latest surveys of the U.N. Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit for Somalia found hundreds of people are dying every day from the famine. At least half of them are children. Tens of thousands of Somalis already have died this year due to the severe violence, drought and famine, the U.N. said.
Famine has now affected six areas, including four southern Somali regions and two settlements of internally displaced people.
Few foreign journalists have traveled to insurgent-held areas, so the footage that helped galvanize responses to other mass famines is largely missing. The U.N. has received just under 60 percent of the $1.1 billion it requested to respond to the emergency.
In Somalia's southern Bay region, nearly 60 percent of people are acutely malnourished _ four times the rate for an emergency, said Grainne Moloney, head of the food analysis unit.
"I've not seen anything like it," she said.
About 750,000 more people may die from famine in the next four months if there is no adequate response, the U.N. report said, an increase of 66 percent from July.
The strong, like Anshur or Farah Aden, can make it from regions like Bay to centers where there might be foreign food. But Aden said he had left behind many neighbors too weak to travel.
"Most of the elderly people decided to stay there with hunger because they can't trek to here," Aden said. "I am asking all Somalis to help those silenced by hunger."
So far, it's unclear how much aid can be delivered in insurgent-held areas, by whom, or how it can be tracked. Donors say they do their best to prevent its theft and sale by gunmen, but are reluctant to disclose any details for security reasons.
Mark Bowden, the U.N.'s top humanitarian official for Somalia, said that at least 150,000 households in insurgent-held areas had been reached and that access was improving. He said it was up to donors to make sure that aid could be provided in time to save lives.
But an aid worker whose organization was working in rebel-held areas said that security had deteriorated in some parts after commanders pulled back forces from the capital of Mogadishu last month. There were new commanders in some areas issuing conflicting demands, he said.
The aid worker asked for anonymity because they did not want to jeopardize the work of their organization.
Bowden said the famine would probably spread before the end of the year. Some short rains are expected in October but there will not be a harvest until January. Even the rains bring potential problems: cholera, measles and diarrhea.
"Major mortality usually comes with the outbreak of communicable diseases," he said. "This isn't a short-term crisis."
The U.N. says around 4 million Somalis need aid, or more than half of the population. In July it was 3.7 million.