Children living in Niger’s hunger belt fall into two groups: those who
receive help from aid agencies like Save the Children before they
become malnourished, and those who must wait until hunger has pushed
them to the very brink of survival to receive support.
The first group come from families who receive aid such as cash grants
so they can buy food and other essential supplies during the lean
season, meaning that they are protected from the worst effects of
hunger. After a failed harvest in the autumn of 2011 saw food prices
soar and hunger threaten another slow motion catastrophe for Niger,
such grants have prevented thousands of the country’s poorest children
from becoming dangerously malnourished.
But others have missed out. The aid effort in Niger has remained
chronically underfunded, and that’s meant there’s not been enough
money to provide cash to everyone who needs it. For every child
playing happily in their village thanks to the early help they’ve
received, there is another who becomes sick before aid reaches them.
These are Niger’s unlucky ones, the children for whom help came too
In Aguié, in southern Niger, you find them in the district’s special
hospital ward for malnourished children. They lie with their mothers
on vinyl mattresses, limbs flopping, heads lolling, because they do
not have the strength to hold themselves up. In the recovery ward,
they scream and sob, but in a corner reserved for the most serious
cases, the children make no sound. They are too weak to cry.
Often they are from villages that receive some cash support, but not
enough to protect all the families there. Their mothers have looked on
as their neighbours’ children have been fed, wondering why there is
not enough for them. Haliba, the mother of two year-old Mansour, is
one of them. As she cradles her tiny baby, she explains her
desperation. “I try to find wood to sell, but sometimes I have to beg
my neighbours for food,” she says. “I feel I have lost my dignity. I
have lost myself. Some days, there is only enough food for the
children to have one meal, and I don’t eat at all.”
There is nothing inevitable about this situation. It is true that
funding for the emergency in Niger has come earlier than ever before,
but that money is often for projects that last months, rather than the
years required to tackle the underlying drivers of Niger’s food
insecurity. Each emergency is treated as a separate disaster,
requiring a short-term response, rather than the acute phase of a
chronic food crisis that has been ongoing for years. Hunger here will
not be stamped out until its fundamental drivers- lack of social
protection, over-reliance on rain-fed crops, and a booming population-
This weekend, world leaders, senior aid agency officials, businessmen
and humanitarian donors will gather in London for the Olympic hunger
summit, aimed at reducing malnutrition around the world.
If those attending the hunger summit commit to tackling the causes of
hunger, rather than just its effects, London’s Olympics could leave
behind more than fantastic sporting memories. By building and funding
programmes that will work for years rather than months, they could
change the lives of thousands of the world’s poorest children. Niger
may not have won a medal at the Games, but for the unlucky ones I met
this week, that would be a legacy worth its weight in gold.
Over the past week, I’ve had the pleasure of working with Alessio Romenzi, a fantastic Italian photographer who was one of the few foreign journalists in Homs during the bombardment. We put together this slideshow for Save The Children’s stop the killing campaign- please share!
Ten-year-old Adnan insists he felt no fear when the shells began to fall, but when he describes what happened in his village, his face tells a different story. “A house was bombed just 300 meters away from our home. I felt everything was shaking around me,” he says, his eyes widening as he speaks. “People are getting killed and there is always bombing, especially at night.”
I ask him again if he was afraid and he pauses, perhaps worried that admitting to fear would put his bravery in doubt. Eventually he concedes that yes, when the bombs fell close to him, he was frightened, but not at all during his journey to Lebanon.
When I ask him about his mother, who is still in Syria, the façade crumbles. He does not answer my question, but his eyes fill with tears, and as they roll down his cheeks, he buries his head in his hands. “We miss her very much,” his sister says quietly. “We are worried about her.”
Adnan and his sister are just two of the thousands of Syrian children who have fled the conflict in Syria for the relative safety of Lebanon. Others are not hard to find. In the mountains that form the border between Lebanon and Syria, families are arriving every day, driven from their homes by the conflict and shortages of food and water.
Many are from Bab Amr in Homs, recently subject to intense artillery bombardment. Jaber arrived with his wife and three children after his house was destroyed in the shelling. “There’s been no bread, no food, in Baba Amr for more than one month now,” he says. “They bombed the water tanks so people started using buckets to fill when it’s raining to get drinking water. Baba Amr is a total mess.”
He sighs as he looks at the pile of luggage he salvaged from the ruins of his home. Something moves amid the blankets and the bags. It is a tiny baby, Jaber’s daughter, Rafif, stirring in her sleep. “I need to get her the milk she needs,” he says. “We only have a little left.” He has no money to buy it.
Officially, there are around 12,000 Syrian refugees registered in Lebanon, but the true number is likely to be far higher. The borders between the countries are traditionally porous, and although it has become harder to cross, towns and villages in Lebanon have reported recent sharp increases in number of refugees arriving.
In Tripoli. Lebanon’s second city, you see minivans on Syrian number plates laden with possessions and packed full of people. No seat goes spare. Local community leaders say that refugees have been arriving in their hundreds, looking for places to stay. The money they bring will not last forever, and for some it has already run out.
The refugees may have escaped the conflict, but they have not left it behind. They speak of people, businesses and belongings left at home, and of their uncertainty about whether they will be able to return. Speaking to them, you feel they have only left the country in a physical sense; emotionally, they are still very much in Syria.
It wasn’t the bombs or the shooting that made Adnan cry. It wasn’t his parents’ decision that he should leave the only home he knew, nor was it the destruction he witnessed in his country. Adnan’s tears came from a different place; he cried because did not know when, or if, he would see his mother again. For Syria’s refugee children, an uncertain future holds deeper fears than even the horrors of the recent past.