DADAAB, Kenya — Trying to escape starvation and East Africa's unforgiving drought, hundreds of Somali children have been left for dead on the long, dusty journey to the world's largest refugee camp.
UNICEF on Thursday called the drought and refugee crisis "the most severe humanitarian emergency in the world." The international Red Cross signaled "great alarm" this week at the nutritional state of Somali children.
Thousands of Somalis are walking days and sometimes weeks to reach the refugee complex known as Dadaab, in hopes of finding food.
But the journey is claiming untold numbers of children as victims.
Andrew Wander, a spokesman for Save the Children, said his agency is providing care to more than 300 unaccompanied children who were found on roadsides after their parents died or abandoned them on their way to Dadaab.
"More children have died of malnutrition in the first four months of this year than in the whole of last year," he said.
With a population of almost 400,000, the Dadaab Refugee Camp in north-east Kenya is beginning to resemble a city, with up to 1,500 new arrivals everyday, according to NBC News.
Dadaab was originally built for 90,000 people; more than 382,000 are now here.
Fears of famine
People die here every day, though no one can provide a reliable estimate of the drought deaths.
"In incredibly trying circumstances, there have been great acts of kindness. But with predictions that the drought will develop into a full-scale famine, there might be need for much more generosity," NBC News' Rohit Kachroo reported.
Hundreds of mothers and children with dust-caked faces gather at 6 a.m. every day at registration centers in Dadaab's three sprawling camps.
"I must say that I visited many refugee camps in the world. I have never seen people coming in such a desperate situation," the head of U.N.'s refugee agency, Antonio Guterres, said earlier in the week while visiting the new arrivals area.
Most of those coming to Dadaab are former subsistence farmers whose lands were rendered idle and animals decimated after successive seasons of no rain hit their already war-ravaged country. At least 1,500 arrive in Dadaab every day.
Tens of thousands of Somalis have watched their land dry up after years without rain. Then the livestock died. Finally all the food ran out. Now they are making the perilous journey over parched earth to refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia, regions that also have been hit hard by drought.
The U.N. expects at least 10 million people will need food aid, and a U.S. aid official said he believes the situation in Ethiopia is even worse than the government acknowledges.African drought: 12 million face 'fight for survival'
The Ethiopian government said that 4.5 million people need food aid there, 40 percent more than last year. Jason Frasier, mission director of USAID in Ethiopia, the U.S. government aid arm, suggested that Ethiopia might even be undercounting those who need help.
Aid agencies have appealed for more than $100 million in emergency funding while warning of dire consequences if help does not arrive.
'He died peacefully from hunger'
Abdi Aden, a former farmer who lived in Sakow town before the drought forced him to flee, said he lost an 8-year-old son after eight days of trekking.
"He tried to cry before he died, but he could not. He was so weak. He died peacefully from hunger," he said. "I buried him by myself in a shallow ditch so hyenas could not eat him."
On her way to Dadaab, Abdullahi said she walked with friends for three days before she and her children lagged behind. She saw around 20 children dead or unconscious abandoned on the roadside.
"I saw two elderly people on the road," she said. "They cried out, 'Ma'am, give us a helping hand.' They wanted to sweet-talk me, but I said to them 'I can't help' and moved on.
"You will feel kind only when you have something," she said. "I wanted to give the little water I had to my children."
NBC News and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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