Massive rates of malnutrition plague war-torn areas of Nigeria

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Boys drink packs of evaporated milk at the camp for internally displaced people in Abuja, Nigeria October 3, 2016. PIcture taken October 3, 2016.  REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde - RTSQP0Z

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JUDY WOODRUFF: As we reported earlier, 21 of Nigeria’s so-called Chibok girls, kidnapped by the militant group Boko Haram, were released today. But there is a larger and more far-reaching menace lurking in the war-torn reaches of that country. It’s hunger. Aid groups warn of a coming famine.

John Yang has our look. And a warning: The story contains some graphic images.

JOHN YANG: There is a calamity in the making in Nigeria’s northeastern Borno state. That’s the territory where government forces have been fighting Boko Haram for years. Caught in the middle, as many as three million Nigerians, who, aid groups say, are in danger of starving. It is also where those Chibok girls were kidnapped in 2014.

Washington Post correspondent Kevin Sieff just completed a reporting trip there, and he joins us from Nairobi, Kenya.

Kevin, you write this morning in The Post about this growing humanitarian crisis, this famine. How widespread is it?

KEVIN SIEFF, The Washington Post: Yes, it’s massive.

We’re talking about a population of more than three million, far more, probably closer to four million. Two million of them are entirely inaccessible. So, you have got humanitarian actors who have just started to work in this place of Northern — this place called Northern Borno state.

But, even so, there are two million people who are basically — they’re in villages or they’re in cities where Boko Haram still operates with impunity. And so humanitarian actors can’t deliver food, they can’t deliver medicine to two million people.

The other basically million-and-a-half, actors have just gotten access to them. And so there are food deliveries, but there’s just not enough food. There’s not enough medicine. So you’re just seeing massive rates of malnutrition, dozens of children dying every day.

I have talked to aid workers when I was up there who said they’d never seen anything like this. It’s just — it’s huge.

JOHN YANG: In your story, Kevin, you write very movingly about coming upon a 6-month-old girl in a clinic. Tell us about that.

KEVIN SIEFF: Yes.

The girl’s name was Fana Ali. She was 6 months old. She looked like she had just been born. She was tiny. She basically had been malnourished since birth. And she was in a clinic run by Doctors Without Borders in a small city called Banki right on the Cameroonian border.

And she had malaria and malnutrition. The doctors tried really valiantly to save her in this little clinic with no electricity, basically no medicine, almost no resources at all.

And, ultimately, they had to try to get her out of there, but the place is so dangerous, it’s so hard to leave by road. They had to get an escort from the military, from the Cameroonian military. And that escort basically just didn’t come for reasons that no one really knows.

And just after the escort was rejected, the baby girl died. And, you know, it’s a tragedy. And seeing it is horrific for me and for the people who were trying to save her.

But, ultimately, it’s the kind of thing that is just happening hourly in northeastern Nigeria now. It’s happening all the time. There is just not enough assistance. There’s not enough food. There are children starving to death all — just all over that region.

And what I find so striking and sad about it is that this has been going on for a long time, you know? I mean, these places were liberated from Boko Haram about a year-and-a-half ago. And we have seen children like Fana Ali starving and dying since then. And assistance still isn’t coming.

JOHN YANG: Why is it taking so long? Why has it taken so long for this famine to become known?

KEVIN SIEFF: I think part of it is that it’s so dangerous. It’s difficult for aid workers, it’s different for journalists to get access to these places.

And so it took a long time for a lot of people, including us, to learn just how dire things really were. I think that’s one reason. I think another reason is, there was just a total institutional failure both at the U.N. and within other international NGOs that really should have known how bad things were, but simply didn’t have the resources in Nigeria, didn’t have strong enough teams, weren’t trying hard enough to find out what the situation really looked like outside of the capital of the state.

And as soon as they did get access or kind of tried to leave the capital, these horrific images started coming out. So, I think it’s a combination of those factors, and those factors continue to plague the response.

Even in places that are relatively safe, like Maiduguri, the capital of Borno, you have got severe acute malnutrition rates that are the highest in the world. You have the return of polio, the first polio cases in Africa in about two years.

By almost every measure, this is a crisis as bad as we have seen anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa in a very long time.

JOHN YANG: Kevin Sieff of The Washington Post, thank you very much for your reporting on this very troubling story. Thanks for being with us.

KEVIN SIEFF: Thank you.

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