DADAAB, Kenya - The World Food Program can't reach 2.2 million Somalis in desperate need of aid in militant-controlled areas of Somalia, WFP's director said Saturday, meaning refugee camps in nearby Kenya and Ethiopia are likely to continue seeing thousands of new refugees each week.
The needs of those in Somalia's expanding famine zone are extraordinary, prompting parents to sweep up their small children and start a dangerous walk that can last days or weeks — one that many die on. Livestock have perished, and crops no longer grow after consecutive rains failed to fall in south-central Somalia.
The journey is so long and so perilous that few Somalis are eager to return to their war-torn homeland, a facet of the dual crisis of the Somalia conflict and Horn of Africa famine that has Kenyan officials — who are only reluctantly accepting more refugees — in a bind.
Josette Sheeran, the executive director of WFP, traveled to eastern Kenya on Saturday to visit the drought-stricken town of Garissa and the world's largest refugee camp, Dadaab. Sheeran talked with refugees who just completed the perilous trek from Somalia, and asked if they would consider returning if conditions improve.
"I walked 25 days to get here. I have no money," a translator quoted a refugee as telling Sheeran. He said he had passed many others on the sandy route to Dadaab who dropped off the pace and never made it here. "He said he can't go back anytime soon."
So many people are in need in Somalia because the militant group al-Shabab won't let aid in. The group, in fact, denies a famine is taking place, disputing the U.N.'s view that tens of thousands of people have already died.
WFP can't operate without the militant's permission; 14 WFP employees have been killed there since 2008. Sheeran called Somalia "the riskiest environment we operate in the world today."
Al-Shabab signaled in early July that it would accept aid groups it had previously banned, but changed course on Thursday, saying groups like WFP are not welcome. The group's refusal to accept aid from Western and "Christian" aid groups means millions could starve — or be forced to begin the hike to help to Kenya, Ethiopia or Mogadishu, the Somali capital, which is also being overwhelmed with refugees.
"We know that the epicenter of this famine and drought are in Somalia. We are able to reach about 1.5 million people in Somalia. But there's about 2.2 million people that are not able to be reached," Sheeran told The Associated Press. "We welcome the opening to look to ways to reach people. We'll talk with local authorities and we'll act where we can go."
Steering clear of the sensitive politics, Sheeran did not use the word al-Shabab. But it was clear that's what "local authorities" meant.
She said that famine will likely expand to more areas as insecurity persists and aid is prevented. The U.N. fears tens of thousands of people already have died in the famine. WFP estimates more than 11.3 million people need aid across drought-hit regions in East Africa.
"For the World Food Program, we've been involved in every situation of refugees and difficulty over the past 30 to 40 years, and we do what we have to do even in conflict zones to try to find a way to reach those hungry women and children," she said.
It is people like Roni Mohammed who need help. She was breast-feeding her 7-month-old inside a hospital wing for malnourished children on Saturday. Her child, despite its age, weighs just 9.7 pounds (4.4 kilograms).
And Roni's child was relatively healthy, at least in this hospital wing of skinny arms and exposed ribs. Other infants are being force fed by a tube inserted through the nose that snakes down into the stomach.
"We fled the drought and were chased away by al-Shabab. We have nothing to go back to. Everything is lost," said Mohammed, who traveled by foot and car during a 10-day journey to reach Dadaab.
The drought has created a triangle of hunger where the borders of Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia meet.
The majority of those affected live in pastoral communities whose herds have been wiped out because of a lack of water.
Abdi Kadir Mohammed, 33, a teacher in the town of Garissa, where WFP has set up a food distribution site, said that most of the nomadic community there had lost many animals which are their source of livelihood.
"The people around here depend on the animals. They don't have a bank account. They don't even know what one is," he said.
Meanwhile, local officials told Sheeran to do her best to prevent more Somali refugees from flowing into Kenya. The region's representative to parliament told her his region will be "swamped" by refugees if they keep coming, taking Kenyans' food and land. He wants camps to be opened on the Somalia side of the border.
Kenya's minister for special projects, Esther Mirugi, had a similar message.
"They will bring insecurities and they will bring conflicts," she told Sheeran. "Let us feed them inside their boundaries."
The U.N. refugee agency said in a report Saturday that some 13,000 tents need to be shipped to the Ethiopian refugee camp of Dollo Ado to provide emergency shelter for up to 65,000 people due to the high influx of Somali refugees. The camp has nearly 114,500 Somali refugees.
Somalia has been mired by violence since 1991. Militants attempting to topple Somalia's weak U.N. backed government control most of southern and central Somalia.
The Somali Prime Minister said Saturday that getting aid to those in need is a priority. He spoke after the Somali parliament overwhelmingly approved a new Cabinet.
"We shall first prioritize the humanitarian issue and how we would be able to receive aid for our people to save them," said Abdiweli Mohamed Ali.
Associated Press writer Khaled Kazziha in Dadaab and Abdi Guled in Mogadishu, Somalia contributed to this report.