Witness to famine: A cameraman’s journal

An eye-witness account of life in the famine-stricken Horn of Africa during Ramadan and on Eid.

Horn of Africa Somalia
Al Jazeera’s cameraman, Abdul Wahid Khan, was deployed to the Horn of Africa during Ramadan [Cassandra Nelson]

Abdul Wahid Khan is a South African cameraman with Al Jazeera Arabic. At the beginning of August he was deployed to the Horn of Africa to cover the ongoing famine, which is being exacerbated by armed conflict in the region. The deployment coincided with the beginning of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

 August 5 | Joma Kenyatta Airport | Nairobi, Kenya

We arrived at the Joma Kenyatta Airport at 6am. We were welcomed by Mr Jama Noor Ahmed, the Somalia Bureau correspondent.

It was a cold, winter’s day. It reminded me of Johannesburg. But I’m not complaining. From the hot desert of Doha, we have arrived in “Green City in the Sun”, Nairobi.

The city was bustling. Men and women were walking the streets. Buses and mini-bus taxis were commuting people to their destinations. Nairobi was buzzing.

Jama and I prayed the Jummah prayer [Muslim Friday prayer] at the Jamia Musjid – the biggest Musjid in the city. More than 5,000 men and woman, I would think, were praying there.

The pre-khutba [talk given at Muslim Friday prayer] was given in both Arabic and Swahili. Being the first Friday of the Holy month of Ramadan [Muslim month of fasting], the Imaam [religious cleric] spoke of the virtues of praying and fasting.

During the talk – men walked around with scarves, each one holding a side, walking row by row, collecting donations that the congregation was offering. This money would go towards a women’s madressa [school for religious education].

We fly to Somalia on Sunday morning.

August 7 | Road to Dadaab | Dadaab, Kenya

It was an early morning for us. We travelled to the north of the eastern part of Kenya – an area called Dadaab.


Animals are as badly affected as people by the
famine in East Africa  [
Abdul Wahid Khan]


The scenery was very dry. Rivers that once flowed
were now completely dry.

The leaves on most of the trees had fallen and all that remained were bare branches.

We saw the Red Cross and other aid organisations.

The road to Dadaab was bumpy. 

We had driven from Nairobi on tarred road and came to a point where there was no more tar. Just sand and lots of dust. We drove on that for two hours.

There were dead animals lying on the roadside, men and woman tending to their cows, goats and camels.

We saw big lizards running across our paths, and deer in
the bare bushes, a rather eclectic collection of wildlife. 


August 7 | Road to Dadaab | Dadaab, Kenya

We arrived in Dadaab camp in the afternoon. We were taken to a Somali food distribution centre, one of the areas where hundreds of men, women and children waited patiently to collect some food.

The women sat crouched, some with babies, in the dry heat.

We started filming the different stages of the distribution and interviewing people. All these people wanted was food to feed themselves. The centre gave them some flour, maize, dates and perhaps a few other things. 

As the sun began to set, the gates were locked. Hundreds of men and women still clung to the gate with the hope that they would be given something. But unfortunately, the day had come to an end. The many out there would have to go home hungry for another day.

We had to get to a place to do a live, reporting to the world what the situation was. The sun had set. We heard the Somali men call out the azaan. It was time to break the fast.


August 9 | Dadaab refugee camp | Dadaab, Kenya

A weak cow we saw last night on our way back to the hotel did not survive. We saw it today decomposing and birds picking at its flesh.

We visited a village north east of Kenya where new refugees would settle. They have homes made out of tree branches, with sheltering leaves. Other homes were covered in material given to them by aid organisations. 

The second story we did was about an orphaned Somali girl, Rahmah. She has to take care of her two sisters now.

 “…they still found time to sit on the sand, and recite the Quran,
                      with text written on a long piece of wood”

After the report was aired, a Qatari sheikh offered to adopt the girl. It brought tears of joy to my eyes.

As we walked through the village we heard the sound of young boys reciting the Quran. With all that they are going through, they still found time to sit on the sand, and recite the Quran, with text written on a long piece of wood.

This was really amazing!

We have beautiful Masjids: They pray in Masjids made of branches, just a simple straw mat to pray on.


 August 12 | Aden-Adde International Airport | Mogadishu, Somalia

We arrived at a small airport on the coast located in the Benadir region on the Indian Ocean. Aden-Adde International Airport was named after Aden Abdullah Osman Daar, the first President of Somalia.

Pieces of concrete from the roof had fallen off. The interior looked really shabby and rundown.

We were taken to our guesthouse where we were welcomed by armed men who constantly guard the gate. The room we were given wasn’t too shabby, two single beds. That’s all they had.

We always book separate rooms, but I guess this time, we had little choice. We were told that this was one of the safer living accommodations. 


 August 13 | Mogadishu, Somalia

As we walked to the 4×4, I noticed four other Somali men armed with AK47s jump into another 4×4 behind us. These were to be our bodyguards. Now that’s what I call security!

As we travelled through the streets – sandy, very bumpy streets – my head repeatedly hit the window. There’s no traffic signs or lanes. There were cars just popping out of nowhere – men just hanging onto the sliding door of a minibus, at least three of them. The streets were really crowded with cars, buses and trucks. 

“Arab men hold tasbeehs,
here men
guns in their hands”

Like in other Arab countries, where the Arab men hold tasbeehs  [rosary/prayer beads], here men hold guns in their hands.

Even the guy hanging onto the mini bus taxi had a gun hanging on a strap over his shoulder. 

A woman was selling meat on the side of the road. Half a cow, just hung up. In fact, there were many stalls like that. There were no refridgerators – it was all just on display, in the open.

The African Union peacekeepers are visible everywhere. They created checkpoints everywhere. They said that they were there to keep al-Shabaab out. 

The African Union Mission for Somalia (AMISOM), says al-Qaeda linked extremist insurgents still pose a threat to the capital and to areas where humanitarian efforts are underway to ease the famine-struck country.

Mogadishu is still described as the world’s most dangerous city.


 August 14 | Mogadishu, Somalia

There is no weekend for me and the others who are here. Everybody just takes it one day at a time. Some have been here for weeks others staying on for another month.



 Turkish mobile hospitals are insufficient to treat the many ailing [Abdul Wahid Khan]

I feel as if I’ve been here for weeks already. My body is weak and I feel very tired.

Today we were at the Banadir hospital, a public hospital in Mogadishu. Mothers stood in queues waiting their turn for their babies to be checked by
a doctor.

A local doctor told us that children are dying due to the lack of provisions at the hospital. 

As we continued filming our report around the hospital, we saw babies who were so weak, that their legs were as thin as sticks. One child could barely walk. Others had to be fed through tubes.

The babies here are a year old and their weight is that of a six-month-old. They laid in the cots; their ribs could be seen.

We saw many babies suffering from severe malnutrition. One unfortunate mother had to see her baby die in front of her eyes. The father wrapped his young daughter in a piece of cloth.

 August 16 | Mogadishu, Somalia

Tonight we heard the sound of artillery being fired towards the al-Shabaab area.  


Bullet holes bare testament to fighting between
al-Shabaab and security forces [Abdul Wahid Khan]


The AMISOM peacekeepers suspected that al-Shabaab could be in that vicinity. We tried to investigate the
situation, but all we saw was fire in the distance.

We interviewed a soldier from the AMISOM peacekeepers today. 

They are currently securing the air, land and sea. The area
is so big that they require more help from other countries
to deploy more soldiers.

I see the sea, the beautiful waves and golden sand. But I’m told nobody goes to the sea. 

AMISOM has a watch-tower guarding the sea, for pirates and al-Shabaab. They fear that they may come back to reclaim their territory. 

For now all they can do is hope that peace will be the order of the day.

 August 16 | Mogadishu, Somalia

Yesterday our report was about a widowed woman, a mother of three little boys. We saw her building a shelter for her family. 

Here they call them camps. I prefer to call it a shelter. A camp would protect a person from the wind, rain and mosquitoes. These shelters don’t.

The shelter is built in a circular shape, it’s not very big. When doing my interview with her in her temporary shelter, it was difficult to set up my camera. All she had in there was a thin cushion, some clothing on the floor and a torch. I imagined how she would sleep in there with her three little boys.

It’s about survival here for these people. For how long, we cannot tell.

 August 16 | Mogadishu, Somalia

As I went around filming in the surrounding shelters, I came across a woman washing some clothing. 

I took my first shot from a distance, my second from the same spot, then I got my camera off the tripod and moved in for a close up. 

With the conditions they are living in, with all that sand and dust, you can only imagine what a little five-year-old’s trouser would look like.

She washed his shirt and his trouser in a dish filled with very little water, after washing the shirt, the water was already muddy, she used the same water to wash his trouser and squeezed off the excess water.

 August 16 | Mogadishu, Somalia

I continued filming in the area.

I saw a woman cooking. She began to fan the coal with a pot lid. Then a little girl approached from behind and asked for something perhaps in the Somali language.

The woman took one piece of coal that was alight, put it into a small container and gave to the little girl.

That was amazing: Sharing a piece of coal. In their struggle to survive, what choice do they have?

 August 20 | Mogadishu, Somalia


Thorny tree branches are used to
make shelters [Abdul Wahid Khan]

We came across a mother with a baby under a year old who was undernourished and weak.

We followed her back to her little shelter where she lives with her two children and her husband.

The pieces of cloth that covered the shelter had holes in them.

The husband had found a plastic sheet, which he was using to protect his family.

As we walked through the camp, the reporter and I had to stop at times to pull out the thorns that had gone through the soles of our boots.

We wondered how the little kids who were running around bare footed survived in such conditions.


 August 21 | Mogadishu, Somalia

Today we visited a family whose one-year-old baby had passed away.

It was a very simple funeral procedure: Janaaza salaah [muslim prayer read when a person dies] outside the house, and then to the burial site.

There are no graveyards. Just empty land. Some Somali’s are even buried on the roadsides and near dumpsites.

 August 23 | Banaadir camp | Mogadishu, Somalia

Another day on the field. Today our story was about pregnant mothers and the famine.

We interviewed a pregnant woman who lived in her shelter, she told us, “I live my life everyday, hoping things will get better and help will come to us soon. I eat whatever the aid organisations give us and pray that I will have a healthy baby.”

“. . . children laying on tables with drips to their heads; children laying asleep on cardboard on the floor with flies on their faces; mothers sitting with their undernourished
          babies – when I go to bed I see these images

We were taken to the maternity ward in Banaadir Hospital, as we entered a room with a woman laying on the bed, we found a baby laying at her feet. Wrapped in a cloth, I could see the leg of the baby.

The woman had started bleeding. By the time she had got to the hospital, the baby had passed away. Many babies are born everyday. Only a few survive.

The scenes of children laying on tables with drips to their heads; children laying asleep on cardboard on the floor with flies all over their faces; mothers sitting with their undernourished babies – when I go to bed I see these images. When I close my eyes I hear the sound of the crying babies.

Nine days left until I depart from Somalia.


 August 24 | Badbadoo camp | Mogadishu, Somalia

At the Badbadoo Camp today hundreds of people stood in queues waiting for some rice. Some had pots, others had plastic containers, whatever they could find, as long as they could get some food. 

For some it was a bit of disappointment, the rice had finished and they were told to leave.

As I filmed a boy with an empty container, I could see the sadness and disappointment in his eyes. Like a child who did not get what he wanted, only, this child wanted rice.

I said to him in Arabic, “Bukra Insha’Allah, you will get some,” he replied, “Insha’Allah.

We interviewed the governor. He said, “Everybody is hungry. Don’t be surprised if people start fighting for food.”

 August 25 | Mogadishu, Somalia

 Seeing a smile on a child’s face is the best feeling ever.


 August 26 | Bakarah market | Mogadishu, Somalia

We visited the Bakarah market today. It was once a booming market place for the Somalis. All we saw now were streets, shops, hotels – all deserted. Buildings were destroyed. There were bullet holes all over the place.


August 27 | Near Badbadoo camp | Mogadishu, Somalia

The sound of crying babies, mothers and children sitting on the sandy ground of a tin shelter. All waiting for a bowl of porridge and a cup of milk.



Flies, on food too scarce to waste in Somalia
[Abdul Wahid Khan]

Thousands of flies all over the place.

The situation continues to get worse, as many as five children per day are dying,
some with measles, others from other causes.
There are no proper graveyards, no birth certificates, no death certificates. The actual numbers of death would be hard to record.

People are faced with so many challenges. Laying in my bed last night I could hear
the sound of the wind. The nights are very windy here.

I have four days left in Mogadishu.

My heart yearns to help these people. But, I must return home. Will I forget about them when I leave? How can I create more awareness to get these people some help? These are the questions I ask myself.

August 29 | Hamar Wain Market | Mogadishu, Somalia

We went out and shot a pre-Eid report this morning. There was a buzz at the local market, the Hamar Wain Market: Old, young, children, everyone, in the Eid spirit.

The market was busy. Hundreds of people, people pressing their car horns for people to move out of their way. It was an amazing atmosphere.

People selling everything from clothing to jewelry, toys and the one that caught my eye, halwa [a sweet-dish]. We got some for Iftaar.

I guess those who were shopping are the fortunate ones. The less fortunate, we visited at a camp. A woman told us that last year she and her family were in the village: They were happy, they had cattle. Today they don’t have anything to eat.

For many in the camps it will be a quiet day. Not the usual Eid for some. No new clothes, no good food or, no food at all!


Eid | August 29 | Mogadishu, Somalia

The day started with the Eid prayer led by the local Somali Imaam. The musjid was packed with Somalis all reciting the takbeer [religious supplications] in a beautiful tone. 

My Eid breakfast was not the traditional Indian one for a change: no samosas or pies. No biryani. Instead we enjoyed Somali coffee with biscuits, halwa and a meaty soup with bread for breakfast.

Then it was off to work.

The streets of Mogadishu were busier than usual. The women and little girls dressed in colourful burkahs [head covering] and black hena on their hands, little boys dressed smartly playing on the side of the street with toy guns.

On the other hand, groups of people in their hundreds stood waiting  for aid. I saw bags of maize been taken out to be given to them. Lines of women and men all over the streets of Mogadishu, hoping to get some aid.


Eid | August 30 | Mogadishu, Somalia

As we entered our filming location based in a camp, we noticed that an organisation had decorated the shelters with colorful shiny decorations.

For some women and children, it was a joyous day. They had received clothing, sweets and sang an Eid song in the Somali language, “Maanta, maanta, wa maalin wena, maanta. Today, today, is a big day…”

The atmosphere was breathtaking.  It felt really great to see the smiles on those little faces. The women received bags of meat.

But just outside that boundary, hundreds of men, women and children stood waiting.

I could see the disappointment in their faces. The children crying, some just crouched to the ground with their heads in dismay. I really felt for those kids, not having anything on Eid.

We edited and then sent our report and did two lives [Live television reports].

The day of Eid has come to an end.

For many, this day has been like the others that have passed: No food, no new clothing, no Joy…


Author’s note:

I thank God for bringing me to Somalia. Being here makes me appreciate my family even more. Being away from them makes me feel sad. I can only imagine how the young girl, Rahmah – whose mother and father passed away – feels, having her two sisters to take care of now.

Some of us will never come near to poverty. We should be thankful. We never go hungry for even a day. We always have clean clothes. Eid is a day of happiness and joy. I think happiness and joy are blessings from Allah.

Say a prayer and remember those who are starving on the day of Eid.

Eid Mubarak.


Safeeyah Kharsany compiled text, photographs, videos and other elements of this report. 




Source: Al Jazeera