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U.N. will begin food airlifts to Niger

Program to deliver 23,000 tons in five weeks



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MARADI, Niger (CNN) -- The United Nations on Thursday will begin airlifting 44 tons of emergency food rations to famine-stricken Niger in West Africa, where 80,000 people are starving and more than a million others are at risk, officials said.

The emergency rations will be flown from Italy into the capital of Niamey, where a convoy of trucks will carry the supplies more than 400 miles (660 kilometers) south to Maradi, one of the hardest-hit areas.

According to the United Nations, Niger is suffering from a poor rainy season and devastation to its crops and grazing land from the worst locust invasion in 15 years.

The U.N. World Food Program's country director for Niger, Giancarlo Cirri, called the situation "some of the worst hunger I have ever witnessed."

WFP plans to deliver 23,000 tons of food to 19 famine-stricken districts in Niger during a five-week period. International food aid began arriving last week.

At a nutritional center in Maradi, Soulima Ouseman, 48, said her four daughters starved to death, and she cannot remember the last time she ate a real meal. (Behind the Scenes)

"We were left with no choice but to eat leaves and grass in the bush," she said. "But even here we're still hungry. Please help us."

Ouseman, a refugee in her own country who looks much older than her age, said her grandson, Tidjan, is her only surviving relative. Tidjan arrived at the camp with severe malnutrition made worse by the onset of malaria.

Ouseman and about 1,000 other starving people have flooded the nutritional center in Maradi, but hundreds of thousands of others in rural villages are too sick to walk and too weak to seek help.

On the other side of this camp lies 8-month-old Abdulahi. Doctors say he arrived here about a week ago suffering from severe malnutrition and cholera and has little chance of surviving.

The nutritional center is divided into various sections, including an intensive care unit where severely sick and malnourished children are treated by aid workers.

Dr. Vanessa Remy-Piccolo, a volunteer with Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders, is on her first mission outside her home country of France.

"It's so sad," she said. "Many children are dying, and more will die before this crisis is over."

Many other volunteers like her are committed to saving lives one at a time despite the odds.

"I think we need much more people involved in the response," said Chantal Umutoni, also a volunteer with Doctors Without Borders.

The hunger crisis is also affecting more than a million people in neighboring countries, including Mali, Burkina Faso and Mauritania, according to the U.N.

The United Nations said the famine could have been avoided if the world had heeded its warning eight months ago when aid agencies raised the red flag.

The world body said more than 2,000 tons of food is en route to agencies distributing aid in the worst-affected areas. However, only one truck partially filled with food has come into the nutritional center in Maradi in the past two days.

WFP's chief logistics officer, Pierre Carrasse, said, "The real problem has not been getting the food to the hungry but getting the donations to pay for the food."

CNN's Jeff Koinange contributed to this report.

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