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SGMD Special Edition: The Frontlines of Famine

Aired August 13, 2011 - 07:30   ET


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, HOST: Hello, and welcome to a very special edition of SGMD, "The Frontlines of Famine." I'm in Dadaab, Kenya, and what is the largest refugee camp in the world.

We're just over the border from Somalia. We came here because we heard reports -- desperate reports -- of people literally starving to death over here. Thirty thousand children over the last three months, millions more at risk of simply dying because they don't have enough food.

It is hard to believe. It is hard to take. But that's what happens when you have the largest refugee camp in the world.

The numbers are just getting worse. They say 2,000 more people actually coming to this camp every day -- 400,000 people or so are already here.

And keep the simple fact in mind: this camp was only designed for about 90,000 people.

All of this -- this entire situation made worse by the fact that there's an ongoing civil war in Somalia. And certain militant groups have made it very difficult for aid to get across the border, to people who need it the most.

When you come to the camp like this, you meet some mothers, you meet the fathers, you meet the daughters. And you realized that they are not too different from people in your neighborhoods.

I met a father whose love for his boys demonstrated something that maybe any father in the world would do. It will also make you truly understand what desperation is.


GUPTA: (voice-over): What you're looking at may best be described as the most desperate place on earth, vulnerable children, thick with misery.

(on camera): You can tell right away when you see a little baby here. You can take a look here, the baby's fontanel, it's so sunken in. This is what happens when they have no food, no water so dehydrated.

(voice-over): Basic, basic necessities so hard to come by. Dust and starvation nearly everywhere you look. (on camera): This is also what happens when you're at the world's largest refugee camp, all these folks waiting to see one doctor over here.


GUPTA (voice-over): As you look at these images, consider this simple fact. These are the lucky ones, lucky because they made it here at all. This family of five made it out of Somalia just yesterday.

(on camera): I came out here to the middle of the desert to give you a real idea of what this family went through. They walked for 30 days and 30 nights. Primarily walking at night because it was cooler carrying those three kids, sometime carrying a kid, going back, getting another kid and then just doing this over and over again in the desert.

Thirty nights' worth, they crossed the border and then they get robbed. Bandits take what little possessions they actually have.

(voice-over): But the bandits didn't take this father's dream and his drive to keep his kids alive. It's not going to be easy.

(on camera): This is another thing you see quite a bit. This child, obviously, Mohammad (ph) -- he's 3 months old. He's looking very listless, just not very active at all.

But look at his breathing specifically. He is breathing with his abdomen, not so much with his chest, which is something very tiring for a baby. He also has whooping cough, pertussis, that's because the child was never vaccinated either.

(voice-over): He will need a hospital, oxygen, antibiotics, and yes, food and water. All of it may come too late.

It's so painful to realize that every single one of his ailments could have been prevented. Unfortunately, though, that hardly ever happens in the most desperate places on Earth.


GUPTA: You know, the sad truth is people have known for months and months that this was coming, that this was going to happen. People could have prepared. And as I said, many of these problems could have prevented.

Yes, it was the worst drought in 60 years which, caused people to lose their crops. They lost their livestock that were dependant on the crops, and eventually, they had no food and water. They had to walk tens of kilometers, sometimes hundreds of kilometers, 30 days and 30 nights sometimes. It was challenging. It was difficult.

And the whole problem was compounded by the fact that there is a civil war that is ongoing. A group called el Shabaab made it very difficult to get into the places. Bandits would rob people as they cross the border as you just heard.

No one knows the story better than Amanda Lindhout. She was a freelance journalist. She's an aid worker and she was also kidnapped in August of 2008, and held for ransom.

Listen to a little bit of what she went through.


AMANDA LINDHOUT, CANADIAN FREELANCE JOURNALIST: I'm in a desperate situation. I'm being kept in a dark, windowless room in chains without any clean drinking water and little or no food.

I have been very sick for months without any medicine. I'm begging my government and fellow Canadian citizens to assist my family in paying my ransom.


GUPTA: She was held captive for 15 months, and only released after friends, family and supporters raised the ransom money.

You know, a lot of people would say, enough, I'm not going back to Somalia -- after what she had been through. But she said to herself, she made a promise that if she got out alive, she would actually come back to Somalia to help the people here. And now, she's back for the very first time.


GUPTA: Amanda, we just heard that tape. It's pretty remarkable to think. I mean, you were in captivity for 15 months. What happened next?

LINDHOUT: Well, when I was in captivity and I hit the darkest periods of that, I was literally chained in a pitch black room and held alone for 460 days, I began to nurture this idea that I made it out alive, I would do something to make Somalia a better place for the people that live there.

I saw that the people that had kidnapped me and taken away my freedom, these teenagers, 14, 15, 16 years old, were very much a product of their environment.

And when I was released, very shortly afterwards, I was able to do that. I established the Global Enrichment Foundation and we are absolutely dedicated to using -- especially education -- to improving the lives of Somalis.

GUPTA: And this is your first time back since your release, right? I mean, it must have been hard to come back?

LINDHOUT: Yes. Last Thursday was the first time that I was back in Somalia, in the last year and a half since the day that I was released. My family paid a ransom for my release and I was able to go home. You can imagine it was very personally confronting to go back to Somalia. But the situation right now is so dire and it's such an emergency. I felt like it was really important to show that food can get into parts of Somalia and to do that by showing by example and leading, you know, the very first food convoy that crossed the border and went into southern Somalia and to (INAUDIBLE).

GUPTA: This is a big deal because they keep talking about the fact that people are coming from Somalia. They have to walk incredible distances. So, getting aid and getting resources to them is sort of the name of the game, right?

LINDHOUT: It's absolutely essential and it's actually very frustrating that more aid is not getting into south central Somalia. There are about 20 Somalia-based NGOs that have been operating very effectively over the last two years when all of the big international NGOs were kicked out by al Shabaab. And I think that aid can be channeled through them and distributed to the people.

It's something that I know some of the bigger NGOs are starting to look at now and perhaps they should have started to look at, you know, three weeks ago.

GUPTA: And, again, the thing that you are talking about earlier, you're saying that these kids, even in these camps, refugee camps, they come here in search of a better life. But after a couple of years, maybe they realize that this is all there is. And that's when the idea of joining a group like al Shabaab becomes more attractive.

LINDHOUT: That's right. You have 200.000 young people in this campo. Most of them are idle youth. So, they are vulnerable targets for extremists groups like al Shabaab to come in, and al Shabaab is very active in recruiting these young people in the camp.

So, a lot of the fighters in Somalia right now want to spend time here in Dadaab. And when you speak to the parents of these young people who are now up in Somalia and you ask them the question, if those young people had the opportunity to have an education, would they still have gone? The answer is always no.


GUPTA: Up next, a truly dire situation in the world's largest refugee camp, hundreds of thousands of kids literally on the brink of death from starvation. There is a race on to save them.

Stay with us.


GUPTA: Facing the worst drought in 60 years, nearly half a million Somalis here, to the largest refugee camp anywhere in the world. It's a desperate race, I'll tell you, inside to save starving children. And the aid really comes slow sometimes.

But we also have learned is that the problem may be getting worse. Just this week, the World Food Programme says that the funding and food will run out in three weeks or less. What they know and what you are about to learn is the children simply don't have that time to spare.


GUPTA (voice-over): In the middle of a famine, the sickest of the sick come here. Like Ahmed (ph). He's six years old and has just spent 10 days walking under the East Africa sun. His tiny prone body robbed of nutrition for too long. His doctor can only hope he arrived in time.

(on camera): What happens to a child like this if you weren't here, if wasn't at this facility?

DR. HUMPHREY MUSYOKA, INTERNATIONAL RESCUE COMMITTEE: This child, probably in a few weeks or so, we will have lost this child.

GUPTA: One --


MUSYOKA: We would lose this child. We would lose this child.

GUPTA: You know, when the doctor talks about death by starvation, I can tell you, it's neither quick nor it's painless. When you come to a place like this, you see it just about everywhere. You can hear it sometimes, as well. You can also smell it. It's in the air. It's this acrid sweetness that is a reflection of the body literally starting to digest itself.

(voice-over): Little kids like Ahmed simply stop growing. They become stunted in time. And the tools to save him are basic. It's not like they have much choice, but they do work.

(on camera): I want to show you something else that I think is very important here and this is what doctors use -- a simple measuring device to try and determine if a kid needs acute medical care. You can tell if the kid is malnourished simply by using this.

This is Ian (ph). She's eight months old. You simply take this. You put it around her arm, about 10 centimeters down from her shoulder.

And you measure, just measure this. And if the number comes back below 11, that means a kid is in real trouble.

And in Ian's case, you can see here, the number is actually about 9.5. That's part of the reason she's getting these feedings through an NG-tube into her nose.

(voice-over): Ahmed's was 10.5.

One in five kids will not survive with a reading that low. It's grim duty for Dr. Musyoka, the only doctor caring for all of these children. (on camera): I have three kids. You have a 5-year-old.


GUPTA: How do you -- how do you do it?

I mean how do you -- how do you see these kids who are -- who are suffering so much?

MUSYOKA: It -- it's difficult, especially since the kind of suffering they're going through and you're transfixed with your own kids. But what -- what keeps you going is that you have to come back and do something good for them, for them to survive.

GUPTA (voice-over): Ahmed was one of the estimated 600,000 kids on the brink of death by starvation. But today, that may have changed. Ahmed may have been saved. He made it here just in time.


GUPTA: There is no way to talk about death by starvation in any kind of dignified manner. It is tough to talk about. Your body starts to digest itself, as I mentioned. First, it goes to the liver and then it goes to the fatty tissue. A person becomes a skeleton of themselves.

Eventually, the body tries to find muscle for protein, to try and get calories. Even the heart muscle, which is why so many of these people look listless and look lethargic, and that ultimately is also what can lead to their death.

Again, it's happening way too often.

One of the things you see around this camp quite a bit and camps like this all over the world is something known as plumpy nut. It's essentially a peanut paste. It's about 500 calories.

It's something that kids can eat, they can digest, they can absorb quickly. And they hope they can put on some weight after these arduous journeys.

If you look around the place, it looks rough. But it also represents the last best hope for so many people who have fled their home countries to come here to try and find a better way of life.

But as we are about to show you as well and you're going to learn, is that there are things here that are still of great risk even after the refugees finally make it here.


GUPTA: And we are back with a very special edition of SGMD, on the "Frontlines of Famine."

You know, we are here for the people of Somalia, who for sometime have been spilling out into Kenya, Ethiopia and beyond. To know Somalia to know that this is a country that has not had an effective central government for nearly 20 years. This is a country where millions of people are at risk of starvation, where tens of thousands of people who have already died.

The militia in many areas controls the aid actually getting to people who need it the most. And there are horrifying realities, some of which I've seen with my own eyes. I can tell you, as a dad, there's nothing more horrifying than having to bury your own child, because that is something that's happening here over and over again, even though there are solutions in plain sight.


GUPTA (voice-over): The kids here will melt your heart.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: How old are you?

GUPTA: Wow, I'm 41.

(voice-over): They impressed me with their English. So I spoke a little Somali to them. They loved it.


GUPTA (on camera): Is that good?


GUPTA (voice-over): Rare smiles in a place too full of heartbreak. Amin (ph) and her 1-month-old daughter Addison (ph) came here in search of a better life, fighting so hard not to starve to death, but in the end it made little difference.

Amin lost the one thing in the world she cared about more than anything else. We are walking to her daughter's grave. They are really just piles of dirt, with no nameplate, no flowers -- no reminders of their lives, just small sticks with colored plastic trash blowing in the wind.

She says she brought her healthy baby girl here with dreams of new beginnings, but Addison died within a month.

(on camera): What went wrong?

(voice-over): "She started vomiting," she said, "then diarrhea. It wouldn't stop for days and days."

Diarrheal illness, it has been the major reason 30,000 kids have died here over the past three months. So many tiny little graves like this one.

(on camera): You know, part of the problem is even after you get to one of these camps, there's still not enough food here, not enough water, and there's plenty of infectious diseases. There are viral illnesses. There's also diphtheria. There's pertussis.

And I want to shows something else, something that's very frightening in a camp like this.

This is Osmond. He's 14 years old. You can tell he really doesn't feel well. People are concerned here that he has measles.

He had a high fever. He had the characteristic rash and conjunctivitis in his eyes. He never got vaccinated. He never got any sort of treatment. And measles, as you know is very, very contagious. He has nowhere else to go.

(voice-over): And so, hundreds of thousands more of these adorable children unvaccinated are at risk of the same fate as Amin's daughter.

(on camera): Is there anything anybody can do?


GUPTA: It is with God.

(voice-over): It is with God. And so, there's nothing else these kids can do, but laugh and play, surrounded by the dead.


GUPTA: I don't want to tell you stories just to try and scare you or to make them unnecessarily horrifying. It's rather to remind you that there are solutions to these problems -- opening up a hospital, providing vaccinations, saving children.

I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. You're watching "Frontlines of Famine." We'll be right back.


GUPTA: I want to take a short break from Somalia now and give you a update on a couple of stories that I've been covering for more than a year.

First of all, take a look right there. That is Diana Nyad. By now, you probably know her, 61-year-old long distance swimmer and one of the fearless people I know.

We've been following her along for two years as she's been train for a swim from Cuba to Florida. You heard that right, Cuba to Florida, 103 miles with no assistance, not even a shark cage.

As it turns out, you need to have perfect weather conditions to execute a swim like this. On the day those conditions became perfect, results for the day I left for Somalia which is why I wasn't with her. I was planning on being on that vote right alongside.

She did get into the water and started an epic swim. But the seas became rough, her shoulder started to hurt, she developed asthma attacks while in the water, and she started vomiting.

Eventually, it all became too much, but she swam for more than 29 hours, more than 50 miles before they literally had to pull her out of the water.

Shortly after she did get out of the water I called her from Somalia. Take a listen.


GUPTA (via telephone): Diana, you mentioned you needed to have ideal weather conditions for it to really work. Can you just explain for one second what that means? It's not simply that the water has to be warm enough and it has to be a nice day outside. There are several things at play here, right?

DIANA NYAD, ENDURANCE SWIMMER: Oh, yes, many things at play. I mean, you don't beat Mother Nature. It's like, you know, when you're at the penultimate stage of getting atop Mt. Everest and big storms are coming in, you don't say, well, my schedule just doesn't match that, I'm just going to go anyway. You don't do it.

And here, you know, the condition down here in the Florida Straits between Cuba and Florida, they call it the doldrums. And that means that you have not a whisper of wind. That's what I was looking for and waiting for.

And the prediction we had was not quite the doldrums but very, very light. Under five knots, which is, you know, doable. And that just didn't happen. That prediction was wrong.

So, to put in all that time and not come up with the end prize, I have to say it's a bitter pill to swallow.


GUPTA: Just listening to that, I'm sure you'll agree, she's got a lot left -- 61 years old and she's got a lot of dreams. With documented the entire swim. You can watch our special. It's called "Diana Nyad: Extreme Dream." That's September 17th, at 8:00 p.m.

I also want to give you an update on our six-pack. Many of you at home know our six-pack. You've been following them along for some time now. They are six viewers from around the country who decided to train and then join me for the New York City triathlon.

I couldn't make the triathlon because I'm here in Somalia, but I'm happy to report this: every single one of our six-pack members finished the triathlon and served as huge inspirations to their friends and to their family. And if they're listening to this right now, as well, it's a huge inspiration to me.

So, we'll give you more updates on them as they come into us. I did want to give you one sad note, though, about the New York City triathlon -- two people lost their lives while competing in this event. As it turns out, a 64-year-old man and a 40-year-old woman both lost consciousness during the swimming part of this event, which is the first part.

It's very sad. It's obviously also important to remember that this is a grueling event. We don't take this lightly. For example, every single one of our members of the six-pack had to undergo a thorough medical exam before undertaking this. And if you watch this and decide you want to do a triathlon you should probably see your doctor, as well.

Back here in Somalia, I wish you could have seen what I have seen these last few days -- men, women, children, and the types of lives that they lead. And as I said before, I'll say it again, their lives really aren't too much different than the lives you may lead at home -- the things they want in their lives, the things they want for their families may be exactly what you want.

It is desperate at times but there are bright spots. Like something over here, something I never thought I'd see before.

This is a greenhouse in the middle of the desert. It's put on by the organization CARE. And they get refugees to come here and grow crops, literally, again, in the middle of this camp. These crops actual provide food to many of the refugees in the area. And the farmers are given a little stipend, a little money for doing this.

But they are also given something else, they're given a sense of purpose -- a sense of purpose that they can be valuable, a sense of purpose that they might be able to get back the life that they once had.

It's been a remarkable several days here. I am Dr. Sanjay Gupta in Somalia.

If you watch this show and want to help in some way, I know many of you do, is the place you can go. And you can learn about a lot of organizations that are trying to make an impact here in this part of the world.

This has been the "Frontlines of Famine." Thanks for watching.