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Starvation stalks youngest in Darfur

From Christiane Amanpour
CNN Chief International Correspondent

The lack of adequate food leads to skin and blood infections and diarrhea.
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Aid workers attend to seriously malnourished children in Darfur.

Some aid is reaching refugees in Darfur, but not nearly enough.

Refugees in Darfur face the threat of disease in overcrowded camps.
Crisis in Sudan
• Gallery: Humanitarian crisis
• Map: Sudan's Darfur region
• Behind the scenes: Amanpour
• Related sites: How to help
• An aid worker's diary
• Special: Crisis in Sudan
United Nations

WESTERN DARFUR, Sudan (CNN) -- Hamdi Ismail is one and a half years old, but weighs only 12 pounds.

Other 2- and-3-year-old children at an emergency feeding center weigh as much as the average 3-month-old infant in the United States.

Doctors from the French relief group Medecins Sans Frontieres, also known as Doctors Without Borders, estimate one in five children in western Darfur is severely malnourished.

Children like Hamdi don't have long to live unless they can keep fluids and formula down.

Mothers are told to force formula into skin-and-bones infants every three hours.

Relief agencies are waging a desperate war against malnutrition, but lack adequate food and medical supplies. The world has donated less than half the funds that the United Nations has requested for Darfur.

Dr. Jonathan Spector, a pediatrician from Boston, Massachusetts, is working in Al-Geneina, the capital city of western Darfur.

He lacks the simple diagnostic tools such as blood tests and yet every day he has to make tough decisions about who to treat.

Doctors and relief workers place bracelets on their little patients' upper arms. Green signals the child is OK. Yellow means the child is at risk. Orange signals malnourishment, and a red bracelet means its wearer is severely malnourished.

The lack of adequate food leads to skin and blood infections and diarrhea.

For a population on the edge like this, a simple case of diarrhea can kill.

Hamdi's grandmother Khadija has brought him to the emergency feeding center because he can't keep food down. She said he's also got the flu.

Aid is only reaching about a third of the 2 million people in desperate need across the vast province, and then it is only basic foodstuffs, not sanitation and medical treatment.

"In a developed country, this child would be in an intensive care unit, getting oxygen and maybe be on a ventilator," Spector said of one very sick child.

The first aid delivery to the Riad camp in western Darfur was not desperately needed food, but plastic sheeting, blankets and jerrycans for carrying water.

"They were all saying the same thing: 'We want food and shelter,' " said Adeel Jafferi of Islamic relief. "When the rains come it's a nightmare. When the rains come it's like sheets of glass hitting your face."

Sara Sini and one of her five children took their piece of plastic to cover their hut made of twigs for extra protection against the rains.

But they are more in need of food. Sara, who is expecting her sixth child this month, hasn't seen milk in five months.

A group of elderly women complain they are hungry and no one in this camp has received any food aid since they arrived.

There is meat at the camp, but the fly-infested cuts of meat aren't free.

With many husbands and fathers either killed or seeking work in neighboring countries, Hamdi's grandmother, like many women in the camps, now heads the family she struggles to keep alive.

If she can find work as a cleaner or a brick hauler, she can use those wages to buy food that she can cook and sell for snacks. The resulting funds buy food to feed her own family.

Khadija's urgent concern is for her grandson Hamdi. Dr. Anwar Ahmed said the child has all the signs of severe illness

"During the last week he gained weight, but now he is not well. He has edemas which is a bad sign for us," Ahmed said.

Khadija collects some special formula for her grandson and a sack of flour for herself, straps her grandson to her back and heads off into the blistering heat.

Many parents or grandmothers are reluctant to take the most seriously ill children to the hospital because they worry about the safety of other children left behind in the camps.

Refugees in the Darfur camps are victims of the brutal waves of ethnic cleansing perpetrated by the government-backed Arab militias against the black African population over the past 18 months. (Fresh violence)

"They chased us from our home seven months ago. They stole all our cattle and killed three people in our family,"said Halimalay as she watched over her malnourished daughter, Zahra.

As Sara lashes plastic to her roof, she said she's still afraid of the Janjaweed militias who burned her home and killed 51 people in her village earlier this year

She said some of the Janjaweed now are in the police force and the army that is guarding the camp where she now lives.

The Sudanese government, which has deployed forces to guard the camps, denies that, but aid workers said there is a militia base not far from the camp.

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