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‘What I saw was horrifying ... and the line of crying children just keeps growing’

AS I arrive in Addis Ababa, capital city of Ethiopia where nearly 40 million live in a country with double the population it was during Live Aid in '85, the city is busy and hectic. We head straight to a nutritional feeding centre some 360km away. To give you an idea, this country is the size of Spain and France together -- vast -- and it is surprising to me that a country of this size is in such trouble. But last year's harvest was poor and this year's is late by three months and this means no crop.

The people are without food and most have no assets by now, having sold any oxen or other livestock they might have had. With no support they cannot work towards another crop.

I'm here with Plan Ireland, who are working with Ethiopia to identify hot spots where immediate care is needed for children and women -- especially pregnant women.

My immediate most shocking realisation is that there is no water. The rivers are pure brown and there is no sanitation.

People drink from filthy pools where people wash themselves and their clothes.

I am horrified. Education, medication, health -- things we take for granted back home in Ireland -- all are rendered useless in the ferocious shortage of clean water.

On the road to Taza in KT Zone, I see children as young as three carrying cans of water at least 4km. I see children minding the few straggling, emaciated livestock.

We reach the centre run by the Maids of the Poor, here for 40 years, which is now run by an elderly Italian sister, Indian sister and a few local nurses. What I see breaks my heart. The children have been sent on from state-run clinics and Sr Celene is their only hope. She weighs each child and immediately begins treatment. It is not as simple as merely giving them food. They must be fed therapeutically and nutritionally if they are to be brought back to any semblance of health.

And some of these children are at the last stage before death. They are swollen as the body has no protein so it cannot absorb fluid. If these children were fed as you or I would feed a normal, healthy child, they would die.

The feeding is charted and monitored. Sr Celene tells me that for every four that are referred she might only see one, as others don't have the money to travel. Some of the women have come 50km to save their child. Once here, there is no communication to the outside and a child could be in the clinic for weeks.

There are serious fears in the clinic for the the situation in nearby Somalia. Word has just come through that 80,000 were refused entry into Ethiopia and the hostilities in Somalia are restricting aid.

But here there is much isolation and this remoteness is a growing problem across Ethiopia with access to clinics and feeding centres the difference between famine and death. Plan Ireland are here working with the Sisters, with the locals and with the Government. It is extraordinary to see, in a country that is two thirds Christian and one third Muslim, everyone working together.


I have been travelling in a jeep that belongs to the Capuchin Order and they had no hesitation in letting us borrow it. In this apocalyptic landscape everyone helps and I am continuously moved by the people who, amid suffering and devastation find humour, smiling and pointing at my white legs.

I came here hoping for answers as to why this humanitarian crisis is happening. The reasons seem so complex, yet there seems nothing complex about the crying children with swollen bellies in the clinic before me.

All I know is that what used to happen every 10 years now happens every three years and, outside, the line of children and their gaunt, worried mothers waiting to see the Sister, grows.



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