MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — Kaltum Mohamed sits beside a small mound of earth, alone with her thoughts. It is her child's grave — and there are three others like it.
Just three weeks ago, Mohamed was the mother of five young children. But the famine that has rocked Somalia has claimed the lives of four of them. Only a daughter remains. The others starved to death before Mohamed's eyes as she and her husband trekked to Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, in search of aid.
Thousands of parents are grieving in Somalia and in refugee camps in neighboring countries amid Somalia's worst drought in 60 years.
The drought and famine in Somalia have killed more than 29,000 children under the age of 5 in the last 90 days in southern Somalia alone, according to U.S. estimates. The U.N. says 640,000 Somali children are acutely malnourished, suggesting the death toll of small children will rise.
Mohamed and her husband tried to get their children from Somalia's parched south to the capital, Mogadishu, in time to receive emergency aid from the few humanitarian organizations that are operating there. They began their journey in the Lower Shabelle region, where the U.N. declared famine July 20. AP Television News found her that day looking after her severely malnourished children, cradling them in her arms.
Her family belongs to a tribe of pastoral nomads, but all of their livestock died in the drought. When her children fell ill, she took them to a hospital in the Lower Shabelle but couldn't afford the treatment they needed. Most aid is not getting to the south where it's desperately needed. An al-Qaida allied group, al-Shabab, controls much of southern Somalia and insists that there is no famine. It has banned all aid groups but the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The family's journey to the capital, one being made by thousands of other Somalis, came too late. Four of Mohamed's children died en route because of severe malnutrition and related complications.
"Death is inevitable," Mohamed told AP Television News on Thursday in a makeshift camp near Mogadishu's airport, home to hundreds of other displaced people. "But the surprise was how suddenly I lost my four children in less than 24 hours because of famine."
Instead of being able to caress her children, she crouched next to one of their graves and softly patted and smoothed the mound of earth covering it. She wept, then wiped away her tears. She still has a daughter to try to feed.
The Muslim holy month of Ramadan is under way, and the family is fasting daily. Without food, though, Mohamed doesn't know how they can break their fast at sundown. The international community must do more to help, she said.
Meanwhile, famine still stalks her.
On Wednesday, the U.N. declared three new regions in Somalia famine zones — including the camps for displaced persons in Mogadishu. These are areas where the highest rates of malnutrition and mortality are taking place.
Nancy Lindborg, an official with the U.S. government aid arm, told a congressional committee in Washington on Wednesday that the U.S. estimates that more than 29,000 children under the age of 5 have died in the past 90 days. That number is based on nutrition and mortality surveys verified by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A U.S. official noted Thursday that the U.S. said this week it would not prosecute legitimate aid groups trying to assist Somalis suffering from famine in areas under al-Shabab control. Such prosecution would have been possible under U.S. anti-terrorism laws, but getting groups to go into a part of Somalia controlled by a brutal, hardline Islamist insurgency is another matter.
The official, Jon Brause of USAID, told journalists in Nairobi, Kenya, that there hasn't been a dramatic increase in assistance flowing to Somalia after the announcement because it's so difficult to access al-Shabab-controlled territory.
No U.S. law specifically prevents aid to southern and central Somalia, where the U.N. food agency says it cannot reach 2.2 million Somalis in areas under al-Shabab's control. But bribes, tolls and other typical of costs of doing business in the largely lawless and chaotic country could have been punishable after the State Department declared al-Shabab a terrorist organization in 2008.
"We understand that some assistance may accidentally reach al-Shabab and we are reassuring people they will not suffer prosecution if that happens," said Bruce Wharton, the deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs.
Wharton signaled that the U.S. believes some inside al-Shabab might be more amenable to letting aid in than others.
"We do not believe al-Shabab is a monolithic organization," he said. "There are degrees of Shabab-ness, if you will, and we think it's important to find ways to get food to people, including people who are in al-Shabab controlled territories."