FIK, Ethiopia – The 16,000 people in this parched Ethiopian town have almost filled three graveyards with their dead children during two years of disease and drought.
The first was filled after a devastating drought in 2000. The second, a collection of neat rows lined with rocks and wilted flowers, filled in recent months as the town's death toll from a new drought climbed to one child a day.
So the people of Fik, about 250 miles southeast of the capital, Addis Ababa, built a third cemetery. It, too, is almost full.
The World Food Program launched the Africa Hunger Alert campaign in December to intensify its appeal for help. The U.N. agency says about 38 million Africans are at risk of serious hunger: 13 million in the Horn of Africa, 23 million in southern Africa, and 2 million in five west and central African states.
Ethiopia's drought compounds everyday hardships for the 275,000 people who live in the region around Fik, most of whom get by on less than a dollar a day.
Weakened by hunger, children in Fik quickly succumb to rampant diarrhea and endemic diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis. Save the Children UK, the only Western aid group working in the area, says an average of at least 17 children die in the zone every day.
Fadmo Muhumed, 40, has buried four of her children in Fik's newest cemetery — two since her husband left several months ago in search of pasture for the family's herd of goats, their only source of livelihood.
Muhumed's children died from diarrhea they contracted drinking contaminated water. The local health center, understaffed and short of supplies, was unable to save them.
Making matters worse, the rebel Ogaden National Liberation Front's activities make travel into the region dangerous.
The United Nations keeps its workers away. Other international aid groups, whose vehicles have been attacked and whose staff have been shot at, also avoid the region.
Save the Children, however, recently built an airstrip in Fik so food and other supplies can be flown in. The first small plane landed in December, raising hopes among townspeople that other aid groups will return.
But Fik is competing for scarce resources.
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has appealed for international help, saying 11.3 million Ethiopians will need about 1.5 million tons of emergency food this year.
Ethiopia is regularly beset by food shortages. Each year, some 4 million of its 65 million people generally need food aid to survive, but the current drought is particularly acute.
Meles' call prompted the European Union to pledge $70 million to buy 287,600 tons of food. International donors have said $3.6 billion, mainly in loans from the World Bank and other nations, will be plowed into Ethiopia over the next three years as part of a poverty reduction program.
While they wait, the people in Fik expect they'll have to build a fourth cemetery.
"Look, even this graveyard is almost full," said Ahmed Omer, who runs the town's only health center. "Soon there will be no children in Fik."