DOLO, Somalia – The long, dusty walks from hungry homes to far-away refugee camps are again claiming lives in Somalia one year after up to 100,000 people died in the country's worst famine in generations.
Two lethal factors are again combining to send families fleeing from their homes: Too little rain and too many guns.
Enough rain did fall in Somalia this year to prevent a repeat of last year's massive famine, but it wasn't enough to keep everyone fed. In addition, al-Shabab militants who have been forced out of larger cities are infiltrating smaller towns where they are demanding payments from families in money, livestock or children, residents said.
The weekslong walks to refugee camps made by hundreds of thousands of Somalis last year turned sandy paths into roads of death for the famine's weakest victims. Refugees in Dolo are telling similar heartbreaking tales of weak children being left behind to die. One baby being carried on her mother's back in recent weeks died during the walk, a doctor said.
In a cruel replay of last year's hunger marches, many families who left refugee camps as the crisis eased this year went home, attempted to plant food but are now returning to the stick-hut camps.
"Before we were hoping for a good rain. But we got very little," said Ali Ganoon Abdi Rahman, a 75-year-old who walked nine days with his wife, daughter and four grandchildren. They arrived in Dolo earlier this week.
Rahman said that al-Shabab militants are active in his village in the Bay region of Somalia, but he hopes to return. "We came here because of hunger and security. Let these two things be sorted then we will go back."
The U.N. declared a famine in Somalia last July 20 as hundreds of thousands of people set out on foot in search of food, filling refugee camps in Mogadishu, Ethiopia and Kenya. The U.N., which declared the famine over in February, never released a death toll. But the British government estimated between 50,000 and 100,000 people died.
Some 12 million people needed assistance at the height of last year's famine. The numbers are much lower this time around but still staggering. The U.N. says 2.5 million people need aid to survive.
In Mogadishu, tens of thousands of refugees still live in impoverished camps. For Aden Mohamed, the famine's horrors are far from over. He sobbed as he carried the lifeless, shroud-draped body of his 2-year-old son, who died Thursday morning of malnutrition.
With tears running down his cheeks, Mohamed whispered the word "hunger" as he shuffled toward a rough grave dug on the edge of a sprawling camp close to Somalia's parliament building.
"If there is no drought and famine why are our children dying of hunger?" asked the mourning father of six as his neighbors nodded. "Our children are dying every day! Our stomachs burn with hunger. Our hearts cry in silence every day."
Mark Bowden, the top U.N. humanitarian official on Somalia, said: "While famine conditions are no longer present, we need to make no mistake, the absence of famine does not mean that people are not in crisis. ... Malnutrition and mortality rates have improved but remain among the highest in the world."
Security in Mogadishu is the best it has been in years, after African Union and Somali troops pushed out al-Shabab last August. But the curses of Somalia — no real government, endless warfare, poor harvests — continue for hundreds of thousands.
The U.N. says that 18 percent of children born in the country will not reach the age of 5. A third of children are moderately or severely underweight. Only a third of children are enrolled in school.
Aid groups are increasing their efforts in Mogadishu, now that security has improved. But the U.N. says it needs $576 million to implement needed programs over the rest of 2012. Groups like Oxfam are appealing for help.
"In 2011 the world didn't act until famine was declared, and the delay cost lives and money. Now, with the warning signs of a worsening crisis, lessons from last year must be learnt. Now is the time to invest in aid," said Senait Gebregziabher, Somalia country director for Oxfam.
In Dolo, refugee camp leader Noor Hassan Filig watched as hundreds of men and women lined up to receive food from sacks with an American flag emblazoned on the side at World Food Program distributions that restarted Wednesday. Filig said many people are returning to Dolo because of militant demands.
"Al-Shabab is asking for families to pay a tax after they lost control of the big towns. They are forcing men to participate in the fighting," Filig said. He added later: "Nobody likes them."
About 1 million Somalis are living as refugees in Kenya, Ethiopia, Yemen and Uganda, and another 1.4 million are internally displaced inside Somalia, meaning 25 percent of the country is displaced, said Bruno Geddo of the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR.
"Some are fleeing in anticipation of more fighting. Some are fleeing from drought, some are fleeing forced military recruitment. Either you give up a camel, give up a child or pay thousands of dollars," Geddo said.
Nurse Abukar Mohamud helped screen new arrivals in Dolo and administer vaccinations. He said the most desperate story a newly arriving mother shared with him was about how her youngest child died on her back while she was walking.
"The signs of malnutrition are rising," he said of the new arrivals. "I'm wondering why there is so much."
Associated Press reporter Abdi Guled in Mogadishu contributed to this report.