In 1992, just one generation ago, I witnessed the famine in Somalia where an estimated 220,000 people died. The images of suffering will stay with me forever. As famine raises its ugly head in Africa again I am reminded constantly of how lucky we are to live in a country where most of us don't know how slow and painful it is to starve to death.
Fatima's face is one of many etched in my memory. We met under the heat of the desert sun in Baidoa, the epicentre of the famine at that time.
I asked her what she needed. "White cloth," she replied. I didn't understand, and asked her to explain.
Fatima said if there was no food and they were to die, she wanted her children to, at the very least, pass away and be buried with dignity.
Why is it that the international system is failing again?
White cloth is used for simple burials. Fatima told me she did not want to bury her children in the white food sacks brought from overseas as others had been forced to do. It was all they had.
The food had come too late to save them, and the irony of burying children in those sacks was not lost on Fatima in a world gone mad with suffering and neglect.
So now in 2017, why is it that another generation of families will live through the trauma of seeing family members starve to death or go hungry? Why is it that the international system is failing again?
It can take up to 60 days for a healthy person with access to water to die of starvation. Children do not become severely malnourished overnight. In East Africa, the warning bells have been ringing and in recent months they have reached a deafening chorus.
But no sooner than the United Nations recently declared famine in South Sudan, the world looked over with concern and then promptly turned its cheek. In Australia, there was barely a glance from the public, with cursory mentions of the tragedy in news media.
The UN has warned that 20 million people are on the tipping point of unprecedented famine in four countries. Across two continents, from Nigeria, South Sudan and Somalia in Africa east to Yemen in the Middle East, people are staring death in the face. No less than 1.4 million children are at imminent risk of starvation.
How has this all come to pass? There has been a perfect but violent super storm; these countries are all reeling from terrible armed conflicts and vicious drought. Entire communities have been forced from their homes and are on the move in some of the world's harshest environments.
It is simply wrong that we fail to do enough to prevent an even greater tragedy from unfolding before our eyes.
Let's make no mistake. This is a catastrophe that could have been prevented. There is more than enough food to feed the world and early warnings should be acted upon much sooner. More could be done to invest in drought-resistant food crops and there needs to be greater global commitment to achieve political solutions in areas ravaged by war. Now, while so many are on the brink of death we must redouble our efforts to find a path to peace and ensure humanitarian needs are met for all.
More than ever we need to take urgent steps to make sure that this does not become the worst ever series of simultaneous famines in recorded history.
When at least 260,000 died in East Africa just five years ago and millions of people were scarred for a generation or more, debate raged over whether famine and starvation could be a crime against humanity.
Whether a crime or not, today, it is simply wrong that we fail to do enough to prevent an even greater tragedy from unfolding before our eyes.
When Fatima prepared to bury her children, the UN Security Council determined that the ongoing impact of the famine in Somalia was a threat to international peace and security.
That declaration in some ways ushered hope for a new world order in which the international community would respond to widespread suffering.
It is difficult to explain the sense of hope we had in that vision of a future world which would address and prevent widespread human suffering such as that seen in Somalia at the time.
Today, 25 years later, have we not learnt some lessons from the past? It seems that the world needs urgent reminding that we can prevent famine. There are solutions. We need to turn our attention firmly towards this crisis, roll up our sleeves and address this head on.
___________________________To donate to the Red Cross East Africa Food Crisis Appeal – www.redcross.org.au
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