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Mali's Food Crisis Goes Little Noticed August 09, 2005 5:00 AM

MARSI, Mali (AP) -- While the world's attention has been fixed on famished Niger, Sidi Mohammed's big, tearful eyes and cries of hunger reveal another food crisis unfolding next door.

The year-old baby, mewling as his mother tries to feed him a cup of vitamin-rich gruel provided by aid workers, is one of an estimated 1.5 million of Mali's 11 million people are said to be facing hunger, among them an estimated 144,000 children already suffering malnourishment.

Aid workers say they fear a replay of what happened in neighboring Niger, where the world ignored repeated warnings and only rushed in aid in recent weeks when images of starving children hit TV screens.

The U.N. World Food Program said an appeal for $7.5 million was facing a shortfall of 85 percent, which it called ''devastating.

A similar appeal for Niger got 70 percent of the $16 million sought, mostly from Australia, Germany and the United States. But that was at least seven months after the first calls for help went out for the entire region.

Across the chronically dry and dusty West African region on the edge of the Sahara, malnutrition is a yearly blight. Poor rains and locusts worsened the situation last year, and now Sidi and his three siblings are dangerously underfed and dependent on food aid. Burkina Faso and Mauritania also are affected.

''We had nothing to eat except the milk of our three sheep. I was very afraid. What could I do for my children?'' says Sidi's mother, 25-year-old Ahmetan Ahmedu.

The shortages that have struck northeastern Mali aren't thought to be as bad as Niger's -- yet. The U.N.'s World Food Program said on July 28 that 5,000 children in the north were suffering acute malnutrition after last year's farm output fell 42 percent from 2003's.

In the worst hit areas, up to a third of Malian children are believed to be suffering some measure of malnutrition, which can kill or stunt growth and cause behavior difficulties in later years, the government and aid groups say.

Relief workers say the crisis is unfolding deep in Mali's dusty bush, where semi-nomadic Fulani, Tuareg and Tamachek people tend their flocks.

''The TV cameras whose horrific images of hunger in Niger caught the international community's attention have not yet reached the affected areas of Mali,'' the World Food Program said.

Mali's government made its own appeal in May and also started doling out free food to partially cover a shortfall of 347,000 tons of grains and other crops.

But it says it still needs 5,000 tons of enriched foodstuffs for very young children -- always the first and worst hit.

Things are always difficult at this time of year, but after last year's drought and locusts, ''it's a particularly, particularly difficult moment,'' Lansry Nana Yaya Haidara, Mali's minister for food security, said in her office in the capital, Bamako.

''If there's a forgotten crisis, it's here,'' said Patricia Hoorelbeke of Action Contre la Faim, the French-based charity that fed Sidi Mohammed. ''Here you always have a problem, but this year it's three or four times worse.''

Action Contre la Faim (Action Against Hunger), Britain's Oxfam and a few other organizations have been working for weeks to get food to the north, near the fabled trans-Saharan way station of Timbuktu, and the east, near the city of Gao.

In the markets near Gao, food prices have skyrocketed. At Gao's hospital, two malnourished children have died and some 20 others are being treated, aid workers say.

In Marsi, a village of grass huts 50 miles from Gao down a sandy track, Tamachek children wander naked, bellies protruding, their skin gray and their faces gaunt. They wear green bracelets to identify them as malnourished. Among the village's 40 families, about one in five children checked has been diagnosed as malnourished, Action Contre la Faim says.

''This year, everyone is having problems,'' says Ahmed Abdoulaye, 38. His 13-month-old son, Youssouf Ahmed, was diagnosed as malnourished, but after a few emergency meals, was smiling broadly.


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