“A mother, desperate to escape Somalia's famine, alternated carrying each of her two children until they all became so weak that she could only carry one.

“She looked down at her two children and said a prayer – then, she made the excruciating decision to leave one of them behind so she could save the other.” [USAID Administrator, Rajiv Shah]

“Were they somehow lesser than our sons and daughters? Did their father love them less? Did their mother? Did God?” Shah asked more than 3,000 guests from 100 nations at the National Prayers Breakfast in Washington on Feb. 6. Nobody had an answer.

2011 East Africa drought

Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda

Total deaths: 50,000 to 260,000

Many refugees from southern Somalia fled to neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia, where crowded, unsanitary conditions together with severe malnutrition led to a large number of deaths.

Two women came to King Solomon with an infant. One claimed that the other, after accidentally smothering her own son, had exchanged the two children to make it appear that the living child was hers. The other woman denied this and said she was the real mother.

Asked to decide the dispute, Solomon unsheathed a sword and said: “Divide the child in two, and give half to the one, and half to the other.”

One woman cried out: “Oh, my lord, do not slay the child. Give it to her.”

The other said: “It shall be neither mine nor yours; divide it.”

The king watched both and declared: “Give the child to the first woman. She is the real mother.”

And all of Israel heard of the judgment; they feared the king and praised God.

The Somali children were not so lucky. They were two but had only one mother, emaciated by days of hunger, thirst and fatigue. Habiba was already weak when she left home for a camp built for the refugees of the 2011 famine in East Africa. She had some food and water but she knew this was not enough for this long journey. Yet, it was better than staying at home and waiting for death. So she decided to take the chance.

She walked through a parched land. For miles, there was no water. There were some clouds in the sky but they were useless. They offered no shelter against the scorching sun and never brought rains.

Habiba walked slowly, holding one son in each arm. Her arms – just bone and skin – were like the dried branches of a palm tree. Although her babies were as emaciated as their mother, they weighed heavily on her weak body.

But this was a labour of love. So Habiba carried them, with tired limbs but a strong heart. When exhausted, she would stop, take a sip – yes, just one sip – from the bottle she was carrying, and start walking again. A drop of water and a tiny piece of stale bread is all they could afford.

At each stop, Habiba first fed her babies and then took her share, just enough to continue the journey. Food, they had little but the babies received plenty of hugs and kisses at each stop.

Once a baby slipped from her arms and fell on the sand, which was hot but soft. Habiba fell on her knees, picked up the baby and broke down. She could hear herself cry but felt no tears. She did not have enough water in her to bring out tears.

Habiba rested a while. Then held the two babies tightly and started walking again. Hunger, fatigue and thirst slowed her pace. What started as a walk; became a crawl. But she did not stop.

She knew the desert was cruel and the sun unrelenting. And the two together could dry the life out even from a well-fed – and well-watered – person. She and her children had had very little to eat or drink. Hunger kills too, as did thirst, probably faster.

So Habiba could not stop or relax. She kept pressing on. But exhaustion forced her – more often than she would have liked to – to rest. Yet, she compelled herself to get up and move on.

Habiba had no strength left but still had a strong desire to make it to the refugee camp. Not because she was afraid of death. Although she was still in her 20s, she had seen enough deaths to know that those born on the other side of the rich-poor divide often die young.

But Habiba knew that her babies were still too young to die. She wanted to give them another chance to live, to go to a better place where they could at least get one meal a day and enough water to quench their thirst. She did not desire more.

So Habiba did not stop. She walked and crawled and fell on the sand, but never let her babies slip out of her arms. “No, no, no. No harm should come to them,” she said to herself. “They must live.”

But the babies fell from her arms again. First the one in the left arm slipped. Then, the one in the right. She picked both and resumed the journey. But they fell again.

Habiba stopped. Took a few sips from the water bottle. Chewed a few pieces of bread. Actually, this time she allowed herself to take a larger share than she gave her babies. She knew she needed some strength, for their sake.

This gave her enough energy to walk another 100 yards or so. But she had to stop again.

Habiba got up, walked and fell. Paused. Walked. And fell again. It became a pattern: Pause, walk, fall.

Once Habiba felt that she did not have her babies in her arms. She looked back and saw them lying at a distance. Suddenly, she had a surge of strength. She ran back, picked them up and broke down.

Habiba tried to walk but the babies slipped out of her arms again.

She realised that this journey could not continue like this. All three would not make it to the camp. If she insisted on doing so, all three would perish. Now, she could only carry one baby with her, not two.

Habiba had to stop being a mother and take a decision only God should: who will live, who will die. She looked down at her two children and said a prayer.

But a mother can only be a mother, not God. So she collapsed before she could decide.

She is at a refugee camp now, with only one child. Who decided then which child would live: God or a mother?


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