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Famine in Chad

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Kanem region, Chad

Mao is a sand swept town in the Kanem region in the far west of Chad. It is the most desolate and powerfully beautiful place I have ever seen. There are no roads here. Homes are constructed of bricks made of sand and dung. Through the centuries, little has changed in Mao. The people have always been herders, farmers and traders. The men ride camels, the women and children, donkeys.

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But the rainfall last year was barely a third of what it once was and the sands of the Sahel have been moving relentlessly over the parched Kanem region. With drought came the failure of the crops. The food stocks are gone. The people of Mao remain hopeful. They sweep the sand from their rooms and courtyards, they build more walls and they tend tiny, thorny trees carefully sheltered from the blowing sand inside little teepees. But the saplings are struggling and few survive. Trees planted years ago still produce green leaves, but strangely their roots have begun to reach out of the sand toward the rainless sky.

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The Sultan of Kanem is a tall, elegant man who, like his father before him, has presided over the region from his seat in Mao for most of his 90 years. His eyes are clouded as he ponders the unthinkable--whether the day is near when he will have to lead his people away from beautiful, ancient Mao to distant riverbeds, which will fill when the rains come. There, things would grow, people would have enough to eat again and the animals could graze. As things are, he explained, the camels are dying.

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But the real horror, the unspeakable truth is that the babies of Mao are dying too. The numbers of starving children far exceed the capacity of Unicef's emergency feeding center. Cases of formula and life-saving nutrients are arriving, but many children are already too weak to swallow. The Chadian government must urgently take action, along with the World Food Program and other relief agencies before it is too late.