In a world with more than enough to feed itself, all hunger is an unnecessary tragedy—but this year’s famine in southern Somalia is a true scar on the world’s conscience. Over six days in Mogadishu in early August, TIME contract photographer Dominic Nahr and I found appalling suffering and death among the hundreds of thousands of refugees who had fled famine in the south of the country.
Worse, we discovered one reason why 2.8 million people are at risk of starvation is a U.S. anti-terrorism policy that, however unwittingly, effectively blocked aid to the famine areas for years. We also found an international food aid operation that, though some aid agencies claim heroic success in their fund-raising campaigns, in fact only covers 20 percent of the population in need.
Hiring gunmen to protect us from militias and remnants of the Islamist militant group, al-Shabab, Nahr and I toured the refugee camps that have sprung up on any spare space in Mogadishu: on waste-ground, over a graveyard, among the ruins of the old city cathedral. The only aid agencies we saw working in the camps were a group from Islamic Relief and small food and shelter distribution operations put together by Somali businessmen as well as clan and religious leaders. In repeated visits to Banadir Hospital, which houses Somalia’s only children’s ward, we documented the last hours of several children. All the while planes of food aid could be seen landing at Mogadishu airport: out of security fears, little of those supplies were being taken the last few miles to the hungry.
Drought set the conditions for this year’s famine in East Africa. But it was man who ensured it.
For Alex Perry’s full story on the crisis in Somalia, click here.
Alex Perry is TIME‘s Africa bureau chief. His latest book, “How to Change the World, One Dead Mosquito at a Time“, will be published in September. Dominic Nahr, a TIME contract photographer, photographed the Arab Spring in Egypt. Nahr is represented by Magnum.