Fatouma and Radia are witnesses of Zalingei camp's faltering aid system

Fatouma and Raddia met at Zalingei hospital in late January this year. These two young women illustrate the worsening living conditions at Hamedia, near Zalingei, principally for displaced populations but also for local residents.

"Just after my baby was born, I saw something was wrong. She had a swollen stomach and was not suckling well", explained Fatouma, standing next to the cot where Fatma is sleeping.

The young mother touches the mask supplying the permanent and indispensable oxygen to her daughter. Her concern is not out of place: for five days, the MSF medical team has been working to keep the baby alive, but the risk remains high. At 45 days, Fatma is suffering from permanent brain damage, pneumonia and acute respiratory distress. Although impossible to determine with certainty, the child probably caught an infection in the first days of life. For six weeks, she failed to receive the necessary care and her condition worsened.

Fatouma first tried caring for the baby on her own, initially resorting to traditional practices.

"My grandmother took care of her at seven days", said Fatouma, without further detail. Numerous scars, very shallow but perfectly visible on the baby's stomach indicate that she has undergone superficial incisions.

"But she got no better, and three weeks later, I took her to the clinic, where she was given cough mixture."

This clinic, opened by MSF in 2004, had been taken over by another NGO. Six days later, the baby started with breathing difficulties, and Fatouma returned to the clinic. Given the child's obviously grave state of health, the other patients let her go through first.

This time, she was given "a large white tablet", to divide into five and administer once per day. Leaving the clinic, Fatouma decided to go to the hospital, and Fatma was finally admitted to the paediatrics ward.

Two medical assistants for more than 40,000 displaced persons

Fatouma returned to Hamedia one year ago. For four years, she had fled to El-Geneina, but with the worsening security situation over there, she decided to return home.

In the meantime, the situation changed drastically at Hamedia, which today also comprises a camp for 40,000 displaced persons. About ten families arrive each month. But the two clinics at Hamedia operate only on certain days each week, staffed most often only by a medical assistant who has been trained to treat only the most common minor ailments.

A few yards away from Fatouma, in a tent housing undernourished children starting to put on weight, Raddia is feeding her seven-month-old daughter, Awa. Raddia came to Hamedia camp five years ago, as did all the inhabitants of her village.

"Since we arrived, we have regularly received all we need: food, blankets, plastic sheeting. But this year, we have lacked water and food, and we have had no blankets nor sheeting to remake the shelter. For 40 days there was no food-distribution, we received just a reduced ration... no oil nor lentils, and less sugar and millet", explained Raddia.

Less food

At seven months, her daughter Awa weighs five kilograms and is severely undernourished.

"She wanted the breast, but I did not have much milk", explained Raddia, "Now it's a lot better. I have more milk and she is feeding better."

The six members of Raddia's family were registered upon arrival to receive food-aid. Five years later, they are still considered as a family of six people by the World Food Program. But today, they actually number 13 mouths to feed: the two children born in the camp were not taken into account, and the system has included no new-born infants for the last four years.

Additionally, a cousin has come to join them, bringing with him four additional family members.

Since the newcomers - also displaced persons - have not yet been granted the right to food aid, Raddia shares her rations with them. To try and earn a little money for buying food at the market, she does washing in the town.

"Despite all our efforts", she says, "no one ever eats to their full."