300,000 children in danger of starvation

DADAAB REFUGEE CAMP, Kenya - The famine emergency in East Africa is taking on historic proportions. The United Nations says 3.7 million people face starvation. The United States government estimates that 29,000 children under the age of five have died in the last 90 days.

400,000 Somalis have taken refuge at the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. Every day, 1,500 more throw themselves on the mercy of the camp.

Madina Ali was one of those waiting to be admitted to the camp. CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley reports Ali sat with the quiet resignation of a woman who had fought to save her children in an unforgiving land.

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Ali says she was walking for 17 days. She has four children with her now, but one child did not survive the journey. One boy, just two years old, died on the way.

The Somalis are farmers and ranchers who tried to hang on after one year without rain - then two, and three. Now the land is pale and the livestock have fallen. There's no help at home. Somalia hasn't had a stable government in decades, and much of it is run by a brutal militia called al Shabbab.

To trace the path of the refugees, we drove north today with the U.N. to the border. There, we got the help of a local militia to take us into the country.

"We just crossed from Kenya into the failed state of Somalia," Pelley said. "This is essentially no man's land. Al Shabbab has controlled this part of Somalia for a long time, but now this militia has taken over this small part of the country, and are now providing cover for humanitarian assistance that is just now penetrating Somalia."

Six days ago, the United Nation's children's agency UNICEF set up an emergency feeding station in the Somali town of Doubli.

UNICEF's Leila Abrar, our guide, says, "They come in groups from these villages so they kind of help each other. Abrar added, "But by the time they get to a place like Doubli - which is a transition village, or they come to the camps in Dadaab, they are barely alive."

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A woman named Madina told us she walked three months before she reached camp yesterday. But all of her children didn't survive the journey.

"Two children died on the way," Madina said. "One was eight years old, and one was nine years old."

"Where did you have to leave them," Pelley asked.

"We left them exactly where they died because we didn't have the strength to carry them and we didn't have the strength to bury them."

Saruure Dhbow walked in with her young granddaughter, just one and a half years old. UNICEF's Maulid Warfa showed us how they used a color-coded measuring tape to diagnose malnutrition. Anything in the red is life-threatening.

"She went beyond the green, she went beyond the yellow and she went far beyond the red," Warfa said. "She's there 9.6."

At 9.6 centimeters, she's ten centimeters or so smaller than she should be.

Warfa said she's "severe malnourished in need of specialized treatment." He added, "you can see she already her eyes are already white-ish, her lips are dry. It really is a severe situation that we see everywhere in Somalia. She is already starving - she is on the brink of dying actually."

The U.N. tonight tells CBS News the number of children acutely malnourished comes to about 340,000.

  • Scott Pelley

    Correspondent, "60 Minutes"