NAIROBI, Kenya - A civil rights activist says police have tear gassed several hundred protesters marching toward the offices of Kenya's president and prime minister to demand action over a growing hunger crisis.
Images of children with skinny, malnourished bodies are becoming commonplace in this corner of Africa. Thousands of families walk for days in search of food in a triangle of hunger where the borders of Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia meet. Hundreds already have died.
Dinah Awuor Agar, the president of a group of low-wage workers known as the People's Parliament, said Thursday that the demonstrators were holding a peaceful procession when riot police confronted them.
Agar said police chased down demonstrators, beat them with batons and arrested them despite the fact Kenya's new constitution allows peaceful demonstrations.
Charles Owino, a police spokesman, says police dispersed the protesters because the demonstration is illegal.
East Africa has been hard hit by drought a rising food prices. Even Somalia's top militant group, al-Shabaab, is asking the aid agencies it once banned from its territories to return. Thirsty livestock are dying by the thousands, and food prices have risen beyond what many families can afford.
Mark Bowden, the U.N. aid coordinator for Somalia, said Thursday he welcomes al-Shabaab's decision to reopen areas of Somalia under its control to humanitarian aid workers, but they "need guarantees" they won't be targeted or their agencies taxed.
Bowden said millions of Somalis, particularly in the south, are severely hungry due to extreme violence and drought and that thousands will die if no help comes.
Bowden said the U.N. stands "ready to scale up assistance," if safety is guaranteed.
Last year the militants expelled some aid groups in southern Somalia and made it tough to help many of those most in need.
Hawo Ibrahim said she and her seven children trekked 15 days from a town in southern Somalia before reaching a refugee camp in northeast Kenya.
"We have seen misery and hunger on our way," said Ibrahim, 32, who said her husband went mad after the family lost its livestock to drought. "The most painful thing was when you don't get anything for your thirsty and hungry children."
Aid agencies are appealing for tens of millions of dollars in emergency funding. Oxfam which hopes to raise $80 million, its largest ever appeal for Africa says 12 million people are affected by hunger. At least 500 Somalis are known to have died from drought-related diseases, though Oxfam says the actual number is likely higher.
"Two successive poor rains, entrenched poverty and lack of investment in affected areas have pushed 12 million people into a fight for survival," said Jane Cocking, Oxfam's humanitarian director.
(At left, Abshira Abdukadir, a four-year-old Somali girl suffering from severe diarrhea and having trouble breathing, is looked after by her parents hours after they reached a refugee camp in northeast Kenya and were able to get medical assistance for their ailing daughter July 6, 2011. Source: AFP/Getty Images)
Somalis desperate for food are overrunning the world's largest refugee camp in neighboring Kenya, which is seeing some 10,000 new arrivals each week, six times the average at this time last year. Caught between violence and hunger, a U.N. official said Somali refugees are suffering "a human tragedy of unimaginable proportions."
The epicenter of the drought lies on the three-way border shared by Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia, a nomadic region where families heavily depend on the health of their livestock. Uganda and Djibouti have also been hit. ActionAid says some areas in the Horn are experiencing their driest conditions in 60 years.
"We only ran away from hunger nothing else," said Halimo Farah, a mother of three who fled Somalia and is now in Dadaab. "We had farms and got no rains for six seasons."
Food prices have also risen. The U.N. says in the last year the price of sorghum in Somalia's Baidoa jumped 240 percent, while yellow maize rose 117 percent rise in Jiiga, Ethiopia. White maize jumped nearly 60 percent in the Kenyan town of Mandera.
The U.N.'s refugee agency says Dadaab's three camps now host more than 382,000 people, while thousands more are waiting at reception centers outside the camp. More than 135,000 people have fled Somalia this year including 54,000 in June, three times as many as in May, said Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for UNHCR.
Many Somali children are arriving at refugee camps so weak that they are dying within 24 hours despite emergency care and feeding, she said.
In the hospital in Wajir, an ethnically Somali area in northeast Kenya, Dr. Mohamed Hassan said that most children in the ward are suffering from severe malnutrition.
"You will find severely wasted children," he said.
The European Commission said Wednesday it is sending $8 million in emergency funding to Dadaab to help deal with the crisis. The EC has contributed nearly $100 million to the drought crisis this year.
Nicholas Wasunna, an adviser to the aid group World Vision, said the drought is hitting children and elderly hard in northeast Kenya. Wasunna, echoing other aid agencies, said governments needed to have acted quicker to prevent the crisis.
"We need to make disaster risk reduction a political priority and invest accordingly because these scenes we should never see again. The reality is drought will continue to be with us but we need to do much more, much sooner," he said.
Save the Children said more than a quarter of children in the worst-hit parts of Kenya are now dangerously malnourished, while malnutrition rates in Somalia have reached 30 percent in some areas.
Fleming of UNHCR said her agency estimates that a quarter of Somalia's 7.5 million people are now either internally displaced or living outside the country as refugees.
Somalis aren't only fleeing to Kenya and Ethiopia, but also to the capital city of Mogadishu, where refugees begging for food or money are commonplace. Abdi Jimale arrived in Mogadishu two months ago but said he found no help.
"We were thinking the aid agencies would be helping us in Mogadishu, but we found nothing," he said. "I want to go to Kenya when I can get assistance. The situation we are living in is totally unbearable."
Maryan Qasam, a 41-year-old mother of seven, said her 35 cows died after the pastures dried out. She makes about 50 cents a day from the generosity of strangers.
"That cannot quench our needs," she said. "Our children occasionally cry for food and we can't get enough food for them. Our farms dried up and our cows perished so we have no options."