Michelle Faul

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria: Children who escaped Boko Haram’s Islamic insurgency now are dying of starvation in refugee camps in northeastern Nigeria’s largest city as the government investigates the theft of food aid by officials.

Refugees have staged near-daily protests over the past week. In one, women blocked the main highway linking Maiduguri, the Borno state capital, to Kano city for five hours, shouting that their children are starving and they have no drinking water as temperatures soar above 104 degrees.

Between 10 and 25 percent of children in a 110-bed feeding center are dying, said Doctors without Borders spokeswoman Shaista Aziz. She called that a high percentage even in an emergency. Most of the dying are from refugee camps, she said.

Dozens of babies and children with matchstick limbs and protruding rib cages fill the tents of the feeding center visited by the Associated Press.

Families cannot leave the camps, “so they are completely reliant on food distributions,” said Dr. Natalie Roberts, deputy emergency desk manager for the medical aid group.

Doctors without Borders’ therapeutic feeding program in Maiduguri, where the most malnourished children are treated, “has quadrupled in size in the last weeks, but each time it expands it becomes rapidly full,” Roberts said. In one local camp, Muna Garage, 20 children under 5 died in a single week last month, she said.

At Farm Centre Camp, on Maiduguri’s outskirts, residents said they had received no food in more than one month. They and refugees at other camps said that when they do get meals, it consists only of rice and beans. They get one shovelful a day — literally delivered from a shovel — whether a household has six people or 12, they said.

“We and our children, for about four to five days now, they are not giving us food because when they bring the food items, they [officials] take it to the room and share among themselves instead of giving us what belongs to us,” said one refugee, Binta Lawal.

Maiduguri is estimated to host up to 2 million refugees but only a fraction stay in the camps because, as the Daily Trust newspaper reported Tuesday, “Most of the camps have become centers of hunger, malnutrition and communicable diseases.”

Nigeria’s Senate last week announced it was launching an investigation into allegations that food aid is being diverted, and the Economics and Financial Crimes Commission weeks ago said it was doing the same.

The governor of Borno state, Kashim Shettima, has been booed by refugees and residents, with some shouting “Rice thief!” when his convoy passes, several residents said.