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"This is the reality," Sister Maria Antonio said, stroking the wispy hair of yet another infant slipping away. "Smashed buildings are nothing. It is the children."

No one knows how many tens of thousands of young Somalis have died so far as the overall toll climbs into the hundreds of thousands. But war and the famine it helped bring have blotted out a generation."It is hopeless," said Ahmed Mohamed Elmi, director of the Children's Village, an orphanage and hospital run by the Austrian charity SOS Kinderdorf International.

Sister Maria Antonio, an Italian from Sardinia, sees the evidence every morning in the 140-bed hospital. Some children fill her with joy, inching back from the edge of death. Others don't.

She has spent 16 years in Somalia, seven fewer than Sister Marcia, another Sardinian, and neither has seen anything like this. Possibly no one has, anywhere.

September begins Somalia's fourth year without schools. At 7, kids play war for real, toting AK-47s as if they were water pistols.

Underfed for too long, children are growing up stunted in body and mind against a backdrop of social chaos.

From outlying villages, they spend weeks on the road, slung on their mothers' backs or toddling behind in a desperate search for food.

In the city, they sit in squalid open camps waiting for a dollop of gruel which some are too weak to eat. Many have tuberculosis, or diseases like measles that, in Africa, will kill.

Mogadishu's streets are dotted with inert little shapes, children too weak to forage, lying silently in the sun. Stronger ones wait outside U.N. offices, hands extended in faint hope.

Some scream in their sleep. Others adjust to a twisted reality, where guns rule and almost nothing is secure.

Even kids with enough to eat cannot escape the new reality. If they survive, specialists say, the future they face will be a harrowing one.

"They are growing up accustomed to violence," said Seifulaziz Milas, a sociologist from Mozambique who advises the U.N. Children's Fund, UNICEF. "They see nothing wrong in it."

Mahat Abdul Rahman has a steady job at 13. He rides shotgun in his brother's Toyota Hi-Lux taxi. Some days, he carries a machine gun, with a heavy ammo belt.

Asked if he didn't miss school, Mahat looked blankly. "School?" he repeated.

"In my family, we wanted to hire a teacher for our children, but they don't want to learn," Elmi said. "They don't care about books. Their friends are in the streets, with guns."

In any case, few have a choice.

Years of fighting drove many educated Somalis into exile. Those who remain are desperate to teach their children, but survival itself is a greater priority.

Mohamed Sahnoun, special U.N. envoy to Somalia, agrees that a lost generation is the worst part of the calamity.

"I can't tell you how many intellectuals plead with me to send their children out to school," he said. "Not for university, but 11-year-olds, 13-year-olds."

In the rush to keep millions of Somalis alive, voluntary agencies spare little time for the future. When they do, first in line are the sick who need long-term care.

Even in normal times, Somalia had few social services. Extended families take in their own orphans. Children of outsiders are often left to their fate.

Some orphanages are starting up, with meager means. An Islamic school at Baidoa has taken in 100 boys who eat regularly and learn the Koran.