COMING BACK TO LIFE
FOREIGN TROOPS HAVE EASED SOMALIA'S SUFFERING, BUT A SHOW OF FORCE MAY SIGNAL THE END OF THE HONEYMOON
Four months ago, long after bandits had looted her family’s herd of cattle, goats and camels, Habibay Eden Ibdow left the village of Golol with her husband and 10 children in search of food. They walked 30 km to Baidoa, to the heart of Somalia’s worst famine zone, a city of 15,000 swollen to more than three times that number by desperate refugees from the countryside. Only 43-year-old Ibdow and two of her boys, aged 14 and 21, survived the famine. They now live in the comer of a filthy room in the stripped-down shell of a once grand building on the city’s outskirts. Among the weeds and the stench of human feces in the garden, three small mounds of dirt mark the graves of her youngest children. A frail woman wrapped in rags, Ibdow said that she does not know where the others are buried. “God has condemned me to be a widow without a husband and children,” said Ibdow, her face lined with sorrow. “I am unable to forget their faces.” Somalia is slowly coming to life again. But years of drought, famine and civil war have decimated the population and left a legacy of personal tragedy, fear and bitter clan hatreds.
In the capital Mogadishu, buses and cars jostle with U.S. marine tanks and donkey carts along roads crowded with roadside hawkers selling everything from Chiclets to chunks of camel meat covered with flies. A Somali woman’s organization and several foreign aid agencies are beginning to open schools for children traumatized by three years of bloodshed. And soldiers from 20 countries—including 1,262 Canadians—serving as part of the U.S.-led operation to deliver food to Somalia, have begun escorting relief shipments to rural areas long cut off by violence.
Still, more than 150,000 of the country’s estimated population of 4.5 million people (there has been no accurate census for decades) remain badly malnourished, and another two million need constant feeding. “It’s not over, not even nearly over,” said Lt.-Col. Don Young, chief of staff at the Canadian Forces headquarters in Mogadishu. “If we left now,
I think it would revert to exactly the way it was before.”
Even with 31,500 foreign troops stationed in Somalia, there is looting and tribal conflict throughout the countryside. The situation in Mogadishu remains especially volatile. Last week, while 14 of Somalia’s warlords met under UN auspices in Addis Ababa,
the capital of neighboring Ethiopia, where they agreed to a ceasefire and to convene a “national reconciliation” conference, clansmen from the capital’s two major factions fought street battles and took potshots at American troops patrolling the city. The International Medical Corps (IMC), which is working in Mogadishu’s Digfer hospital, received up to 10 patients with gunshot wounds each day. But no one seems to know how many victims died before reaching a hospital.
Caches: As the death toll continues to climb, Somalis are clamoring for U.S. forces to disarm the population—a monumental task in a country where perhaps hundreds of thousands of people carry arms. Somalia is a lawless society, so heavily armed that even hospital patients hide guns and knives under their beds. Mary Lightfine, an IMC nurse from Tampa, Fla., who began working at the Digfer hospital three months ago and now runs the agency’s medical logistics, says that she once found an ill man lying in a hospital corridor. “He had diarrhea and smelled bad, so other patients on the ward pulled guns on him and forced him to leave,” said Lightfine. “They say the gun situation is better now. But I wouldn’t want to piss off anyone. If you argue too much, you might get shot.” In Belet Huen, 330 km north of Mogadishu, Canadian soldiers last week located what may be one of the largest single weapons caches discovered by coalition troops: an armory that included more than 3,000 hand grenades, 300 rocket-propelled grenades and 27 long-range multiple-rocket launchers. With no place to store the cache, which belonged to a local faction of one of Somalia’s largest warring parties, the United Somali Congress, the Canadians simply padlocked the building. But Lt.-Col. Carol Mathieu, commander of the 845 Canadian and 55
American troops stationed in Belet Huen, pointed out that rival forces loyal to deposed president Siad Barre, in areas not pacified by coalition forces, are not being disarmed. “If we disarm these people, they will just be more vulnerable to attack,” said Mathieu.
Meanwhile, the Canadians are finding themselves drawn onto a complex political landscape. Mathieu asked local elders to form committees from local clans to deal with security, relief, politics and reconstruction issues. At last count, there were at least 15 clans or sub-clans demanding representation—and the number is rising. As well, says Col. Serge Labbé, the commander of all Canadian Forces in Somalia, “the concept of neutrality is one that they find foreign, and they are convinced that we are not.” When the troops rented three trucks from members of one clan last week, said Labbé, Somalis from the other side of town viewed that as evidence of partiality.
Officially, the mandate of the coalition forces is to establish a secure environment for bringing food supplies into Somalia. American military officials have insisted that their role does not include disarmament, and that they will only seize weapons that pose a direct threat to their troops. But there were indications last week that the Americans were becoming more aggressive. On the morning of Jan. 6, after coming under sniper fire from a cantonment area where forces loyal to one of Mogadishu’s warlords, Gen. Mohammed Farah Aideed, had agreed to store their heavy weapons, marines attacked the compound in a nearly hour-long barrage. There were no reports of casualties among the Somalis, who may have withdrawn from the building before the assault.
Still, it seems almost certain that American forces will hand the Somali
operation over to UN peacekeeping troops before the country is disarmed or any lasting political solution to the tribal conflicts is achieved. And that prospect worries many Somalis, who blame the United Nations for failing to act more swiftly to halt the famine. “The United Nations has failed before and if they try again, the Somalis won’t accept them,” argued Michel Clerc, a 32-year-old information officer working with the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) aid organization. “Here, the United Nations is the enemy.”
Power: The depth of hostility was evident on Jan. 3 when UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali arrived in Mogadishu. A scheduled visit to the headquarters of the United Nations Forces in Somalia (UNOSOM) had to be cancelled when hundreds of stone-throwing demonstrators besieged the compound. Col. James Cox, a 45-year-old Toronto native and veteran of three peacekeeping tours in Cyprus who now serves as UNOSOM’s deputy commander, called the criticisms “a bit unfair.” Noting that Somali gunmen are now firing on American soldiers with increasing frequency, Cox added: “There is a period when the honeymoon is over. Anyone who is here and does not produce as much of an improvement in the country as the people of Somalia expect will become unpopular. The task force has been successful in exactly what it wanted to do, but the overall problem of Somalia and its complexities is still here.”
In fact, some aid workers claim that by undermining the power exercised by the country’s often brutal warlords, the foreign troops have created a vacuum—with its own set of uncertainties. “We’re very happy that the military are here,” said Cynthia Osterman, a spokesman for CARE. “But this intervention has turned everything topsy-turvy. Before,
we sort of knew the ground rules. If there were problems, we knew who we could go to. Now, there’s no real structure in place and everyone feels kind of afraid.”
Those dangers were made tragically clear on Jan. 2, when a foreign aid worker was assassinated for the first time since the marines landed in Mogadishu a month ago. Sean Devereux, the 28-year-old officer in charge of UNICEF’s office in the southern port city of Kismayu, was shot in the back of the head as he left the organization’s compound. The motive for the killing remains unclear, although Devereux may have annoyed the wrong people a week earlier when he was widely quoted in the media denouncing local clansmen for massacring their opponents. There were also reports that Devereux had provoked the ire of his own guards by cutting their salaries.
The killing sent tremors through the foreign relief community. Clerc of MSF said that aid agencies have been reassessing their presence in Somalia since Devereux’s death. “It’s not because we’re afraid,” said Clerc. “We know we are saving lives. But if there is no improvement in the situation, if a patient gets back on his feet but there is nothing for him to do but pick up a gun to get food, what have we achieved?” Added Dutch aid worker Frank Theunissen: “You get so used to the violence, you don’t think it can happen to you. This brings it close to home.”
Prey: Aid workers, who generally live in special compounds guarded by paid Somali gunmen, form part of a tightly knit community of expatriates that operated virtually under siege before coalition forces arrived in Somalia. Danger is not the only common denominator. Many expatriates express frustration at Somalis who charge the aid organizations exorbitant rates for their services—some drivers charge up to $350 a day—as well as with the Somali gunmen who steal food from their own people while foreigners put their lives on the line. And many of them say that Somalis’ demands always seem to outstrip whatever the aid agencies can achieve. “Sometimes it’s frustrating because it seems Somalis are always expecting more,” concedes Cindy Pettersen, a 26year-old nurse from Peterborough, Ont., working with World Vision in Baidoa. “I don’t think you can blame them though. I think with all they’ve been through, it’s become every man for himself. I’m not sure what I would do either if I was in the same kind of desperate situation.”
Certainly, there are thousands of Somalis toiling in food kitchens and hospitals, many of them working without pay. It is equally clear that the situation is improving. In Baidoa, where as many as 400 people were dying each day in September, the daily death toll has fallen to about 30.
Most of the victims are people weakened by malnutrition who fall prey to disease in an overcrowded city with no government, no order, no sewers and little sanitation. “Forget AIDS— malnutrition is the world’s leading cause of immune deficiency,” said Ric Price, a 28-year-old MSF doctor who has set up a tent hospital for the most severe cases. “Measles is a killer here; so is hepatitis, dysentery and chest infections.”
Last week, at a World Vision feeding centre in Baidoa, Pettersen began inoculating children against measles. Most of them appeared to be thin, but not starving, as they lined up stoically for their injections. “The kids have all either died or they are improving,” said Pettersen. “They go down really fast, and they come back fast too. But you still see teenagers and older people who are very skinny.”
Mad Kerow Emet, an emaciated 16-year-old boy, is among them: four feet, 11 inches tall, he weighs just 84 pounds. His mother died of malaria eight years ago, he said as he sat on the floor at the feeding centre, drinking a cup of milk. His father was shot dead by clansmen from a neighboring village during the civil war. Five of his nine brothers and sisters died of starvation before Emet left his village of Sarman for Baidoa. He got as far as Ashogabo, about 15 km away, before being stricken with measles. “I was too weak to walk any farther,” explained Emet. “I stayed alive by eating the skin of animals after toasting them on a fire.” He finally arrived in Baidoa last week. “I feel better now, as I have porridge and milk and everything necessary to live,” he said. “Now, I intend to stay here. I want to study the Koran and law, something better for the future. I’ve never been to school before.”
Half a year ago, starving children could hardly have expected to fulfil such dreams. But even schools are slowly becoming a reality in Somalia. Last week, as torrential rains bathed Mogadishu, water cascaded down the stairwells of an unfinished building that serves as both kitchen and school, nearly drowning out the voices of children chanting the Koran and their ABCs. It is one of 30 schools opened two months ago by a Somali woman’s organization called the Kitchen Committee, with assistance from the International Committee of the Red Cross. It serves students
like Maktar Dero, an eight-year-old orphan from Baidoa, whose parents were shot to death nine months ago, and 14-year-old Mumin Jilani Aweys, who lives across the road in a refugee camp of twig huts. “We sold all our jewelry to buy books, blackboards, chairs,” said Asha Dirie, the Kitchen Committee’s 41-year-old chairman. “We made a big investment. Otherwise, the children would have no place to go.”
The rains and the delivery of food aid into the countryside have also made a difference, drawing some of the urban refugees back to their fields. A food convoy, escorted by U.S. marines last week from Baidoa to the village of Abuurow, drove past green fields of sorghum—the first crop in years. In Abuurow, aid workers read off more than 500 names from a list provided by local chiefs, and gave each family a 50-kg bag of wheat. Occasional arguments would erupt over who could claim the portion allotted to absent families. And, as the day wore on, the jostling and pushing crowd grew increasingly restless.
There were about 50 people left by late afternoon when the last of the names had been called. But someone noticed one severely emaciated youngster—clearly the weakest person in Abuurow that day—and gave him a leftover bag. The boy sat down on the sack while aid workers and marines prepared to leave. Suddenly, in the melee, a teenager pulled the bag of wheat out from under the
1 starving boy and ran off into the bush. It was u just one more obscenity heaped onto the t desperate tragedy that Somalia has en-
2 dured—another sign of just how hard it will be for the country to ever overcome its z legacy of violence, famine and war.
S MARY NEMETH in Mogadishu