Culture shock that could kill: Richard Dowden in Mogadishu says the US idea of a quick solution of the Somali problem ignores certain dangers

THE US plan to bring aid to Somalia appears to be this: from a task force off the coast one night this week helicopters will bring the US marines to Mogadishu airport and harbour. At the same time, they will secure five or six other centres in southern Somalia. Having consolidated their positions, they will open the port and protect food convoys going inland.

If anyone gets in their way, according to Dick Cheney, the US Defense Secretary: 'We are not going to wait for people to shoot at us.' By 20 January, when President George Bush hopes the troops can come home, the starving Somalis should have been fed, the power of the warlords broken and Somalia brought under some sort of United Nations trusteeship. 'Operation Restore Hope' completed, sir.

The reality may be somewhat different. It will not be different because there are hordes of Somalis waiting to defend the sovereignty of Somalia from US invasion - in fact all the main military leaders have welcomed the US plan, and most Somalis say they will welcome the Americans. It will not be different because the young bandits with guns will be foolish enough to take on the marines. It may be different because of the way Somalis think and US marines think.

What will happen when that first Humvee armoured car rounds a corner and meets a 'Technical', a Land Cruiser or Land Rover cut down to its chassis with a heavy machine-gun or cannon mounted on the back? The crews comprise young men, armed to the teeth, who live for fighting and chew khat - a mild amphetamine leaf - after lunch. Most important of all, they are Somalis.

'A fierce and turbulent race,' Sir Richard Burton called them 100 years ago, and they have not changed. Traditionally they were nomadic, and nomads never need to settle disputes with neighbours because they only meet those neighbours once a year when they compete for grazing grounds or a well. They are individualistic and quick to take offence. Somali poetry, a rich vein of Somali culture, is full of references to blood feuds and revenge. 'Somalia is a country where a poem can start a war,' one Somali scholar said. Somalia's recent civil wars have been fought with anarchic, if courageous, ferocity.

Although the Somalis are one race, follow one religion and speak one language, they have never known a centralised form of government. Plans have always been made and disputes settled by interminable discussions between the elders of the clans. There are six main clans and scores of cross- related sub-clans and this complex system lies at the heart of Somali society. It is the key to the loyalties of the political parties and of the warlords. Somalis may spend much of their energy fighting each other but in their eyes, Somalis are superior beings and their self- confidence borders on arrogance and leads them into xenophobia.

It is normal for most Somalis to carry guns in the street these days. In a restaurant in Mogadishu yesterday a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, a heavy machine-gun, three AK-47s and a heap of ammunition lay on the table next to a huge mound of spaghetti being pulled to pieces by the crew from a Technical. Gunshots echo across the city every few minutes but no one looks up; perhaps it is an argument or perhaps someone is just making sure there are still bullets in his weapon.

No one working in Mogadishu has been contacted by Washington for advice or guidance, neither Somalis nor US aid workers. Significantly, none of the aid agencies have altered their programmes or drawn up new schemes in preparation for the take-over. Many experienced aid workers and educated Somalis are worried that the marines will take a simplistic 'shoot to feed' approach to the problems of food distribution and that they will be unprepared for a culture shock when they arrive.

To the newcomer, Somalia is alarming and layered with illusion and contradiction. Have the marines been briefed and what orders have they been given when they come face to face with heavily-armed Somalis? The soldiers could try to disarm them but that would require lengthy negotiation under a tree with lots of sweet tea, a piece of theatre which Somalis have made into an art form. It is difficult to envisage the trained-to-kill marines performing well at it. And, anyway, Mr Cheney has said the time for negotiation is over.

If the Americans shoot even the worst of the gunmen, they could very swiftly turn some Somalis against them. The whole culture of nationalistic xenophobia, clan solidarity and blood revenge would slowly come to bear on the uncomprehending Americans, but once started it would be almost impossible to crush. In the 1920s, British troops in northern Somalia took years to quell the followers of 'The Mad Mullah', a Dervish leader - and most of the clans were on Britain's side.

There is a perfectly credible scenario six months' hence, with the marines patrolling the streets trying to root out the 'terrorists' who are preventing the establishment of sufficient political stability to allow them to leave. Then Mr Cheney will be out of office but his successor may come to wish the Defense Secretary had not issued the order to fire first.

(Photograph omitted)

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