Death won't wait for the Marines: Richard Dowden sees the ordeal of Baidoa as it faces five more nights of madness till the Americans come

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The Independent Online
MOGADISHU, Friday, 5.30am. I was woken by a gun battle about a mile away. The occasional crash of something heavy was interspersed with the crackle of rifle fire. The Independent on Sunday 'team', Abdi Dahir, the translator, a driver and two gunmen, arrived in the battered Toyota Landcruiser soon after sun-up. There is a line of bullet holes through the windscreen and dashboard. The driver says it was his brother who was shot.

We drove inland across flat, open fields, some under water and most sprouting green maize, all of it planted by hand.

At midday, we heard the heavy thud of a helicopter flying low, and a Cobra gunship curled around in front of us, its cannon protruding obscenely at us from the nose. Abdi and Nur, the guards on the open back of the truck, were trying to hide their guns, and the driver jammed on the brakes and slewed off the road. I waved frantically out of the window and the pilot waved us on.

Baidoa is a small town in the most fertile part of Somalia. It consists of a narrow strip of tarmac running between rows of single-storey, once-whitewashed buildings with corrugated iron roofs. Just now it is hell. Its normal population of 15,000 has been swollen to about 70,000, as people come looking for food or fleeing banditry. But the bandits have followed them. Of the seven aid agencies working here, six have been looted in the past week. In addition, 60 people have died in a clan fight.

The Care office, where dollars 20,000 was stolen, now has a sandbagged machine-gun post on the roof and a foxhole in front of it. All the aid agencies have been reduced to emergency staff, who know they cannot get away. If their guards thought they were all leaving for ever, they would stop them, either to preserve their livelihood or to loot them.

At Medecins Sans Frontieres Holland, Wouter Van Empelen explained the night escape route. 'If the shooting comes into the compound, you pull the bars off the window, push your mattress through because of the thorn bush, and climb the wall. The people in the house at the back expect us.'

As we travelled into the town, now accompanied by two MSF 'technicals' with heavy machine- guns on the roof, the moment I had dreaded arrived. Behind a wall in a small house, we were shown them. They are why we are here. They are why the aid agencies are here. They are why the Americans have come to Somalia. All I can see are eyes, great round dead eyes, then huge round heads, small round bodies in blue cloth with long, thin black sticks hanging off them. They are women and children.

On the wrist of each is a small white band. 'The white group are the ones who are OK,' explained Wouter. 'When they first come, they are in the red group. They are more than 70 per cent malnourished; they get special food eight times a day. Then they move to the blue group after about two months, and then to the white group.' So this is the best group.

The red group were in five green tents, about 1,600 of them at the moment, in the centres fed by Concern, the Irish aid agency. One child - what might once have been a child - convulsed gently on his mother's lap, the only sound a soft, monotonous retching. And 1,600 others were like him. Next to the feeding centre, young men were playing football. Who did this? Did God do this? 'No, we do not blame God for this,' said Batar, one of the workers. 'We did this, we Somalis, Siad Barre did this. No, this is not the fault of God.'

In Somalia's appalling famine, there is none of the 'God's will' attitude encountered in the parts of Ethiopia and Sudan that suffer recurrent famine. Somalia has never had such famine, and this is its richest area. This was caused by war. By man.

There are no overall figures for the town, but the Red Cross says that in its own centres 5,000 died in August, 6,000 in September, 2,500 in October and 1,400 in November. Now the figures are rising again. All the aid agencies were feeding people in the surrounding areas, perhaps as many as 100,000. As soon as the Americans said they were coming, two things happened. Most of the people got out flags and flowers ready to welcome them. And the looters went into overdrive before the final whistle. The Red Cross and Care were robbed at gunpoint and everyone lived in terror. Six Care workers were shot dead when their convoy was attacked. The US Air Force stopped flying in food, and all the aid agencies had to stop supplying surrounding areas.

The agencies told everyone that the Americans were coming today, tomorrow, now - anything to scare the looters away. Then we heard on the shortwave radio that the US commander, General Robert Johnson, had told aid agencies that they would not reach Baidoa for another six days. By evening it was broadcast on the BBC Somali service.

'It was like telling the looters they had five more nights to take what's left,' said Wouter Van Empelen. All the aid agencies agree that the delay in the arrival of the American forces - and the announcement of it - will cost many lives. They are frightened, and furious with the Americans. It took us an hour to drive from where we were buzzed by the Cobra to the people dying of hunger; it would have taken the helicopter 10 minutes. It will take the Americans a week to arrive, we are told.

We travelled to the old Russian-built military airbase, where on the tarmac a Hercules of Southern Air Transport from Mombasa was unloading some food and medical supplies for MSF, some in Christmas paper decorated with bells and holly. Back at the MSF house, the three remaining MSF workers unwrapped their Christmas boxes: cake and biscuits, nuts and pate.

An extraordinary meeting took place in the sitting-room between Abdul Mohammed Idris Lesto and Husein Warsame Gure, clan elders of rival, if allied, political movements. Lesto negotiated the end of the recent clan clash, and both promised MSF that they would do everything to stop the house being attacked. Husein offered to put a massive anti-aircraft gun outside the front door, and denounced the 'mafias'. Lesto agreed. But the aid workers suspect that much of the looting is done by their people, some of them guards.

Yesterdayat 4am, a burst of firing broke out close by. Then silence. Later I learnt that the house belonging to Concern had been hit. One guard had been killed, but the others had driven off the looters.

We had a gun-wagon to escort us out of town. 'I shall be counting the nights now, every night till the Americans come,' Wouter said as we parted. I wondered if he would be alive then.

(Photograph omitted)