US troops help stem Somalia's hunger
Monday 21 December 1992
We found Hassan under a sack and, until he half opened an eye, he seemed like a corpse, or rather a skeleton because bones and pale sickly skin was all that was left of him. He sat up, too ill to eat and too ill to speak. 'Camel's milk - that's the only thing that will save him,' said Paul Oberson, the Red Cross delegate. Luckily for Hassan, Mr Oberson was showing round Elizabeth Dole, the head of the US Red Cross. She sent for camel milk and sat by Hassan holding his twig-like fingers and trying to keep the flies off him.
It was lunch time in the feeding centre and two women were doling out steaming beans and rice. The people, mostly women and children, received their dollop in a bowl or a plastic bag or even a fold of a shirt or a skirt. Occasionally, men with sticks beat back the crowd when it pressed too much on the pile of food.
Eventually, the camel's milk appeared and Mrs Dole helped Hassan to drink it. 'That's yours, you hold onto that,' said Mrs Dole but as we left, Hassan was watched by envious eyes. One of the Somali translators said: 'They will steal it once we have gone.'
'When the Americans have gone' is becoming a core phrase in Somali life. It is the next moment in Somali time because for now the Americans have frozen the country's history. For the present, the arrival of the marines has transformed this battered town. A week ago it was full of gunfire and fear. Looting and death were daily events.
Now the people are dancing in the streets - literally. At the big communal well at the end of town a crowd pressed round a circle of men and women clapping and chanting. The marines are mobbed by throngs of small children wherever they go. Everyone else has removed their guns from sight. For the first time aid agencies are able to go out into the surrounding area, assess the full extent of the famine and get food to villages that have been cut off by banditry.
This has been one of the worst famines to hit Africa in recent years. No aid agencies are prepared to guess at the numbers who have starved to death but it could be more than 200,000. Just how the people around Baidoa and Bardera, the richest agricultural land in Somalia, came to miss two planting seasons is still unclear.
The wars that destroyed the country went largely unreported and history will have to rely on accounts of the victims. Hassan Manur's story is similar to those repeated time and again by farming families whose survivors are living in makeshift tents and huts in and around Baidoa. His brother, Ali, said they had walked from Bur Acaba, about 40 miles away, four months ago. All their camels and goats had been taken by fighters loyal to the ex-president, Siad Barre, and they had no seeds to plant in their small plot.
They say war passed through this region in November 1990 as the United Somali Congress (USC) fought to overthrow Mr Barre - one planting season lost. In January 1991 Mr Barre and his followers left from Mogadishu and fled westwards to this area. The civil war swung back and forth, and in May this year Mr Barre set up his headquarters in Baidoa.
Throughout this period, local people say, his troops seized livestock, grain and anything else they wanted - second planting season lost. They forced farmers to dig up their stores of seeds and destroyed them. They filled in wells and killed at random. They seem to have pursued a scorched-earth policy whose effect was genocide. It was not until mid-October that Mr Barre was driven from Baidoa.
At Bardera, 127 miles to the south-west, they tell a similar tale but there, the headquarters of forces of Mr Barre's clan, they say it was General Mohamed Aideed's USC troops who killed and stole, wiped out the camel herds and destroyed the seeds.
Aid agencies are already supplying the stronger families with seeds and tools, and the Red Cross has begun a veterinary programme to try to restore the herds of camels and goats. But many people are still too weak to dig and plant, and others have nothing to return to. It takes about three months for a starving person to regain his strength but most people around here will need food aid for months to come, perhaps until January of 1994 when the next full harvest is available.
Will the Americans stay so long? Not many Somalis trust or fear the United Nations or any other foreign forces that might replace the marines. In the meantime, the marines may have transformed Baidoa but they have not changed the substance of the problem. That substance is as deranged and nihilistic as ever. Revenge, blood or blood money is central to Somali culture and there are some horrendous scores to settle.
The guns may be off the streets but they are hidden - kept for the day when it is time for vengeance again. In Baidoa last week one clan elder told me that two clans had recently quarrelled, they had met, killed and eaten a camel and tried to settle their differences. They had failed, but they decided not to fight - yet. They will wait until the Americans have gone.
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