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Documentary : A War Within a War in Somalia : Emergency aid workers try to cope with a devastating famine amid snipers, looting and killing.

August 18, 1992|MICHAEL A. HILTZIK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOGADISHU, Somalia — The relief official was in the midst of a detailed briefing on food deliveries and famine statistics in Somalia when he suddenly broke off. "You have to understand something," he said. "You have to understand what a horrible place this is."

Many conversations in Mogadishu go like that. For this is a city where relief workers have been fighting gunmen, anarchy and world indifference to get not enough food to too many hungry people. Some are harassed to the point of nervous breakdown, some seem preternaturally serene, but all show the effects of living for months with frustration and danger while trying to get food to more than 1.5 million Somalis starving to death in the interior.

That no visitor to Mogadishu moves out onto the street without a show of firepower was made clear within moments of my arrival last week.

We landed in a UNICEF plane 35 miles southwest of the city at a dirt airstrip built by drug runners who considered security at the international airport in town too dicey for their valued cargoes of khat, a mildly stimulating drug ingested by chewing the leaves of a green plant grown in Kenya. A German relief agency gave us a lift into town in a Toyota van, its sliding side door removed to give two armed guards clear shots out the opening. Our driver avoided the paved highway running in from the airstrip, preferring the sunken drainage ditch alongside: less exposure to snipers.

Downtown, at the U.N. Children's Fund communications compound, the agency's local staff found us a man who would rent us two vehicles and accompanying gunmen. In an hour the vehicles pulled up: a white Toyota Corolla and a canary yellow pickup truck with a machine gun mounted on its bed. The Corolla was unarmed; that wouldn't do. There was more dickering with the crowd of Somali men hanging about the compound, until one agreed to hoist his Russian rifle and sit in the front seat for $20 a day. He rolled down the window to make room for the barrel.

The threat of random violence in this place without a government is incessant and all-defining. Nothing is illegal because there is no authority except the gun. Relief agencies get daily reports from local contacts about which neighborhoods and streets are unsafe to travel.

Especially unpredictable is the main road to the international airport, where a group of ex-army officers, dressed in rags and looking more sad and defeated than angry, has taken up residence. Now and then they decide to blockade the road, complaining that the United Nations has left them penniless and hungry. They drag motorists out of their cars, taking their money and whatever food might be inside.

The airport itself had been closed to U.N. flights since May 31, when looters there made off with six metric tons of Unimix, an emergency food for malnourished children, and one ton of medicine brought in by UNICEF and the Red Cross. Armed gangs clearly had been tipped that both agency's planes would be on the ground at the same time. The stolen Unimix amounted to meals for 30,000 children.

Episodes like that make Somalia a challenge to relief doctrine. The lack of food provokes violence and looting, which in turn makes it hard to bring in more food.

One day, a European relief official--he prefers to remain unidentified, so let us call him Paul--walked us through the difficulties created by Somalia's disorder.

That same morning a convoy carrying 200 tons of food--20 full trucks--had disappeared en route to a distribution center in south Mogadishu. Likely as not the armed Somalis the United Nations paid to guard the convoy were bribed to divert it, probably into the warehouse of a private businessman. "Businessmen know what's on a ship and it's sold before it's even unloaded," Paul said. Instead of reaching starving Somalis, it ends up on the market in Ethiopia and Kenya.

Paul had dispatched Somali investigators into the city to trace the wayward shipment, but even if they found the drivers and escorts--in fact, the trucks were likely to show up for more loads later in the week--Paul would have little recourse. It is too dangerous to confront drivers or gunmen, he explained. Most foreign officials in Mogadishu routinely put up with thievery and incompetence because to fire a Somali would make an enemy of him and his family and clan, all well-armed.

"I'd leave here in a wooden box," he said.

Paul was displaying one recognizable symptom of those who have spent long months in a relentlessly hostile environment. He seemed close to a nervous breakdown. Burly and bearded, he was constantly in motion, squirming in and out of his chair, tossing a walkie-talkie from hand to hand, his eyes darting everywhere. His vibrating body seemed about to shake itself to pieces.

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