YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Next Step : Can Somali Warlords Make Peace? : The nation's future lies with rival clan leaders who must find a way to negotiate through words, not guns.


MOGADISHU, Somalia — At the outermost edge of Somalia's prolonged anarchy, famine and clan warfare, there is, for the first time in more than two years, a police force in Belet Huen.

The city also has a clinic, several schools and a newly appointed Somali construction team that soon will break ground for a jail, a station house, a courtroom and more schools. And blanketing the entire town and its outskirts, there is a large and effective force of Canadian peacekeeping troops prepared to stay for as long as a year after American combat forces conclude their humanitarian mission here at the end of April.

Indeed, Belet Huen is a rare model for Somalia's future--one possible future.

Northeast, across an imaginary line drawn by U.S. commanders defining the northernmost limits of the U.N.-sponsored Operation Restore Hope, there are the foreboding images of another possible future: hundreds of "technicals," battle wagons mounted with heavy weaponry, and troops fiercely loyal to Somalia's powerful clan chief, Mohammed Farah Aidid. Aidid leads the Haber Gedir subclan of the Hawiye tribe.

The "technicals" and troops are the razor's edge of the deepest fears among the people of Belet Huen, the Canadian commanders and the Western aid workers who are helping the Somalis take their first steps toward reconstructing this utterly ravaged nation. They serve as reminders that, on the day the Americans leave and turn command over to other U.N. troops, Aidid's "Mad Max" machines easily could roll southeast toward Mogadishu, the capital, flattening everything in the way, including Belet Huen, and restarting Somalia's nightmare.

"This will not happen," Aidid insisted in an interview with The Times last week. "We will confine our armaments and technicals in these camps and keep them there."

But then, when asked whether his battle wagons and self-described "freedom fighters" would move south if the forces of rival clan leader Mohamed Siad Hirsi (whose nom de guerre is Gen. Morgan) moved north from their encampment on the Kenyan border, he replied: "Why not? We have to protect our people."

Such are the battle lines that are drawn so deeply in this complex and fractured culture, as hundreds of Somalia's rival warlords, clan elders, professionals, intellectuals and women's leaders prepare for the next round of peace talks on March 15.

In reality, few expect any major breakthroughs during the second round of U.N.-sponsored talks that will bring Somalia's most influential leaders to the bargaining table in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. But most Somali intellectuals, foreign analysts and the warlords themselves said the meeting will stand as a landmark, if only due to its timing.

"We are moving through a critical phase right now," said Peter Schumann, who heads the U.N. Development Program in Somalia, which will be a key partner in helping to rebuild the nation. "Before, if we wanted to do any development, any relief work, anything at all, we had to negotiate with the militia leaders because they had the power."

But in the last three months, that power has shifted to the U.S.-led peacekeeping force that now numbers more than 30,000. Warlord arsenals have been raided, thousands of weapons and millions of rounds of ammunition confiscated and destroyed. As a result, the nation has entered a new era of relative peace and stability.

Although occasional spasms of violence persist, for the first time since the regime of Mohamed Siad Barre (father-in-law of Gen. Morgan) crumbled and gave way to chaos, mass murder and famine more than two years ago, there is now a popular groundswell among Somalis to put their nation back together.

"Now is the important time to test them minus the guns," Schumann said. "What are their abilities to manage and administer rehabilitation? Which of the leaders who go to Addis is genuine, sincere and capable of using this opportunity to really develop the country properly?

"That is the importance of March 15. You see, if we, as foreigners, sit around the table and try to solve it, we come up with a Siad Barre II or III. And that would be disastrous. The Somalis have to solve this mess."

In fact, in interviews with dozens of Somali intellectuals, clan leaders, relief workers and U.N. officers in Mogadishu, there was general agreement that Somalia could emerge a year from now with at least the rudiments of national sovereignty: a police force, a judicial system, schools, a vibrant farming industry and effective food-delivery systems that would break the famine cycle.

Los Angeles Times Articles