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April 04, 1993|SCOTT KRAFT | Scott Kraft, the Times' Johannesburg bureau chief, won this year's Sigma Delta Chi award for foreign correspondence for a story on AIDS in Africa, which appeared in this magazine

THE WHITE-ROBED SURGEON, AWEYS ABDI OMAR, hands covered in blood, was cutting into the abdomen of a Somali man in Mogadishu's Digfer Hospital when half a dozen armed men burst into the operating room, carrying a moaning figure in their arms.

"Doctor, you have to leave that one," they said, pointing to the anesthetized patient on the table. "Our brother has been shot."

"But this patient may die if I leave," Omar protested. "Your brother is not hurt badly. He will have to wait."

"You don't understand," the intruders said. "We will kill you if you don't save our brother now."

The slightly built, 30-year-old surgeon considered the consequences, then did as they demanded. He worked quickly, returning just in time to save his original patient.

Then Omar retreated to his small hospital quarters, packed a bag, withdrew his savings from a pillowcase and walked out of Digfer, where he had been doing battlefield surgery for a year without pay. He went to the airport, and within weeks, he was treating colds and stomach aches in Saudi Arabia.

But when Omar tells me this story, he is back in his quarters at Digfer Hospital and wearing the same white robe. He removes his sandals and closes the door, muffling the sounds of hundreds of refugees camped in the hallways. Then he speaks, softly, in labored English, pausing frequently to stroke the jet-black strands of his beard.

"You know," he begins, "when I saw the war come through these doors I thought I would never want to come back." But in December, seven months later, his brother flew to Djibouti, which had the nearest working telephone, to call Omar in Riyadh. The message: Your mother is back in Mogadishu and she says it's time for you to come home, too.

Within days, Omar had returned. At Digfer, he often had to operate without sutures or needles; hepatitis had become endemic and he donated his own blood for a few patients. But where a foreigner still sees chaos, Omar sees hope.

"Now most Somali professionals are coming back," Omar says, naming another surgeon and a lawyer friend. "Things are getting better. The people with guns are no longer running the hospital. And now I can help my people again."

As I leave him, Omar presses a piece of paper into my hand. On it is a name, Fatuma Osman, and a telephone number in Canada. "Please call her," he says. "Ask her to come back to Mogadishu. We will get married." To get married in Mogadishu today, he says, "is a sign of peace."

POOR SOMALIA. GONE ARE MOST OF THE TELEVISION CAMERAS THAT arrived in December, bingeing on the holiday tale of young Marines rescuing starving Africans. The 25,000 American troops who restored a semblance of order to Somalia began their gradual departure in January, handing the operation over to the United Nations. And, as their international obscurity returns, Somalia's 7 million surviving inhabitants are taking stock.

The past two years have been brutal. What began as a popular revolution deteriorated into a civil war and, with the onset of a drought, ignited one of the most debilitating famines in modern times. More than 300,000 people have starved to death, 100,000 have been killed and 1.5 million have been driven from their homes, the U. S. State Department estimates. A generation of children, the weakest of the hungry and the angriest of the warriors, is gone.

Today, there are no national or local governments, no electrical plants, no working water systems, no working telephones, no post offices, no banks, no police forces and no public schools. Hundreds of thousands of buildings lie in ruins, criminals run rampant and unpunished, and clan animosities still burn like the hot barrels of the omnipresent AK-47 rifles. And, buried deeply beneath the rubble, is a history of innocence. The nation once known for its peaceful streets, where anyone could walk without fear, is gone forever.

With so little left, can Somalia ever pick up the pieces and start again? U. N. officials and Somalia experts insist that the answer is yes; Somalia's problems are not insurmountable, they say. But who will do the work? Foreign soldiers can restore peace, but no foreign armies or governments can rebuild this country. The warlords can, and have, agreed to stop their fighting. But no warlord can guarantee the country's security, reopen the stores, fix the telephones, restart the economy, police the streets or restock the hospitals.

Somalia's hope for salvation rests with ordinary people, the tens of thousands of forgotten doctors and merchants, intellectuals and former bureaucrats who have the skills to turn the country around. Until now, they have been closeted in their houses or toiling in exile, out of range of the bullets and TV cameras. Many lost fortunes, as well as loved ones, in the upheaval. But, like Dr. Aweys Abdi Omar, they are emerging slowly from their despair. They see opportunity in the fragile new peace, and they're eager to capitalize on it.

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