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Behind the Story : Danger at Ground Zero : In the daily violence of Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, death now comes all too easily.


MOGADISHU, Somalia — The horrifying staccato of news reports from this ruined and chaotic city can be numbing--ambushes of U.N. and U.S. soldiers, mob violence and shootings of civilians, the hunt for a wily warlord. But nothing can convey the danger like the tales of those at ground zero. Here are some of their stories:

A Harbor Master's Tale

Eddie Johns was relaxing over a chocolate milk the other day, occasionally whacking another bug with his desk-top fly swatter as he tried to explain why he quit the U.S. Army, left a good port-captain job with Exxon and moved into a tiny room at the epicenter of an East African war zone--putting his life on the line in a ruined nation as much at war with itself as it is with those trying to save it.

"The challenge," said the 46-year-old American harbor master, who is under civilian contract with the United Nations to build a profitable, full-service international seaport for the Somalis.

"I've always been the 'fireman.' It's not by design. It's just worked out that way," Johns said. "But here's a chance to really see one through. It's like my wife says, I've worked my whole life to be here."

Three days later, his life almost ended here.

In fact, Johns and the daily nightmares that have come with his quiet role in Somalia's resurrection provide a glimpse of the characters and brutal irony that abound in this, the most ambitious U.N. mission ever--a $1.5-billion multinational operation to pacify and rebuild a nation still wallowing in its own self-destruction.

In describing the biggest obstacle to his task that recent afternoon, for example, Johns said, smiling wryly: "Weapons."

It seems he's outgunned.

In a city awash with assault rifles, mortars, land mines and machine guns and besieged by a disgruntled and determined clan militia, Eddie Johns said he could not get U.N. approval to arm his port policemen with pistols. As a result, robbery plagued the port. Not to mention, he added, problems with his own personal safety.

"They won't even let my bodyguard carry a pistol," he said.

Then, as if scripted, just days after this interview, Johns was driving down the busiest street in Mogadishu to a meeting at the U.N. headquarters when Somali gunmen apparently targeting his Land Cruiser pumped three bullets into its side, killing two Somali bystanders across the street and narrowly missing Mogadishu's new harbor master.

Just another ambush, the brief news item would read later that day, in one of the most dangerous cities on Earth.

A Gruesome Exhibit

The young Somali man was doing a little dance outside the front gate of the Al Sahafi Hotel, a compound housing journalists that has become the outside world's only independent eyes and ears on the United Nation's mission in Somalia.

This was the day that a remote-controlled bomb had killed four U.S. Army military policemen on routine patrol just a few miles from the hotel. And the young man at the gate was clearly a loyalist of the renegade Somali warlord who has declared war on the United States and the United Nations: Mohammed Farah Aidid. The clan leader is being hunted for ordering the massacre of 24 Pakistani peacekeepers in June and staging a hit-and-run terror campaign against U.N. forces ever since.

The young man had come on a pilgrimage of proof, an almost-daily visit to the Al Sahafi by Aidid loyalists to report on "atrocities" by the United Nations the previous night or the latest pronouncements by Aidid from his underground hideouts in a city far too dangerous for journalists to roam.

But the proof the young man offered that day was grisly testimony not only to the depth of Mogadishu's daily horrors but to the ambiguities behind the sterile headlines and pedantic Washington analyses that have punctuated the U.N.'s first-ever peacemaking mission.

As he danced and chanted, the young man held a stick in his hand with skewered bits of flesh--pieces, he said, of the American soldiers killed by the bomb blast just hours before.

In a city of lies and lawlessness, there was no way to verify his claim.

Welcome to Hotel Hell

A sniper shot cracked the evening air from the open-air cinema across the street. To the south, the sky filled with orange flares and the occasional thud of mortar fire around the two remote--and often besieged--U.S. Army supply depots dubbed Hunter Base and Sword Base.

And, from the blackness overhead, there was the intermittent, nightlong thunder of U.S. Blackhawk helicopters piloted by night scopes and armed with belt-fed machine guns--the United Nation's "eyes in the skies" over Mogadishu.

It was a typical night on the roof of the Al Sahafi--indeed, the safest vantage point to monitor Mogadishu by night for the handful of international news organizations that remain committed to a presence in Somalia.

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