YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

America From Abroad : Departing GIs Can't Stop the Music : Somalis love U.S. rock 'n' roll, but Washington's policies are another matter.


MOGADISHU, Somalia — In the rickety stalls of Mogadishu's Bakara market, in the heart of the neighborhood where 18 U.S. Army Rangers were killed and dozens more wounded in the most intense firefight involving U.S. troops since Vietnam, the hottest-selling items in the final days of the U.S. deployment were cassette tapes of American rock 'n' roll.

They were pirate tapes recorded from Armed Forces Radio broadcasts here during the 15 months that U.S. soldiers took the lead role in the U.N. mission to feed, pacify and rebuild war-torn Somalia. And they were recorded by some of the same clan militiamen who shot down U.S. helicopters, held an American pilot hostage, blew up passing Army patrols and ambushed Marines on the streets.

"We love American music--you know, Guns 'N Roses, man," one of the militiamen, who identified himself only as Abdi, told me as the U.S. presence drew to a close this month . "Hey, we even like your soldiers. Very tough. Very strong. In fact, we like America. It's the American policy that was wrong."

It was a poignant image that caught the ambivalence of so many Somalis toward the people who came to save them from starvation, killed hundreds of Somalis in armed combat, lost dozens of their own soldiers in the process and finally chose to leave rather than risk losing any more.

As the U.S. military mission approached its scheduled departure Friday, America's image in this still-ruined land seemed to run the gamut from the militiaman's love for rock 'n' roll, to respect for the foreign soldiers he fought so hard to drive out of town, to the satisfaction of his leaders that the Americans were finally going home.

On a night when hundreds of U.S. troops left Mogadishu's harbor in early March in a high-security naval withdrawal, scores of Somalis packed into an open-air theater to watch the movie "Patton." It was the largest crowd the theater's owner could remember since the Marines landed here in December, 1992. There was even a smattering of applause when a mammoth American flag filled the screen.

On the higher political level, there was enduring anger--particularly from the leadership of former Somali Gen. Mohammed Farah Aidid's Somali National Alliance, which declared war on the United States and the United Nations when Aidid and his men became convinced the foreign forces were trying to marginalize their party and their clan.

"Before they came, I had a different concept of America," said Abdul Karim Ahmed Ali, secretary general and spokesman for Aidid's party. "From childhood, I thought America is the most democratic country in the world after England. When I grew up, I changed my mind. I thought America was the most democratic country.

"But when they arrived here, things went the opposite. They immediately started marginalizing us--supporting our rivals. Now I believe the policy of the American government and the feelings of the American people are different. And this is a contradiction I can no longer understand."

For Ahmed Ali, there's a personal dimension. In January, during one of the last U.S. troop convoys through Mogadishu's streets, his eldest son was accidentally caught in a cross-fire and shot in the stomach, he said.

"Now, of course, I wish they had never come to Somalia. My son would be healthy now."

But outside of politics, and at the grass roots of what's left of Somali society, the view was far different.

There was an almost universal gratitude for the initial Marine intervention that helped break a war-induced cycle of famine. Most Somalis appear to believe that the intervention saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of their compatriots.

"If President Bush hadn't sent the Marines in, I think 50% of the Somali people would have died," said former Somali Gen. Mohamed Nur Galal. "What is not clear to me now is what kind of policy America has on Somalia. The U.S. Congress is saying, 'We have no interest in Somalia.' And I see the U.S. ambassador here, and he tells me the United States is going to stay involved in this country and they are going to still support the U.N.

"I just don't understand this. It's all very strange to me."

It's less strange for Hirei Gassem, who has visited the United States four times and whose son graduated from a U.S. university. Once among Somalia's most prominent businessmen, Gassem lost his detergent and soap factories during the civil war that destroyed most of the capital and the nation.

But as he started to rebuild from the rubble, beginning with the 10-room Quality Inn motel he plans to open this month near Mogadishu's international airport, Gassem said he too is somewhat confused about America's intentions in Somalia.

"I know the American mentality is progressive," he said. "And the Americans can still do much here. But they must get involved with the local people. I always thought the Americans, if anyone, would understand this. But for some reason, they failed in this here.

Los Angeles Times Articles