Clan war is only law in Somalia Youths with guns out for revenge

August 26, 1992|By Jane Perlez | Jane Perlez,New York Times News Service

MOGADISHU, Somalia -- When his younger sister was killed by a mortar shell and the family's house was destroyed, Omar Sabrie Abdulle faced the most agonizing moment he has known in the Somali civil war.

He tried, but failed, to dissuade his vengeful brother from joining the ragtag group of gun-toting teen-agers that passed for a unit in the family's clan army.

Soon the brother was dead too, killed in a skirmish. Last month, another sister was killed, hit in the head by a stray bullet as she sat in the garden.

For the handful of educated Somalis who have remained in a country destroyed by factional fighting and famine, the biggest barrier to survival has not been so much the dearth of food as the heavy weaponry in the hands of untrained, frenzied young men like Mr. Abdulle's brother.

"When I told him to stop this nonsense, he said I was a coward," said Mr. Abdulle, 34, recalling the argument he had with his brother. His brother, he said, was propelled into action by khat, an amphetamine-like plant leaf popular among Somali men, which the clan army gets for its youthful foot soldiers.

As the United States gets ready to airlift food into Somalia, Mr. Abdulle, a university lecturer who now ekes out a living working for the Red Cross here, worries that food alone will not solve the anarchy and famine that have consumed his country. International organizations, he suggests, have to buy up the weapons or offer food in exchange for them.

Mr. Abdulle's story of survival, as he has helped his extended family of 32 people run from house to house and neighborhood to neighborhood, illustrates the hatred behind the fighting in Somalia. Machine guns, grenade launchers, bazookas and pistols, all left behind by the superpowers that armed Somalia during the Cold War, dictate the pattern of daily living, he said.

The destruction of Mogadishu, a once-graceful city on the Indian Ocean, began last November when two sub-clans of one of Somalia's biggest clans, the Hawiye, battled for control of the capital following their joint ouster of the strong man Mohammed Siad Barre, a member of the Darod clan.

Today, it is a fight for power between "cousins," Mr. Abdulle said. There is little obvious difference between his sub-clan, the Abgal, known as the businessmen of Mogadishu, and the other sub-clan, the Habar Gidir, many of whom are nomads in central Somalia.

As shells thudded all around them in the first days of the fighting, Mr. Abdulle said, he realized that the house where he and his family were hiding was astride the front line.

The family moved to the house of his mother-in-law, taking with them a couple of ornate chairs that were faded memories of the Italian colonial days, a bureau, some clothes, two television sets and other household goods thrown onto the back of an ancient truck that had been the backbone of his father's transport business.

When his mother-in-law's house was destroyed and his sister killed, it was clear that Mogadishu was a divided city, with the Abgals in the north and the Habar Gidir in the south. Mr. Abdulle then realized that he was on the wrong side.

sent most of the family to the area near the airport in the north and my wife and two sons found this house," he said.

The owner of the abandoned house, a member of a sub-clan allied to the Habar Gidir, had fled to the southern part of the city, he said. Mr. Abdulle said he paid the armed guard at the house to go away and moved in.

As the fighting continued, Mr. Abdulle said, he had to resort to begging milk from a woman who had a cow. "At first she refused when I asked her if I could borrow some milk for my two young children because she knew there was no way I could repay her," he said. "But in the end she gave me enough for the youngest, then 1 year old, and I gave the eldest boy, 3 years old, tea."

With his fluent English, Mr. Abdulle was hired as a field officer by the Red Cross, whose medics he met while taking wounded Abgals to the agency's makeshift hospital. He was paid a stipend in food, allowing him to stay in the city and bring his elderly father, his father's two wives, his 11 brothers and sisters, and his nephews and nieces from their temporary shelter on the city outskirts.

Mr. Abdulle now receives a salary of $110 a month and $40 for food, enough to keep the family alive. But even at the market family members find themselves taking part in the illicit economy. Almost all the food is stolen -- oil sold by drops from a funnel in the top of a bottle, sacks of grain marked "Gift of the European Community," even the fresh grapefruit from the interior.

After his brother died, elders of the Abgal clan presented Mr. Abdulle with what they considered an ultimate prize: a Belgian-made automatic rifle. It was intended as a tribute to the family's sacrifice, but also as a hint to Mr. Abdulle to continue the fight.

He kept the rifle for a while, then sold it for the equivalent of about $150.

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