MOGADISHU, Somalia -- In the tension-filled days before the arrival of U.S. troops, relief workers fear that gunmen may rush to loot supplies or even resort to kidnappings before the Americans step ashore.
That has prompted the aid workers to bunker down, stock extra food and water, and tighten their security precautions.
As always, their safety depends largely on the protection of hired Somalian guards who follow them in heavily armed vehicles to prevent gunmen from killing them or taking supplies.
In Mogadishu, the rattle of automatic gunfire has become a constant backdrop to daily activities. On Friday, marauding gunmen unsuccessfully attacked a house used by the United Nations World Food Program.
While relief organizations trimmed their staffs in the towns of Baidoa and Bardera yesterday, most of the foreign aid workers have so far refused to evacuate the Somalian capital. Many say they take hope from plans for the imminent arrival of the Marines. The troops' first task will be to secure Mogadishu's port and airfield and Baidoa's airfield.
"We are faced by the unknown, but all my staff wants to stay," said Cedric Piralla, head of a Red Cross delegation that is responsible for more than 300 food kitchens in Mogadishu alone that feed more than 1.2 million people a day. "If we don't keep the food kitchens open, what will the troops have come to secure?"
The International Committee of the Red Cross is one of the largest and oldest relief agencies in Somalia.
Aid workers say their experience could benefit the incoming troops.
"It's vitally important that workers who understand the situation stay here to ease the confusion," said Rhodri Wynn-Pope, who is the team leader for southern Somalia of CARE-U.S.A.
Aid workers in Mogadishu are worried about potential actions by the thousands of Somalian gunmen who, for more than a year, have sold their services as guards.
"The most important thing is to find alternate employment for these gunmen," Ms. Wynn-Pope said.
For some relief workers, an atmosphere of trust and cooperation with their Somali employees is paramount to their survival. Many workers for groups that are in Somalia for the long term, like the Red Cross, CARE and the International Medical Corps, an American organization that specializes in emergency surgery, say they have built a base of trust. But organizations that have come only in the last several months feel much less secure.
"I don't trust our guards," said Nigel Tricks, field officer for German Caritas, a Roman Catholic group that came to Somalia in September. "I think they'll disappear when the troops come. There's no reason they should stay."
As the news of the impending troop arrival has spread, the price of the armed Somalian guards, without whom no foreigner would venture outside, has shot up from $100 to $150 a day.
Relief workers say the increase is due in part to the departure of the gunmen, who are worried about being disarmed by the Americans. The armed men have either gone to lie low in the bush or to reinforce troops loyal to Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed around Bardera, aid workers say.