Troops soon surrounded by astonished Somalis

December 10, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Staff Writer

MOGADISHU, Somalia -- The benign invasion of Somali proceeded apace yesterday. It may have been the happiest day in this country's tortured history.

"The operation has gone extremely well," said Gen. Frank Lubutti, a proud Marine noticeably starched in the blazing sun. All about him the vanguard of the full force of nearly 30,000 troops, mostly American, consolidated positions along the beach the international airport.

The Somalis counterattacked with a strategy of total envelopment. In the bright early morning, several thousand were already at the beach to watch the landing craft roar across the water onto the sand, then drop out squads, platoons, entire companies of Marines.

Down the dunes came the Somalis to greet them. They went slowly at first, then, driven by curiosity, with greater determination. The Marines set perimeters. The Somalian children flowed right through them. They surrounded each trooper. Their elders followed, clucking, smiling, reaching out to touch the bewildered Americans.

No one here had ever seen anything like this landing before. It was a spectacular show set before a people with few entertainments in their lives. Dozens of children went skinny-dipping in the tidal pools. Marines waded into the shallows to shoo them back onto the strand, back up the dune, eventually all the way across the tarmac and out of the airport altogether.

Optimism was in the air. Ahmed Mohamed, the only Somali on the beach in a dark Western suit and tie, said, "Anybody who takes care of us, brings us food, is good. Anyone who brings us peace is good."

He represents the inoperative Somali Airlines. He talked of regularly scheduled flights, as if it were a fond dream of his.

Another Somali, Osman Ahmed, said, "I feel good about this today. It is not good for so many people to have guns. Everybody here has a gun, and nobody has a job."

That was where the most immediate benign effect of the arrival of the troops was felt. The guns had disappeared overnight from the streets of Mogadishu. The "technical" vehicles, as they are known, with their mounted guns and crews bristling with hardware, were hardly in evidence.

Richard Grant, the head of CARE here, said: "Where did they go? Into closets? Under beds? Who knows where? But my impression is that people are quite glad to see that's happening."

Some are cautious

Clearly they were. The streets were more crowded than usual, small coffee shops were already in operation and busy. The street vendors seemed to have a few more items to offer than their usual supply of old pipe fittings and wires and books without covers. One Somali sold watermelon near the airport.

Though most people asked were positive about the beginnings of Operation Restore Hope, a few were cautious. Some were fearful.

"The United States must use the radio to tell the people why

they are here," said Farhan Osman. "There are some selfish people who will say they came to change our religion."

And Ahmed Yadman Isaac was certain of it: "I think they want to change our religion. They are Christians. We are Muslims."

For him it was as simple as that.

For Mr. Grant, the arrival of the troops gave fresh impetus to his agency's mission, getting food to Somalia's starving. CARE is the overall distributor of food in Somalia. He announced convoys for tomorrow, carrying 50 tons of food into both north and south Mogadishu -- areas of the city controlled respectively by Gen. Mohamed Farah Aidid and Ali Mahdi Mohamed.

The food will go in new United Nations trucks, guarded by Americans. "Fifty tons is not so much," Mr. Grant said. "But the convoy is to show it can be done."

CARE has seen many such convoys hijacked and looted. Mr. Grant is certain this one will get through. He believes most of the looting that has crippled the attempts to fight the famine will soon end.

CARE distribution

Cynthia Osterman, also from CARE, said that the first ships would come into the port Wednesday, each carrying 3,000 metric tons of food.

"We expect one ship every five days. This will mean a continuous stream of food coming in. We will be able to get to areas we haven't been able to reach," she said.

"More importantly," added Mr. Grant, "CARE will look to the distribution of the food," see that it goes directly to those who need it. In the past, it was given to local committees and distributed by Somalis, and much of it was stolen.

The more desperate areas are in and around the western towns of Baidoa and Bardera. The famine continues to rage there almost out of control, and the death rate remains in the hundreds per day. Considerable violence also has been reported in those regions recently as many gunmen from the capital have fled there to avoid the U.S. troops.

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