Lone relief worker in 'badlands' town fears 'technicals' will outwait U.S. military OPERATION RESTORE HOPE

December 11, 1992|By Richard H.P. Sia | Richard H.P. Sia,Staff Writer

WAAJID, Somalia -- The Marines haven't been anywhere nea this place in the middle of the Somali badlands.

If they come, the only relief worker left here says, they'd better be ready to stay a long time. Otherwise, the terrorism and violence that have hindered the feeding of 33,000 starving Somalis around here will resume when the "technicals" resurface.

As he supervised the unloading of wheat and diesel fuel from a German air force cargo plane here yesterday, Hugh Swift of the Irish agency World Concern recounted how increasing members the marauding gunmen have been arriving this week to escape U.S. forces in the Somali capital, Mogadishu.

One of them tried to break into his house Wednesday night, he said, the same day U.S. forces were engaged in what looked like a televised love fest with Somalis in Mogadishu.

"Someone was just shooting and shooting," he said. The attack ended just as abruptly as it began.

Mr. Swift seems astonishingly young and brave. He is only 23 years old. His ruddy cheeks have been burned a deeper red by the relentless Somalian sun.

He is the only relief worker left here permanently. The other United Nations and Western relief organizations have abandoned this town 55 miles northwest of Baidoa. A U.S. military official who monitors the situation from Kenya calls this area the "real badlands" of southern Somalia.

Workers from CARE and the French group Medecins Sans Frontieres left this week, believing correctly that the U.S. assault on Mogadishu Wednesday would heighten the danger in more distant areas such as Waajid.

Besides Mr. Swift, a volunteer for the U.N. World Food Program still works in Waajid, although he divides his time between here ++ and Baidoa, where he is now staying.

The U.N. program still arranges deliveries of food and supplies to the frontier town, often through a German air force transport wing in Mombasa, Kenya.

Lately, the road through this village, which is the route from Mogadishu to Ethiopia, has become much more heavily traveled than usual. Waajid is the last town on the main road from Baidoa to the Ethiopian border. It is the logical way station for the armed bandits seeking to hide in Somalia or to get to Ethiopia to cool their heels for a while.

But something unusual for the badlands has happened here. In a way that's reminiscent of the Old West a sort of village council has emerged to make sure the vagabond gunslingers don't stay in town.

The good citizens of Waajid, utterly dependent on relief supplies, apparently have dared to order the thugs to keep moving.

"A lot have been told to get on their bikes and vehicles and leave for Ethiopia," Mr. Swift said. "The council of the town has been looking after us. We've built a 10-year program here. If we leave, we're not coming back."

Yet, Mr. Swift predicted that enough of the armed youths who ride around in trucks, will be able to lie low until U.S. forces withdraw from Somalia.

"Well, the Americans are going by the end of January," he said, referring to the Jan. 20 Inauguration Day deadline the Bush administration had been hoping to keep.

When might Operation Restore Hope reach this remote place?

"I don't have a clue if they are coming to Waajid," Mr. Swift said. "I haven't been informed. But if they do, it probably wouldn't make any difference."

Mr. Swift said he understood that the U.S. military plan called for troops and helicopters to move inland to secure major food distribution centers such as Baidoa and, possibly, to disarm the warring Somali factions and the free-lance gunmen who owe allegiance to no one.

"If they want to do this, they need to go right up as far as the Ethiopian border," Mr. Swift said. "But then again, you know yourself, if you're in your own country and a foreign power tries to invade, it's extremely easy to go to ground, especially when you talk about someplace like Somalia."

Steering clear of U.S. troops "is the safest thing to do," he said. "If they actually start an engagement with Americans, they're going to lose. If they go to ground, the Americans will find out there'll be no one to fight. It's already happened in Mogadishu."

The young Irishman seems an unlikely boss here, surrounded by dozens of laborers he supervises in unloading the German cargo plane. He is also helped by about a dozen of his own armed guards carrying AK-47 automatic weapons.

He doesn't believe the gunmen will disarm voluntarily. "They probably say 'yeah,' then probably say 'no,' " he said, laughing loudly.

He said cheerfully that life in Waajid has become "very stable" despite the nighttime violence and the fact that "most people [technicals] here are strung out on drugs."

And he has his own dreams for the place.

With the help of townspeople, the popular and influential town council and the small militia Mr. Swift employs to ride shotgun on trucks filled with food sacks, as many as 18,000 hungry residents of Waajid usually have something to eat. Altogether, 33,000 Somalis in 44 villages are being helped in this area.

The young Irishman here in the middle of nowhere talks excitedly about organizing several dozen men for a road-building program. "I got 170 men to clean up the runway yesterday," he said. He even talks about opening the area's first orphanage.

But in his daily existence Hugh Swift walks a tightrope between unpredictable periods of violence and order. And he has no illusions.

During a heavy downpour at the barren airstrip here yesterday, some of Mr. Swift's hired guns demanded money from a visitor. But they were content to receive a bottle of water.

"I wouldn't take their picture," Mr. Swift warned.

"They'll say it's OK and ask for money, then say it isn't, then blow your head off."

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