Landing led to cutoff of major drug Some fear reaction of distraught users OPERATION RESTORE HOPE

December 13, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

MOGADISHU, Somalia -- One of the byproducts of the U.S Marine landing in Somalia last week has been the virtual end of khat flights from neighboring Kenya, where that popular drug is grown.

That has meant no fresh khat in Mogadishu, where its use is almost universal among the poor. Aid workers and Mogadishu's residents worry about what effect this will have on a dependent population.

"If the khat stops, the people may feel it is the work of the Americans," said Abdukadir Dore, a taxi driver who says he chews khat only a few days a year. "The people who they feel are responsible for this will be the enemy."

Does that mean they will retaliate against troops?

"No, they will not attack those who are stronger" than they are, Mr. Dore said, but they may take it out on other Western nationals, such as aid workers. "That is very possible."

On Thursday, the Black Sea Market was rife with rumors: Seven more flights were due. No, the Marines were stopping the flights. No, the khat merchants were looking for some other way to get their product to market.

"The flights will resume soon, yes?" implored one young khat chewer as he vainly searched for a fresh supply. "We must have it, you know. It will be very bad in Mogadishu if there is no khat soon."

Another woman chased a reporter through the market, thinking that he was some kind of khat inspector sent by the Marines.

A fibrous, bitter plant, khat has been the drug of choice around Africa's Horn for centuries.

A subtle stimulant, along the lines of the coca leaf, khat provides a slight buzz and a feeling of power and euphoria that quickly collapses into aching emptiness. To sustain the initial euphoria, users chew all day long, about a stem an hour, until they cannot concentrate without it.

"The [Somalis] say that if there was no khat, things would be much worse," said John Marks, head of the United Nations' relief operations in Baidoa, "because if they chew it, they feel happy for six hours, instead of being miserable all the time."

Mr. Marks, who has lived in Somalia, on and off, for eight years, said he had tried the drug and compared it to "drinking about six cups of espresso at once." The user wants to talk all the time, and even though he is high, his mind is clear.

It is common wisdom in Mogadishu that it is best to move about and transact business before late afternoon, when the khat chewers will be strung out from a day's chewing.

The drug lodges in various body organs and the brain. Although it is not technically addictive, its users nonetheless find themselves all but helpless in its sway.

The drug market, controlled by a handful of rich Mogadishu businessmen, has joined looted food as one of the linchpins of the Somalian economy since the government collapsed in February 1991.

Ian MacLeod, the chief U.N. spokesman in Mogadishu, said no one knew what might happen if the khat flights did not resume -- or if not enough khat could flow into the city to satisfy its craving.

"We know there have been very few khat flights for quite some time now," he said Thursday.

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