Many are wary of encroachment by outsiders OPERATION RESTORE HOPE


December 13, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Staff Writer

MOGADISHU, Somalia -- What could go wrong? What migh undermine Operation Restore Hope and undo the rescue of Somalia from a famine more disastrous than any other to hit the Horn of Africa in this century?

The sense of benign purpose that drove the United States to commit itself to this place is still strong. But among people closer to the scene -- far removed from the air-conditioned military planning rooms where can-do optimism usually prevails -- the questions are a little more urgent, the expectations a little darker.

L It is apparent to them that very much indeed could go wrong.

The operation has been in effect less than a week, and it is at least apparent that the great majority of Somalis are happy the Americans have come.

They wanted security from the gunmen that kept the civil population in a state of perpetual fear; they wanted the starving fed.

But there is an ambivalence about the whole thing, a fear of another encroachment by a superpower whose motives are not immediately discernible and may even be sinister.

Such fear is probably part of the legacy of the Somalis, bred in the historical bone. They have been colonized and occupied by a succession of European countries; then came the Russians, followed by the Americans. Most of the weaponry that has brought all the grief to Somalia was left behind by the Soviets and Americans.

So it is unsurprising that a child of 9, when asked what he thought of the arrival of the Americans, should respond, almost like a robot, "We don't want colonization!"

Who coaches a child into such a response? How deep does this suspicion go? How far does it run through the population?

No one can say, but it pops up unexpectedly now and then. Hussein Hassan, for instance, says he, too, thinks it is good the troops are here. He seems to accept that famine relief must be given the top priority.

But then he asks, quite aggressively, "Who invited you to come here? Who invited this intervention?"

The question can't be answered without embarrassment. Nobody did, of course. There's nobody in charge to do the inviting. So what is under way is, in fact, an invasion by tacit acquiescence.

RTC Mr. Hassan sees trouble ahead, saying, "There are problems coming. Social problems. Religious problems."

The prospect for the latter in particular has been raised by more than one Somali in the past few days.

Aggressive Islamic fundamentalism has never flourished in Somalia. It is a Muslim country, but not intensely religious. Few minarets pierce the low, white skyline of Mogadishu. But fundamentalism is growing, as it often does in times of stress in the Islamic world, as it did in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation.

The United States has already had enough painful experiences with resurgent Islam, particularly in Lebanon, not to be aware how easily aroused and dangerous it can be.

The fundamentalists are said to be particularly strong in Merca, down the coast from here. They gather under the flag of Itahad Islami, and several Somalis, in addition to Mr. Hassan, expect them to make much of the fact that the military coalition is dominated by predominantly Christian nations.

The "social problems" Mr. Hassan expects could come in many forms, and they could easily develop from clashes between the multinational forces and the locals.

When members of the French Foreign Legion -- and apparently U.S. Marines -- opened fire on a vehicle that ran one of its roadblocks Thursday, word of the incident swept through Mogadishu like a wind. Sporadic shooting was heard most of the night.

It was the first night like that since the arrival of the troops Wednesday when, for the first time in months, the nights passed without the sound of weapons fire.

The Somalis are a volatile people. The current situation has weakened the general willingness of people to accommodate one to the other. There is a dangerous social brittleness.

To say this is not to be patronizing, but descriptive of them. In crowds, fights break out, and there are always a lot of crowds. Lives are lost. A few more incidents like Thursday night's, with a panicked soldier or Marine frightened by the crowds surging around him, and the deliverers might soon be looked upon as something quite different.

If that happens, and the sense of consent in their own rescue is withdrawn by the Somalis, the whole project could be endangered.

It is for this reason, no doubt, that the Americans have been moving so routinely, especially in the confiscation of weapons.

Marine Maj. Steve Little, interviewed at the international airport, said the coalition had not yet worked out a policy for disarming the people. "This is still not settled," he said. Marine Lt. Gen. Robert B. Johnston, commander of the U.S.-led forces, told the relief agencies at the end of the week they could keep their weapons until the coalition finally decided on a strategy to separate the Somalis from their guns without provoking too much hostility.

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