Many black U.S. soldiers feel special connection to Somalis

December 14, 1992|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

MOGADISHU, Somalia -- The soldiers were nervous. They had been in Somalia only a few days, and contact with residents had been fleeting -- more an exchange of curious glances.

But now they were going to get a chance for some face-to-face meetings with Somalis. It would be the first U.S. Marine patrol to march through a small slice of a northern Mogadishu neighborhood not far from the sea.

The soldiers didn't know what to expect. Many wondered if they were here to feed or fight the Somalis.

But within minutes, tension eased. Gangs of energetic Somalian kids lining the streets cheered the Marines on.

First Lt. Dave Hitt, leader of the eight-member patrol, had a special fascination for the youngsters. They mobbed him gleefully. He is black.

"I feel they are friendly to Marines, but sometimes I feel they look at me and say, 'That is one of my own,' " Lt. Hitt said at the end of the Saturday patrol.

"I get euphoria when I go on patrol and I can get among the people of my ancestors 300 years ago," said the 25-year-old officer from Bay Shore, N.Y.

Marine Lance Cpl. Keith Gwyn, 21, of Dallas, a member of Lt. Hitt's patrol, got a similar reception. Despite his youth, Cpl. Gwyn cuts a tall, fatherly figure. The kids were all over him and the M16 rifle he was carrying.

"It is different," he said. "People are real friendly.

"When I was out there and they were asking me questions, it felt good coming here to help these people. It felt good all over to help them, to help other people who do not have it as good as we do."

Gunnery Sgt. Franklin Reid, 35, of Richmond, Texas, had the experience of other black Marines. The local residents thought they were not U.S. soldiers but rather Somalian guides or at least soldiers from another African country.

"It seems that I am a novelty," Sgt. Reid said. "All the Africans ask me if I am from Somalia. I say, 'No, I'm from Texas.' They say, 'Is your mother from Somalia?' I say, 'No, we are all from Texas.'"

Cpl. Gwyn said he got the same reaction: "They were asking me if I was from America or part of Africa. They gave signs of joy, and they were smiling."

The street encounter by Lt. Hitt and Cpl. Gwyn with the neighborhood children is about the closest interaction so far between black U.S. Marines and Somalis.

When interviewed, Sgt. Reid was trying to protect the first Marine-escorted food convoy in Somalia from sniper fire. As the convoy was being unloaded in northern Mogadishu, gunmen had taken a few shots at a Marine helicopter hovering overhead.

Lt. Hitt had a special reason to hang onto the hands of small Somalian boys marching with him in the streets.

He became the father of a boy, his first child, while en route to Somalia as part of Operation Restore Hope.

This operation is Lt. Hitt's first trip to Africa. He feels proud that he and other black Marines can serve as an example to the Somalis.

"They need to see blacks who are doing well, who have stability among themselves," he said. "I would call on other black Americans to come out here and show these people how to run a government. We have people who can teach these people how to set up desalinization plants, corporations and businesses, how to run a city."

Although he has been in Somalia only a few days, Lt. Hitt showed a keen insight into its society.

"It is unfortunate these people are fighting one another," he said. "I just hope eventually that there will be some type of peace. We want to be a solution to the problem rather than relief. The solution is long-term. Relief is short-term. We feel as if they want us."

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