Baidoa, heart of suffering One-time resort city, now in chaos, awaits the Marines OPERATION RESTORE HOPE

December 15, 1992|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

BAIDOA, Somalia -- Twenty-three months after government troops sacked this town in their desperate quest to crush a tribal rebellion, the ravages of starvation can be seen everywhere.

In the eyes of the little girl in black rags who stood on a street corner yesterday, holding out an empty bowl.

In the silent rows of women and children, nomads who trekked in from the bush and now slump along the bomb-cracked earthen roads, some no more than stick figures, others with distended stomachs.

And at the Alamin compound, where 600 youngsters left orphaned by former President Mohamed Siad Barre's butchery listlessly studied the Koran, scarcely noticing U.S. fighter-jets buzzing in sorties above.

"It's OK here; I'm eating," said Ibrahim Issaq, a 16-year-old orphan who looked no more than 10, as he stood in a tattered brown shirt and blue sarong. "When they found me in my village two months ago, I was collapsing and dying. But here, I'm OK."

By all accounts, Baidoa, once a resort city on the edge of the bush, 120 miles northwest of Mogadishu, is the heart of suffering in Somalia, a country besieged by nearly two years of cruel clan warfare.

It was overrun twice in fierce gun battles between government forces and the rebels of the United Somali Congress who joined forces to topple Siad Barre's 21 years of rule.

Today, it is home to about 100,000 people, an estimated 60,000 of them refugees from the bush who fled the rebel wars for the city, where relief workers have set up centers to distribute food supplies.

Baidoa is also home to gangs of armed gunmen, former anti-government fighters who turned to hijacking relief shipments for cash sometime after the government collapsed.

Yesterday, there was an almost death-like silence in the city's sun-parched streets. Spiritless, bone-thin women and children lay in rags in the dust, their hair bearing the trademark red tints of malnutrition.

Beyond them lay the burned-out hulls of cars and tanks now spray painted with USC -- the symbol of the rebels who first fought to liberate the people, but later preyed upon them.

Truckloads of armed gunmen also patrolled past, searching for what relief officials described as their last chance for looting before the U.S. Marines arrive -- expected to be within 48 hours.

"The situation is not one of warfare, but it is chaos," said James Fennell, a British worker with the feeding agency CARE, one of the last still functioning in town. "There are periods of calm and then something will explode. Bandits shot and killed an ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] guard Wednesday."

Because of the attacks, only five workers were left at the CARE agency compound yesterday -- distributing the scarce food supplies that can reach the city from the port in Mogadishu.

Other agencies have all but closed up shop, awaiting the arrival of the Marines to make the streets safe for food convoys.

In the meantime, two Somali UNICEF workers managed to vaccinate 130 youngsters for measles in the feeding camps.

It was a drop in the bucket, said Dr. Said Muss Aden, UNICEF's project team director. He pointed to a freezer, powered by generator, where 15,000 doses of measles vaccine lay in a deep-freeze while most Western aid workers hid in their homes, dug in behind gates and guns and piles of sandbags.

"Our teams are ready to move, but the Marines are delayed and we are afraid that the bandits are in the bush," he said. "We think they will loot our cars. We have the vaccines here. We have the supplies here. We've got the volunteers. We are ready to move."

Ironically, the area around Baidoa is a lush, green pastureland where herdsmen, armed with AK-47s, graze their camels and packs of dogs run wild. Before the rebel wars ravaged their agriculture, the people lived in thatched huts and raised sorghum, some of which will be ready to harvest in two weeks.

"Our objective is to get the people through the next harvest. Then we think they will be self-sufficient," Mr. Fennell said.

The aid workers worry, however, that unless feeding convoys resume -- under the armed guard of the Marines -- more Somalis will simply die of starvation and disease.

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