School in Somalia lives on hope OPERATION RESTORE HOPE

'PUT DOWN THE GUN, TAKE UP THE BOOK'

December 20, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Staff Writer

MOGADISHU, Somalia -- It must have been an impressive building at one time, with its graceful Moorish arches repeating themselves along the gleaming white facade, beneath the straight line of the roof. It was obviously a place where important work went on.

It still does. Within, there is now a school where children are rescued from the perverted idea of freedom that prevails today in Somalia.

Tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers plus all of the civilizing mechanisms that the United Nations can bring to bear over the years to come cannot do what those behind the wall will be called upon to do -- to re-create in Somalia a stable government and economy and a secure environment for the people here.

And they are only children, schoolchildren. In wrecked and blighted Somalia. How extraordinary.

The children understand the high mission imposed on them. The very name of the school suggests it and tells them where genuine freedom and power lie: "Put Down the Gun. Take up the Book. Search for Knowledge."

In English, the name of the school sounds awkward. When Deka Ismail, one of the oldest students, says it in Somali it sounds musical. She says she is 20. Her face and head are framed by a diaphanous, lavender "gaarbasir," a kind of veil. She has a mature and evident self-confidence.

She wants to know where Baltimore is. "Is it in Canada? That's North America? Are many Muslims there?"

All the children in this shell of a building, sitting on the floor in classrooms without light, without chairs or desks, scratching their lessons on the meanest copy books, chewing points on pencils, scurrying, damp-haired from rain, through the dark halls, all have this same self-assurance that Deka exudes.

Huge ambitions

They are normal by the standards of most countries. Aren't children always buoyant, loud and spontaneous? Not in Somalia. Here they are friendly, of course, but easily frightened, prepared always to dart away like little fish.

Deka says she is studying English, French, Italian and Arabic, plus accounting. "I hope to get work in my county," she says.

It is a huge ambition in this country where almost all regular employment is provided by the famine relief agencies. But she expects things to get better. The school was founded on that expectation by an organization with an equally awkward name, the United Somali Salvage Youth. That things will improve is kind of an article of their faith.

The teachers in the school work for no pay; they travel long distances through dangerous streets to do this work. None of the administrators gets paid, and the children are not charged for their lessons. It is a free-market school in that everything is done for free.

Barre Hassan Omar is a thin man in a blue shirt and with a sharp little dagger of a beard. He is the vice chairman of the school, which a small group of Somalian intellectuals started six months ago, at the worst stage of the cataclysmic famine. The children study in shifts, he says. The teachers come when they can.

Peace, not interference

How is the school protected? Has it ever been attacked by the gunmen on the streets outside?

It hasn't been attacked, he says, though the walls outside bear the marks of earlier weapons fire. It is protected the only way you can protect yourself in Somalia, by hired gunmen. Mr. Hassan acknowledges the apparent contradiction between the reality and the aspiration contained in the school's very name. He shrugs his stick-like shoulders. What can one do? One has to live to learn.

"Security is very discreet," he says. The children may see the contradiction, but most are worldly enough to reconcile it.

From the United States' intervention Mr. Hassan expects two things.

First, "We want the Americans to keep the peace and bring order back." But he adds, "We expect them not to interfere in our religion."

It is the second time within a half-hour the subject is raised. Deka also brought it up, and others before her. It suggests that there are certain things Somalis will never compromise on.

Second, Mr. Hassan says, "We would like desks, chairs, perhaps money for salary for our teachers. We want to enlarge the school. We would like to run it at night. We need power generators."

A primitive place

The school has no electricity. Its interior walls are splashed with fading blue paint. It is not clean; it has no rooms.

These Somalis know that the gap between their needs and their resources is almost unbridgeable. Still, they did close the gap a little when they won some assistance from the smallest relief agency here, German Caritas.

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