Boredom, illness, smugness may threaten troops


December 21, 1992|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Staff Writer

MOGADISHU, Somalia -- The quiet enemies of every army since the beginning of time exist in this forlorn place that Operation Restore Hope is supposed to rescue: boredom, disease and ambivalence.

Add to that a measure of complacency, and real danger may not be far behind.

Every day at sunrise, Marine Cpl. Randy Fowler jogs near the southern end of the runway in this city's sprawling airport complex despite persistent reports of random sniper fire in the immediate area.

About 60 miles away, Army Sgt. Rich Helms and his small security detail make almost daily visits to the town of Uanle Uen, where cheering crowds of children make him feel wanted, even though he's noticed more and more Somalis carrying automatic rifles.

Marine Lance Cpl. James Hipp, riding in a small military convoy through the mean streets of Mogadishu, almost forgets to mention an incident the other day when he and a Somalian gunman in a van were face to face aiming loaded M-16s at each other.

The silent standoff ended when Corporal Hipp waved the van away and it stole down a side street.

"My main concern was getting shot when I got off the plane, but now I don't see a threat," insists the corporal, a 26-year-old Dundalk native.

But Somalia is still a dangerous place.

Military patrols in several sections of Mogadishu and the countryside have reported seeing more and more gunmen out in the open, apparently convinced they will not be disarmed by the Americans.

The Somalian gunmen circulate on foot or ride in the back of pickup trucks. They have removed their weapons from the roofs of their vehicles since the arrival of U.S. troops but are not inhibited about displaying them openly.

"My gunners and cars are mostly outside the city, but they are not far from here," said Hassan, a lieutenant in the army of one Somalian warlord, Gen. Mohamed Farah Aidid.

Indeed, armed bandits from separate subclans, apparently loyal to General Aidid, still operate more than a dozen checkpoints along the narrow highway to

Uanle Uen, northwest of the city. They demand a toll payable in khat, the popular local narcotic weed, or money or other valuables. Unless, that is, the traveler himself is accompanied by well-armed protectors.

The ambivalence of the military mission here is evident at Bale Dogle airstrip near Uanle Uen. Soldiers politely ask Somalian visitors to check their rifles at the guard house. Ammunition is removed, a receipt is filled out and the weapons are held, but then it's all given back when the visitor leaves.

"I still get a little nervous and hold my weapon a little tighter," said Sgt. Rich Helms of the Army's 10th Mountain Division, who is based at the airstrip and has seen more armed Somalis in the area in recent days. But he said he was under orders not to appear threatening to the Somalis, even those with guns.

Corporal Fowler of the Marines said his superiors have made clear that "we're not here to take on local forces and decide which warlord wins. This is a humanitarian mission, like Toys for Tots."

The soldiers and Marines who are settling into their foxholes and routine security details are convinced they will not have to fight anyone.

Yet many of the several dozen troops who were interviewed here and elsewhere in Somalia were struggling to reconcile the expressed reason for being here -- to safeguard the delivery of relief supplies to Somalia's sick and starving people -- with all the overt trappings of a full-scale combat mission.

For the most part, they are taking the strictest of security precautions, in some cases arming themselves with far more sophisticated weaponry than needed to counter an irregular force of rifle-toting thieves and extortionists.

But many are also taking literally what President Bush and their senior officers are saying -- that their mission is a humane, peaceful one -- so these troops seem all too willing to believe they will not get hurt.

"This is a cakewalk," said Corporal Fowler, a tough-talking Cockeysville native who saw action against the Iraqi Republican Guard in Kuwait during the gulf war. "There's always a chance of running into sniper fire, but these rebels are not well-trained. They're a pretty ragtag bunch, too busy fighting each other to play hardball with us."

Another leatherneck from Maryland, Lance Cpl. Michael Jones of Woodlawn, said he and others were told before their Dec. 9 amphibious landing at the airport not to worry too much about the Somalis they encounter.

"Our briefer told us there are a lot of friendlies in the area, that most of the hostiles have moved up north," he recalled. "He said, 'Don't automatically judge them to be hostile.' "

Yet these Marines and Air Force personnel here have encountered a potential for greater danger. They have been menaced routinely at their airport encampment and in the city by children carrying knives and throwing stones and, according to senior officials, by daily sniper fire.

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