Black U.S. troops discover cultural link with Somalis

January 01, 1993|By Chicago Tribune

BAIDOA, Somalia -- For Somalis, especially children, there is something wondrous and kindred about the blacks among the troops that have come to their rescue.

"Somali! Somali! Somali!" they call out at the sight of black faces like their own mixed in with the mostly white faces of the U.S. troops.

Blacks serving in the U.S.-led United Nations forces feel a range of emotions from kinship and identification with African ancestry to sadness at the plight of the starving and fear of the gangs of clan gunmen.

Many of them say they are no strangers to hardship and racism at home and even in the military. But amid Somalia's agony, they feel a bit like African royalty.

"They look up to me for some reason. It makes me feel good," said Lance Cpl. Bradley Lewis, 20, of Marksville, La. "They call me 'Somali.'

"It's my first time in Africa. It's difficult, but I've already learned a few words," he says, reciting the Somali words for "Get back!" "Gather around" and "Thank you."

He smiled down at some of the children and added, "I'm learning. I'll get it down pat by the time I leave."

In Mogadishu, Marine Cpl. Darin Hollis, 25, of Jacksonville, Fla., was moved by the cultural connection he felt to a people who had received him like a brother.

"It's a special feeling," he said. "Living in America, I felt like I had it pretty rough, but since I came here, I found it's much worse. I can't define 'rough' compared to what these people live with.

"I get a kick out of this. The United States has a ways to go [to ensure racial equality], but it's still the greatest country in the world as far as opportunity goes."

At Mogadishu's Marine-held port, on guard duty outside a warehouse filled with sacks of food, Lance Cpl. Marcus Keene, 20, of Hampton, Va., expressed similar sentiments.

"I'm really pained to see that Somalis are fighting each other," he said, "And it reminds me of all the black Americans who fight each other in the States. It makes me wonder when all this chaos will end. But it also makes me appreciate all the people in the States who worked hard to get me an education. I'm really proud to be an American."

Arriving in Somalia last week, Marine Capt. Doug Anderson, 30, of Peoria, Ill., said, "The way I look at it, we're over here to do a job, and it doesn't make any difference if you're black, brown, red or green. For me, it wouldn't make a difference what color these people were. Anything the Marine Corps does is a worthy mission."

But Captain Anderson, correspondent for the on-base press at Camp Pendleton, Calif., acknowledged a thrill at being in Africa.

"It's my first time visiting the motherland," he said. "It's a unique experience. . . . Every black person should come here. It's something to tell your children about."

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