Confusion for U.S. in Somalia: Is a hospital healing victims or hiding soldiers?

October 17, 1993|By New York Times News Service

MOGADISHU, Somalia -- Halima Farrah Mohamed, a 38-year-old police officer who has worked with the United Nations mission here, was walking home on a Sunday afternoon when she heard the thumping sound of approaching helicopters.

At first she stared, she said, then started running when gunfire tore through the sky and hit the houses around her. Her thought was to race first to her blind elderly father's house to make sure that he was indoors, then next door to her own house to tell her four children to stay under cover.

But as she --ed down the street, a rocket hit a tree, and a piece of shrapnel punctured her stomach, intestines and liver.

For 15 hours, she lay hidden in a house with a sheet clenched to her stomach as U.S. soldiers battled Somalian forces loyal to Gen. Mohamed Farrah Aidid, the fugitive faction leader who is also her clansman.

Like most people in the neighborhood, Mrs. Farrah is a member of General Aidid's subclan and would thus generally be assumed to be an Aidid supporter. But her role is far more complex, and she is struggling to sort out her feelings as she recovers slowly from the wounds she suffered in the U.S. raid on General Aidid's forces on Oct. 3.

"We loved the Americans before," said Mrs. Farrah, her brow furrowed in pain as she lay on a worn mattress in a hospital in Mogadishu. "We welcomed them with flowers."

"But look at what the soldiers have done," she added bitterly. "I have such anger."

Mrs. Farrah, a career police officer, is especially bitter because she had been working since May in a police training program that is promoted by the United Nations as a cornerstone for building peace in Mogadishu.

Her role illustrates the difficulty of isolating General Aidid's subclan as a force that is uniformly antagonistic to the U.N. operation in Somalia.

Like many people in the Somalian capital, Mrs. Farrah is weary of more than three years of clan warfare and still clings to the hope of peace.

Toughened by a famine, violence and the loss of her husband and her brother in the civil war, she must now deal with the deaths of friends and the destruction of her house, which lay in the heart of General Aidid's territory.

In an interview, she seesawed between condemning the U.S. forces and expressing shame over the treatment of American corpses retrieved by the Somalis after the raid.

Eighteen U.S. servicemen and an undetermined number of Somalis -- estimated to be in the hundreds -- were killed in the battle.

"I hate the soldiers but not the people of America," Mrs. Farrah said. "Even though I know Americans destroyed our houses, we have to respect the dead. It was wrong -- inhuman -- to drag the bodies through the streets."

The fighting on Oct. 3 was so intense that she could not be moved to a hospital. Pinned down like the U.S. soldiers in her own neighborhood, she could only watch as rockets destroyed her house and gunfire from her street downed an American helicopter.

After the fighting ended, it took hours to find a car. She was turned away from the first hospital she was taken to because there were no doctors. Finally, about 48 hours after the battle, Mrs. Farrah was treated for her wounds at Digfer Hospital.

Yesterday, nearly two weeks after the fighting, Digfer Hospital, one of two functioning Somalian hospitals in the capital, was still full of casualties.

The International Committee of the Red Cross estimated that more than 750 Somalis were wounded in the battle, but the count of Somalian dead has fluctuated, though the Red Cross and a U.S. military official said it ranged between 200 and 300.

Nowhere is the political complexity or the tragedy of Mogadishu more apparent than in Digfer Hospital. Apart from U.N. facilities, only one other hospital, Benadir Hospital, is functioning, and it has a much smaller capacity and staff.

Red Cross officials say that Digfer Hospital is worse off now than it has been at any point in the civil war. The water systems need overhauling, the sewage system rarely works and the power generator allows operations to be performed only a few hours a day. At times, patients have to bring their own beds.

Since June, the United Nations has considered Digfer Hospital, in the heart of General Aidid's territory, to be a hide-out for members of his militia. During a ground attack against General Aidid's forces on June 17, U.N. troops fired rockets into the hospital after they were fired upon from the building.

U.N. and U.S. officials say that the hospital director, Dr. Mohammad Ali Fuje, is a staunch supporter of General Aidid. In August, the United Nations dropped leaflets telling patients and doctors to stay away from the hospital.

In the guerrilla war, it is often impossible to tell the difference between combatants and civilians. Patients often have guns with them for protection against roving bandits.

Meant to house about 500 patients, Digfer was built by the Italians in the early 1960s and was renovated by the Japanese government in 1990, three months before the civil war broke out between Somalia's dictator, Mohammad Siad Barre, and Somalian clans.

Within two years, the four-story hospital was looted of everything from beds to electrocardiogram equipment. But it still functioned, with 2,000 patients piled into wards and hallways at its peak of operations.

Many doctors have left the country. Of 70 doctors in 1991, only 25 remain, Dr. Fuje said.

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