Marylander lends a hand in reviving Somalia

February 13, 1994|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,Sun Staff Writer

Looking through his photo album, Ed Johns sees the former beauty of Somalia -- the remains of Italian-style churches, stately government buildings and luxury hotels.

The 47-year-old Westminster man is working to restore some of that almost-forgotten beauty in the east African country as the leader of a United Nations effort to rebuild Somalia's four ports.

"Our job is to get the ports operating again and get them in the hands of the Somalis," said Mr. Johns, who has been home for the past two weeks visiting his wife, Donna. He returns to Somalia tomorrow.

A 23-year member of the Army Reserve, Mr. Johns arrived in Somalia in December 1992 as part of the U.S.-led relief effort. He served as a harbor master, or port captain, at Mogadishu, supervising the ship traffic that has been carrying food and supplies to Somalia. The country lost an estimated 300,000 people to famine and civil war in 1991 and 1992.

Last June, Mr. Johns was tapped by the U.N. Commission oTrade and Economic Development to lead a redevelopment project at the Mogadishu, Kismayu, Bossaso and Berbera ports. He is working for the United Nations as a civilian.

"When we first got here, the harbor was not functioning. The warlords were extorting money from the ships, and the market was empty," said Mr. Johns, referring to his arrival 14 months ago.

For the past seven months, he and his team have been working to bring business back to the Somalian ports. They have undertaken infrastructure repairs and purchased tugboats and navigation equipment. The project also has entailed hiring Somalis for such port positions as harbor master, longshoreman and tugboat pilot.

Gradually, he said, the harbors are coming back to life. Somalian businesses are beginning to use the ports again to export fruit and livestock, including sheep and goats.

Somalia is the biggest exporter of camels in the world, Mr. Johns said.

The U.N. rebuilding effort in Somalia has been particularly difficult, he said, because of extensive damage to the infrastructure.

"It was total anarchy, the rule of the gun," Mr. Johns said. "When you start to rehabilitate from that, it's like taking something up from the ashes."

Working around ports is nothing new for Mr. Johns, who grew up in Baltimore and worked for his father's business, Marva Marine Services, in the Baltimore port.

He started his port career as a pilot and business manager for the Port Welcome, and he worked as a port captain and pilot for Exxon in New York.

Before going to Somalia, he was a harbor master with the Army in Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf war.

Mr. Johns said that the United Nations' Somalian port project appealed to him because it was a chance to see a job through from start to finish.

"That's an exciting situation--creating something from nothing," he said.

The most encouraging aspect of the project has been the Somalian workers' willingness to cooperate with the port rehabilitation team, Mr. Johns said. The workers demonstrated their commitment to the port last June, after 24 Pakistani soldiers were slain in the first major attack against U.N. forces.

"It was the most incredible thing. The entire city of Mogadishu was in flames and there were 400 workers lined up ready to go to work," Mr. Johns said. "Everyone expected the seaport to close.

"If we could put the Somalis back to work, I think they'd stofighting."

There is uncertainty about what will happen to Somalia after March 31, when U.S. and most other Western U.N. troops are scheduled to pull out of the country. President Clinton set the deadline for withdrawal after 18 Americans were killed by Somalian militiamen in October.

"Everybody expects chaos, but I don't see it," Mr. Johns said. "The Somalis are tired of war."

The issue of personal safety is a constant concern for Mr. Johns and his co-workers.

When he travels outside the ports he wears a bulletproof vest and is accompanied by armed bodyguards, including a former Somalian policeman.

He was thankful for that protection when he became the target of highway bandits in August.

Mr. Johns, his chief engineer and two bodyguards were on their way to U.N. headquarters when four Somalian bandits ambushed their Toyota Land Cruiser outside a crowded market. The attackers fired at the vehicle from about 20 feet, but the bodyguards returned fire, killing two of the bandits and wounding one. The fourth escaped.

"It was a dandy little gunfight for about 20 seconds or so," said Mr. Johns, who said he thinks the attackers were after the car.

Since then, he has doubled his protection staff.

Mr. Johns said he will remain in Somalia for at least another yearHis team will begin work on the Bossaso and Berbera ports now that the Mogadishu and Kismayu ports are functioning.

He and his wife are planning to build a new house in Westminster, but he hasn't thought far beyond that.

"Hopefully, there will be another project," he said.

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