As strife in Somalia goes on, aid workers are turning elsewhere

August 20, 1994|By Boston Globe

MOGADISHU, Somalia -- As a $3 billion humanitarian mission winds down, Somalia is sliding into anarchy again. Looters descend unchecked over relief shipments. Armed teen-agers hijack food convoys. Aid workers move in armed trucks to avoid being kidnapped.

In short, the country appears to be caught up in the same spiral that earlier led to starvation, media attention and, ultimately, the intervention of 24,000 U.S. troops.

This time, few seem to care.

Relief agencies are leaving and, in some cases, diverting resources to Rwanda. Donor countries are balking at commitments beyond this year. The United Nations is expected to announce shortly a significant reduction in its 18,750-man peacekeeping force.

"We are worried; Somalia is no longer an international hot spot," said M. N. Gutale, president of the Somali Chamber of Commerce. "Now people are looking at Rwanda, but there is still no solution here."

As the spotlight fades, Somalia looms over other crises as a bitter lesson in the limitations of humanitarian intervention. It is also a reminder of how quickly the world can forget, particularly when the recipient nation appears unresponsive, ungrateful and hostile.

With other African countries such as Burundi, Zaire and even Nigeria on the verge of crises, many observers say the best humanitarian strategy is to save as many lives as possible without engaging in costly, difficult and ineffective attempts at nation-building.

"That is the lesson of Somalia," a high-ranking official in the United Nation's Somalia mission said. "What we have learned is that you cannot stop the tide of tribalism. The only thing you can do is contain it and try not to let it get out of hand."

U.N. officials have been trying to highlight the operation's successes amid rising criticism. If there is any consensus, it is that up to now the humanitarian goals of the mission have largely been met.

In Baidoa, once known as the "City of Death" because more than 300 people, most of them children, died each day of starvation and disease, feeding centers have closed down and remaining relief agencies such as CARE and Catholic Relief Services operate in relative calm.

"People are pretty happy the way things are going here," said Maxine Atkinson, CARE's logistics officer in Baidoa. "People are starting to be able to take control of things themselves."

Some observers said that in order to properly evaluate Somalia, one must analyze the country on two levels: the situation outside Mogadishu and that in the capital city.

However, foreigners are still unable to travel throughout the country without bodyguards. Fighting between the 16 clans and subclans jostling for power and territory is so widespread that shots and even mortar rounds sometimes land within the U.N. compound.

Recent incidents underscore the security situation:

Two weeks ago, at a U.N. outpost, a battalion of 168 peacekeepers from Zimbabwe was taken hostage by members of the Somali National Alliance, the political wing of Gen. Mohamed Farah Aidid's subclan, the Habr Gidir.

The militia released the hostages but kept the equipment: light machine guns, mortars, ammunition, computers, other office equipment and five American pickups, all worth an estimated $2.2 million.

Looting at the Mogadishu seaport, the receiving point for roughly 80 percent of relief supplies, became so rampant last month that between 80 and 100 looters breeched an internal container wall strung with razor wire and overcame club-wielding dock workers to reach a ship containing 180 tons of flour, maize and corn oil, and salt.

U.N. efforts to assemble a national government in Somalia remain at a standstill. The situation is polarized by the country's two most powerful figures: General Aidid and Ali Mahdi Mohamed, who heads a clan coalition known as the Group of 12.

"The Somalis have been given a golden opportunity to put together a government, and they basically have wasted that chance," said Daniel Simpson, the new U.S. ambassador, who has met three times with General Aidid. "They've taken our presence as just an opportunity to continue arguing amongst themselves."

U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali said yesterday that the United Nations would have to reconsider its Somalia operation if rival factions fail to make progress toward reconciliation by the end of next month. He proposed reducing ** the U.N. force by 1,500 troops immediately and then trimming it to 15,000 as soon as possible.

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