After Dictator's Ouster, Somalis Face Hunger

SOMALIA'S two-year war against its dictator is over. But another war is just beginning - against the threat of famine. Efforts by Somali rebel groups to oust dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, who ruled for 21 years, ended Jan. 27 with his flight from this badly damaged capital. Now, as the thousands who fled the final month-long battle return, they are encountering looted homes, shops - and hunger.

The interim government, chosen by the United Somali Congress (USC), has issued an urgent appeal for help. But international relief officials, who were evacuated from the country during the war, say they are waiting to see if the new government can guarantee the safety and stability needed to renew aid efforts.

The USC has yet to obtain recognition from the other two major rebel groups. Unconfirmed reports from Somalis last weekend said that fighting had broken out between the USC and the Somalia Patriotic Movement about 19 miles from Mogadishu. The Standard on Sunday, a Kenyan newspaper, estimated that 110 people were killed in the clashes.

Although some firing of guns into the air can still be heard in Mogadishu, the capital is returning to relative calm. Buses and trucks are operating, some shops have reopened, and large numbers of people, including many men with automatic weapons in hand, walk along the streets or sip tea at roadside stalls.

But reports from the interior indicate the country is still not stable, says Michael Gerber, director of the relief organization office here, African Medical and Research Foundation. The Somali National Movement, the second of the three main rebel groups, recently claimed to have captured several northern towns from remnants of Mr. Barre's Army.

But hunger is growing, say Somali and international relief officials.

AT the only hospital still functioning here, a makeshift facility run by the international charity SOS, director Wilhelm Huber explains what he is seeing.

``A lot of undernourished children are pouring into the hospital. This morning it was 50, and out of this, 28 really acute cases, nearly dead. I'm sure tomorrow there will be a lot more. And maybe in a week we are talking about thousands of children. They are starving.''

Lack of diesel fuel to run water pumps has left many people dehydrated, Mr. Huber adds.

Muktar Sheikh Ali, a nurse at the SOS hospital, said, ``there's not enough to eat, especially the last two weeks. In 24 hours, I had one meal - just rice, and some lime juice with sugar.''

Some looters are now stealing from other looters, Huber says. ``I've even seen children shot for a packet of cigarettes,'' and earlier, ``they looted even food stores with grenades.''

The economy here is shattered, so most people have little money to buy the few items being sold again in outdoor markets. While Somali families waited outside the capital for the fighting to end, most of their homes were looted for food and other items.

Somalis such as clothing shop owner Ooto Ikar returned to find their businesses looted as well.

``God willing, we'll open again,'' she said. ``We're just trying to survive.''

Before the battle for Mogadishu, international relief officials working in Somalia estimated that as many as 1 million people in various parts of the country faced the threat of starvation, many of them in the capital.

UNICEF roughly estimates that 500,000 children may need emergency food and/or shelter and that as many as half Somalia's 8.5 million people may need some kind of relief. The group also estimates that between 1 million and 1.8 million people are homeless throughout the country because of the war.

Somalia's interim President Ali Mahdi Mohamed says the crisis is nationwide. ``We appeal to all friendly countries and nongovernmental organizations to fully support us on humanitarian grounds. Mainly what we need is food, fuel, medicine, transportation, tents.''

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