Somali Civilians Reach Across Ethnic Clan Lines

Hunger and heavy shelling in capital city prompt sharing, sacrifice

AS a bewildering civil war in the Somali capital continues killing innocent bystanders, Somalis and Western relief workers are sacrificing to help save the lives of victims.Relief officials estimate between 1,000 and 3,000 people, mostly civilians, have died since heavy shelling broke out in mid-November between two rival Somali factions. Gen. Mohamed Farah Aidid, chairman of the rebel United Somali Congress (USC), is demanding the resignation of Somali President Ali Mahdi, who claimed leadership after the USC ousted longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in January. Most shops and outdoor markets are closed. Many tea stalls and sellers of khat, a popular narcotic chewed by Somalis, still operate. But people are running out of food stocks. Nonetheless many Somalis are opening their homes, and cupboards, to neighbors when a nearby house is destroyed by random shelling. Such quiet sharing often extends across the lines of warring ethnic clans. "There are a lot of cases where members of the Abgal clan help the Habre-Gedir [the two Somali clans fighting each other here] if they are neighbors," says Somali doctor Mohammed Dahir. One Abgal mother whose husband was killed in the shelling found herself stranded in a predominantly Habre-Gedir neighborhood of Mogadishu with her two children. "Lots of strangers cared for them night and day - not people from her [clan]," says Teresa Hinkle, a nurse working here with the International Medical Corps (IMC). In an interview during a break in Nairobi, Kenya, Ms. Hinkle, from Scottsdale, Ariz., explained her own willingness to risk working here: "The people are so giving and caring ... they deserve [help]." Sharing is part of Somali custom, says Mohammed Hussein, whose brother was injured recently in the war. "They help each other. When I'm starving, I go to my brother, and he helps me." Sometimes the task of helping the victims is a risky one. On Dec. 15, Belgian Red Cross worker Wim Van Boxelaere died as a result of a gunshot wound received here Dec. 11 as he was coming out of the Somali Red Cross office. His assailant may have thought whatever Van Boxelaere was carrying contained food - something people sometimes kill for in the growing anarchy here. Mohammed Ali Barre, a Somali "elder" (a term for respected community leader), who was accompanying Van Boxelaere, died Dec. 12 as a result of wounds from the same assailant. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Mr. Barre tried to block the attack on Van Boxelaere with his own body. While there are few examples of such heroic self-sacrifice, there are many less obvious ones. Dr. Abulkadir Elimi a pediatrician with S.O.S. village, an Austrian-based relief organization - the only foreign one to continue operating in Somalia throughout this year of sporadic violence. He has gotten all his family members but himself out of Mogadishu. Why does he stay? "I like to help my country," he says. He and most other Somali doctors and staff are unpaid, working only for food rations supplied by relief groups, including the ICRC. Other Western relief groups operating here now include Save the Children Fund (UK), and Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders). Willie Huber, Director of the S.O.S. village here, daily takes risks in driving through this city, where many people carry machine guns. Gangs with automatic weapons prey on civilians in their homes and often seize private vehicles not well guarded. In spite of all this, there are many pedestrians on the streets, except near the "no-man's land." But Mr. Huber periodically has to cross these several blocks of uninhabited and gunfire-damaged homes, where snipers occasionally hole up. Huber points to two types of damages here: physical - loss of lives, sickness among starving survivors - and moral, or the erosion of values. "Nobody respects religion any-more, or the elders, or the community life. The value of the people have totally been lost. It will take a lot of time and a lot of effort from everybody [to rebuild them]," he said, standing outside one of the overcrowded hospitals here. And Monitor interviews with a variety of Somalis here show a confusion over why there is fighting. "I don't know," says an old man visiting his bullet-wounded grandson in a hospital. "Two friends [the two Somali sub-clans fighting each other], acting like animals." He was referring to the fighting between soldiers on both sides, not the civilians who are cooperating across clan lines to help each other. "Maybe it's about policy, or something like that," says Mr. Hussein, during a visit to his wounded brother. "Really, I'm not a politician. I can't tell you exactly what's going on here."

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