A Test in Somalia

SOMALIA is no less a test of the new world order than is Yugoslavia. The tragedy of hundreds of thousands of starving women and children, trapped by civil war and drought, demands the world's quick response.

That response is finally coming. United Nations efforts to negotiate protection for aid shipments have had some success, the flow of food is picking up, and the United States has significantly increased its commitment to fly in relief supplies.

Looking back, one can ask why it wasn't all begun months ago. Warnings of disaster in Somalia were sounded last December as the toll from clan warfare, combined with drought, was becoming apparent. But Somalia, once the scene of superpower competition, had slipped off the world's agenda. Its confused, squabbling state following the defeat of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in January of 1991 left no one in control.

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The northern part of the country splintered off to form its own republic, which has failed to win international recognition. The capital, Mogadishu, became the focus of battle between rival warlords, notably Mohamed Farah Aidid and Mohamed Ali Mahdi. The Red Cross and other private agencies ministered to the hungry and sick as best they could as UN diplomacy brought about a shaky cease-fire. But aid for Somalia's people remained largely blocked by the threat of attack and looting.

The UN's recent agreement with General Aidid to allow 500 blue-beret guards into Mogadishu to safeguard aid disbursement was a breakthrough. Their arrival will provide a measure of security for relief operations. The US commitment to fly in 145,000 tons of food through staging areas in Kenya is heartening. The French are gearing up to participate too.

Some have argued that large-scale food transport has to await stronger security arrangements. But Somalia's hungry can't wait. As much food as possible needs to be distributed using every means available - Somali as well as international relief agencies, other ports in addition to war-ravaged Mogadishu, the network of merchants and private markets, direct flights to outlying towns and cities where much of the hunger is centered.

Above all, the US, other Western powers, and countries closer by - such as wealthy, fellow Muslim lands like Saudi Arabia - have to pool resources and mount a well-coordinated campaign of relief, complete with support for enhanced UN forces and a push toward a negotiated settlement within Somalia. This test of moral commitment in the face of tremendous suffering must be passed.

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