Somalia's Selfless Heroes of Relief

Aid workers, many of whom could have fled the fighting, stayed on to help

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THEY stayed when others ran. They braved shelling and machine-gun fire to save lives.

They are Somali relief workers who, during nearly two years of civil war and anarchy, have struggled to help the wounded, the starving, the homeless.

They get little publicity and little pay. For example, some Somali nurses working in Baidoa - the heart of the famine area - are "paid" only two plates of rice a day for 11 hours' work.

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Yet relief workers here are what both a Somali analyst and a United Nations official call the unsung heroes of this country's tragedy. For example:

* Miriam Mohammed, a Somali nurse, returned from studies in India shortly after rebels ousted Somali dictator Maj. Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre in January 1991. She says she came back to help her people. One day, through a daring rescue under heavy shelling, she also saved the life of her husband.

* Hussein Iman, a Somali agricultural expert, made some ambulance rescues, too, as well as helping farmers start over after the worst of the fighting.

* At the S.O.S. Children's Village, a European charity, Somali doctors operated on the wounded during barrages of gunfire that ripped through the walls of a makeshift hospital in January 1991.

Western relief workers have also worked long hours and done their share of service during battles.

Willie Huber, the director of the S.O.S. village, was one of only a few Western relief workers who stayed in Somalia during the height of the fighting in January 1991.

American nurse Teresa Hinkle was in Mogadishu for much of the heavy shelling between rival factions from November 1991 to March of this year, working for the International Medical Corps. She is still in Somalia.

In addition to being brave, it is often the loving touch, the smile, the caring, that make a relief worker effective.

"Even love and affection are enough," says Jacqueline Merne, an Irish nurse working for Goal. She has just stooped to comfort an emaciated Somali boy lying on a mat on the floor of an old house that has been converted into a crude hospital in the southern coastal town of Merca.

Flinging her skirts to momentarily chase flies away from another child on a mat, she then playfully pinches a girl who is gesturing feebly to see nurse Merne's earrings. Taking off an earring, the nurse hands it to the girl, who slowly lifts it to her own ear and smiles weakly before releasing it.

When nurse Hinkle works in Baidoa, she says: "I walk out of the casualty department and I have 30 kids around me. All they want is to be touched."

Some Western relief workers have been in Somalia more than a year. Many have come more recently and, like the Irish nurse, plan to stay only a few months. But Somali relief workers stay on and on, sometimes even when they have a chance to get out of the country.

Somali workers are not all angels. Several Western relief officials allege that some Somali staff members divert relief food for themselves and their families.

For the most part, however, Somali workers are the backbone of the relief effort under way in this troubled country.

"For the first time in history, a whole nation is being kept afloat not by government, not by politicians, but by relief workers," said former actress Audrey Hepburn, after touring parts of Somalia recently as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF.

A United Nations official, responding to criticism over the evacuation of non-Somali UN personnel from the country during most of 1991 because of the danger, notes that "Our local staffs stayed."

Rakiya Omaar, a Somali who is executive director of the Washington-based human rights organization Africa Watch, says the most effective Western relief officials in her country are "The ones who rely on Somalis' working with them."

Defying family advice, Miriam Mohammed returned to Somalia in early 1991 from studies abroad.

Once back, she watched many of her fellow Somali nurses and doctors flee the country as the fighting intensified. Her family, by then in Canada, urged her to leave, too.

She refused.

"When I saw the Somalis who were suffering, and nurses and doctors had fled away, I stayed to help. If I go out, who will help?" she said recently at a UNICEF feeding center here for malnourished children, where she works now. "There are not many qualified [Somali] nurses," she says. "I'm glad I'm here. I have seven children. If you have children, you can feel as if they [the children at the feeding center] are your children."

At one point, during heavy shelling, her husband was trapped and wounded in a village. Learning of this, she borrowed a vehicle and drove into the area. Despite the shelling, she managed to rescue her husband and then nursed him back to health.

After returning to Somalia in 1986 from graduate studies in California, Hussein Iman became a senior official in the Ministry of Agriculture. After rebels took power and factional warfare broke out, he could have left but chose to stay.

With several other Somalis, Mr. Iman started a private development organization to help farmers get back on their feet. In Afgoi, south of Mogadishu, the organization surveyed the condition of wells and pumps and helped attract some foreign funds to repair them after the looting and neglect of the civil war.

"I was sleeping by the wells, without shelter, surviving on camel's milk," he recalled recently during a trip to Merca. People needed wells for their farms and for drinking water, he said.

Today, Iman works for Oxfam, a relief and development organization trying to help farmers here by providing seeds and tools.

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