BARDERA, SOMALIA — IMPROVED security due to the presence of foreign troops is having a ripple effect in and around Somali towns such as this one.
Now that roads have been de-mined by the United States Marines, and looters chased away, truck convoys of relief food are again able to branch out from Bardera to tens of thousands of villagers.
"Now that we have an element of security, we're able to move food out to 35 or 40 villages, for 40,000 to 50,000 people every week" in the Bardera area, says Earl Goodyear, an official with CARE.
The food and seed deliveries to the villages, in turn, have made it possible for farmers to tend their fields. Within the next few weeks, a healthy crop of sorghum will be ready for harvest.
Similar progress has been felt in and around Baidoa, the other major feeding center in this region which has been severely affected by heavily armed looters and famine, according to Somali and Western relief officials.
Relief agencies such as Save the Children, CARE, and Catholic Relief Services (CRS) are planning to buy part of the incoming crop, partly to help offset the low market value the harvested grain will have against the glut of relief food, and partly to distribute more seeds to farmers for the next planting season, which begins in March.
It is an invigorating prospect for farmers such as Aden Abullai, who fled his fields in October when fighting broke out, again.
"This land was farmed by our grandfathers," says Mr. Aden, looking out over a stretch of fertile land on the banks of the broad and muddy Juba River. He and about 80 other farmers with land along the river hope to plant soon.
The improved security here, and in the other seven towns and cities the US-led troops have occupied, however, is fragile.
These signs of progress could evaporate quickly if the security deteriorates again here and elsewhere in Somalia, says Bob Allen, an Australian Army medic now running the CARE program in Bardera.
"Maybe we'd go back to square one with more fighting," he says, in one of his rare moments of relaxing, on the open front porch of the house that serves as the CARE office.
The recent round of preliminary peace talks among Somali factions in Addis Abba, Ethiopia, were inconclusive. Though tentative plans were made for resumption of talks in mid-March, there was disagreement over who should attend or what the agenda would include.
Resistance to the US-led forces has been more evident as the troops have begun seizing arms caches in the city. The first US Marine was killed Tuesday in fighting in Mogadishu with armed Somalis, and a Navy corpsman on patrol Wednesday with Marines was wounded.
Many Somalis and relief officials worry that when the US Marines leave, the United Nations will be unable to maintain the security that has been established.
Bardera, a Muslim pilgrimage site populated mostly by the pastoral Rahanweyn clan, has seen its share of violence in the past two years, since the January 1991 downfall of Somali dictator Maj. Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre.
The town has been a battle ground for rival clans and warlords. United Somali Congress forces, under the leadership of Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed, occupied Bardera in April 1992. They were driven out in October by forces under the command of Gen. Ahmed Warsame.
Since then Bardera has been relatively calm, though food looting continued in the town until the Marines and some French troops arrived late last month.
Many people, especially children, still suffer from various tropical diseases, says Stephanie Brown, a nurse here with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a private US relief agency.
The relief agency Oxfam has set up a large water filtering system next to the river to help purify drinking water.
Many buildings here have been shattered by fighting. About 15,000 displaced Somalis have flooded this town, whose normal population is around 22,000.
"Our country has been destroyed by the generals," says Egal Abdi Mohamed, a 1990 graduate in English and history from the now-closed Somali National University in Mogadishu. He and a small group of educated Somalis have returned to this town to try to help rebuild it.
Working through the Somali Intellectual Association, a national organization, they are working with a local Somali relief agency to raise international funds to help farmers and start a local kindergarten.