BARDERA, SOMALIA — CHILDREN splash in the muddy Juba River, whose waters irrigate vital farmlands along its banks in this southern Somalia town.
Beside the dusty main road, small stalls have sprung up in recent months to sell food, soap, and tools.
A school building reopened earlier this month; others operate under trees, attracting crowds of eager young students without books.
This tranquil picture, however, belies a tension below the surface.
Most United States and Western United Nations troops will depart this war-torn nation by March 31; all UN troops are scheduled to depart Somalia in the first half of 1995.
Yet Somalia's political structure is far from being rebuilt, and many fear war could easily erupt again without these outside forces.
Thousands of people uprooted by famine and heavy fighting in 1991 and 1992, who have returned to this southern town, are already hungry, desperate, and living in simple stick huts.
``My message to the UN: Don't pull out of Somalia, or it will become the same as it was before,'' says Kadro Abdi, a Somali health worker here in Bardera.
At a UN-brokered peace conference last year, Somali militia and others leaders agreed to form a system of district councils, or local governments, leading to regional councils and a national council.
So far, with UN assistance, 54 of a targeted 66 district councils plus a number of regional councils have been formed, according to the UN.
``[The councils] are fulfilling their function; some are waiting for more assistance [from the UN], and assistance is limited; some are gridlocked [by] the local political process,'' says Ken Menkhaus, a UN political officer and political science teacher at Davidson College, in Davidson, N.C.
Will the district and regional councils last once the UN pulls out? ``They probably will not survive in [their] present form,'' he says.
But the UN is ``helping plant seeds'' of reconciliation by supporting the district council process because it is forcing rival clans and sub-clans to at least begin negotiations with each other on establishing some form of decentralized government, he says.
There is a lot of ``meeting, talking, haggling'' going on between rival groups all over the country, he adds.
SOME of the haggling is taking place in Bardera where political rivalries have so far blocked formation of a district council. And Somali leaders here are concerned about the future.
``We are worried that there could be a fight among Somalis after the US leaves fully,'' says Ugas Omar, the traditional leader of the predominant Marehan clan here. (Ugas is roughly translated as King in Somali.)
Mr. Omar relaxes on a mattress in a dirt compound next to some mud and thatch houses, his ceremonial cane and hat sit beside him.
After US troops leave the country, militia leader Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed might attack Bardera and the southern coastal town of Kismayu, among other places, he says.
His own clan's militia chased General Aideed's forces out of Kismayu last year on his orders, he adds.
Bardera itself was the scene of heavy fighting and occupations by various rival clans in 1991 and 1992. Aideed captured Bardera in April 1992, but was chased out by Marehan forces led by Gen. Ahmed Warsame in October last year.
The main clans in Bardera today are the Marehan and Rahanweyn. Each clan claims to have more people here than the other.
Informal talks that took place in Nairobi, Kenya, a few weeks ago between rival Somali groups show little hope of an agreement. On Jan. 16, elders of Aideed's Habar-Gedir sub-clan and of his rival Ali Mahdi's Abgal sub-clan signed a pact calling for an end to the fighting. But Aideed has yet to recognize the pact.
US troops arrived here Christmas day 1992. Now, Botswanan UN troops are stationed here.
Rahanweyn leaders complain that armed Marehan allow their cows to enter Rahanweyn fields, and that the Marehan use ``guns and long knives'' to steal food from the Rahanweyn. But the Rahanweyn say they are too afraid to speak up.
``Nobody can stop them [the Marehan]. They have weapons,'' complains one Rahanweyn leader.
Another Rahanweyn leader says the few seats (numbers under discussion range from four to seven) they are likely to end up with on the district council is ``not fair,'' compared with the roughly two-thirds of the 21 seats Omar claims are due his clan.
Two other clans, the Harti, and Ogaden, are likely to get seats, but none are mentioned for the Bantu people, some of the region's poorest people.