Somalia Tries to Pick Up the Postwar Pieces

After ousting a malevolent dictator, the African country is wrestling with how to disarm, democratize, and rebuild

THE hilltop office and villa of now-deposed Somali dictator Mohamed Siad Barre commands an elegant view of this once (and future) beautiful capital, where whitewashed homes and shops spill down to the seaside. But the headquarters of the former dictator also commands an effective artillery position. And in his last, desperate gesture during the month-long battle for Mogadishu, Mr. Barre turned on his own city, his own people, indiscriminately shelling houses, offices, trees, and cars - as well as men, women, and children.

On Jan. 27, Barre finally fled, in a tank convoy, blasting his way out of the city. Another African dictator had fallen. Not gracefully, but kicking to the end, in an unchecked display of personal power, after a reign of terror cited by international human-rights groups as one of the cruelest on the continent.

The price of defeating a dictator is often high, as it was here.

Countrywide, several million people have been uprooted during two years of fighting. They've been forced to flee to refugee tents in neighboring countries or to makeshift shelters inside Somalia. Several cities have been devastated.

In Mogadishu, the toll is tangible and painful to see. Mothers clutch their hungry babies at a temporary hospital run by the international charity SOS. Starvation often hits the children first. A young boy looks bewildered, recovering from shell wounds. Several of his family members were killed. But a number of patients are alive because a handful of Somali doctors and nurses kept working, and ducking, as gunfire ripped through the operating room.

Most homes and shops have been looted. Now some looters are looting looters, killing some people in the process, wounding others. SOS director Wilhelm Huber says he has seen children killed for cigarettes.

Yet, somehow, the streets can be described as fairly calm.

People walk casually along, waving and greeting foreign visitors. Roadside tea stalls are running again, as Somali women crouch to fan their charcoal fires with one hand, clutching Somali currency in the other. People are rebuilding their stalls in outdoor markets, where milk, peanuts, and some vegetables are available, though little else so far.

The streets, still littered with debris, even some tanks, are again filling up with trucks, city buses, and plenty of four-wheel-drive vehicles - most of them stolen during the anarchy by the military, the United Somali Congress (USC), or civilians. Almost all vehicles and many walls have ``USC'' spray-painted on them.

And everywhere there are weapons: Machine guns and rifles - even some grenades - are carried casually by men along the streets, in cars, or atop trucks. To restore law and order, disarming Mogadishu must be an early priority of the new government. The Somalis fire the guns day and night - skyward, in apparent celebration.

The new government, appointed by the USC rebels, who now control Mogadishu, is trying to unite the various rebels and other opponents of Barre. Their plan is to form a transition government leading to democratic, multiparty elections.

``We have to start afresh,'' says Somalia's interim prime minister, Omar Arteh Ghaleb.

BUT already there are danger signs.

Two rebel groups, the Somali National Movement (SNM), and the Somali Patriotic Movement, even a splinter within the USC, are unhappy with the USC's formation of an interim government. They wanted to be consulted first.

Will the three rebel groups agree on a transition government? Or will they turn Somalia into another Liberia, with rebel groups killing each other? There have been reports of fighting between the USC and the SNM about 20 miles from Mogadishu.

``There's no trust'' between clans or ethnic groups, says a worried young Somali man, speaking anonymously here.

There is also a legacy of hatred and ill will between clans, or ethnic divisions, from Barre's 21 years of divide-and-rule politics. University of Chicago political science professor David Laitin says, ``There's a good deal of animosity, and a need to get some form of vengeance against the atrocities clans caused clans.''

Can this be avoided?

Abdulai Hassan is an Issak from the north, the area now controlled by the SNM. ``The Somali people have seen the bitterness of war.... I was in Hargeisa [a northern city badly damaged in the war],'' he says. ``I lost my house, my farm, everything. And I don't want to see [war] anymore.''

In a looted office once used by the Barre military, Ali Shido Abdi, chairman of Manifesto, the only civilian group that opposed Barre, waits to watch the USC's interim government sworn in. ``I'm optimistic the people of Somalia will come together and decide their own future,'' he says.

Mr. Shido adds: ``Every Somali is thinking [of] how to build the country again.''

There is much to rebuild, in Mogadishu and the rest of the nation: physically, politically, and in terms of human relations.

With resilience and hope, the Somali people have begun the task.

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