Who Will Help Somalia?

THOUGH the cold war is over, millions of people who have never heard of it and would not in any case be able to grasp what it was about will continue to have their lives devastated by that schism for years to come.

Like the child who stumbles on a World War II shell and becomes the latest victim of a remote conflict, the suffering people of various third-world proxy states that were turned into armed camps by rival superpowers show that historical calamities remain a bitter presence long after their supposed resolution.

For the people of Somalia, a country whose strategic location guarding the approach to the Red Sea has transformed it into a Goyaesque nightmare, the fading logic of the cold war may or may not have been persuasive. Either way, its effect on them is the same.

Somalia is a largely barren land locked into the clan traditions and feuds of its ancestors. It is easy to dismiss the country's current tragedy as something out of a primitive order of things. But Somalia is, to its misfortune, right in the midst of modernity, the modernity that Bernard Berenson discerned in the Goyas at the Prado Museum when he saw in them the essence of modern anarchy. Nothing has occurred in the Somali capital of Mogadishu over the last year that has not been acted out on a vast scal e by the developed world of the 20th century.

To be sure, the Somali have a history of violence. For a millennium their fiercely independent clans - the wandering Dir, Isaq, Darod, and Hawiye of the northern and central regions, the more settled Digil and Rahanweyn of the south - have contested access to scarce grazing grounds and watering holes, duly preserving their exploits in oral poetry.

They've never been tolerant of intruders. When 19th century British explorers Richard Burton and John Speke tried to pass through Somalia on their quest for the source of the Nile, the Isaq sent them packing after they had penetrated only a few miles from the coast. At the turn of the century, a religious leader named Sheik Muhammad Abdille Hassan, whom the British called "the mad mullah," ran rings around every expedition the colonialists sent out to get him.

But nothing in the annals of the clan feuds of old Somalia can compare to what has transpired since the exigencies of the cold war allowed the Somali to be initiated into the modern world.

Upon independence in 1960, the Somali Republic found itself desperately poor and politically incoherent. Lacking a tax base and the means of impressing a political identity on its clan-divided people, the Somali government seized upon the country's strategic position at a choke-point of world trade to court economic and military support.

THIS process had a brutal logic to it, for in a nation as undeveloped and fragmented as Somalia, war seemed literally the only means of continuing political intercourse, which in its case revolved around issues of irredentism and national unity. The 19th-century colonial partition of the Horn of Africa had carved the Somali-inhabited regions into areas controlled by Italy, Britain, France, and Ethiopia; of these, however, only the first two were included within the country's boundaries at independence. I rredentist war was viewed by the Somali leadership as the means of molding feuding clans into a nation.

The materiel for this crusade was supplied first by the Soviet Union, then by the United States, each wanting to have its thumb on the choke-point. When Somalia's civilian government proved inept at the game, a military man, Maj. Gen. Muhammad Siad Barre, was found.

But when the great war against Ethiopia finally came in 1977, it proved a fiasco. Having lost the diversion of foreign adventure and with it the basis of Somali nationhood, Siad Barre was reduced to pitting clan against clan in a neutralizing strategy that kept him in power.

When at last the clans tired of playing his game, they ousted him and found themselves back in the times sung of in their oral poetry, with one exception - the sophisticated weapons at their disposal.

As the situation degenerates, the now reconciled world powers who created this proud monster have only one thing to say: "It can't be helped." Some accounts put the death toll in Mogadishu alone since November at 4,000; others put it at 20,000. Both figures could soon be subsumed in the rising toll that will result from the multiplying factors of famine and disease.

Humanitarian aid cannot be brought in because of the fighting, and the fighting cannot be stopped because those who made it possible do not have the political courage to stop it. A peace-imposing force such as that which ended the killing in Liberia, composed of the parties that have Somalia on their historical consciences, could stop the slaughter with far less trouble than they encountered in many of their cold-war exploits. This time, however, there is nothing to be gained, so there is no one to help.

In abandoning Somalia to its fate, the developed world turns its back on aspects of its own historical plight; rootless nomads with guns are not unique to backward countries.

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