WHEN the first planes of a massive United States military airlift to feed the starving - dubbed "Operation Provide Relief" - touched down in Somalia Aug. 28, jubilant bone-thin Somali porters chanted and danced on the loading ramps of the planes, then struggled to unload the 110-pound sacks onto waiting trucks.
At least 34 tons of rice, beans, and oil were unloaded for use in 23 feeding centers run by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The supplies were from the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) consignment in Kenya and will feed 50,000 people in Belet Uen, 185 miles north of the capital, Mogadishu.
The amount of food committed to Somalia relief has increased dramatically in the last few weeks. On Aug. 14 President Bush announced plans for an emergency airlift of food and also pledged 145,000 tons of food beginning Oct. 1. On Aug. 31, the UN doubled its food aid to Somalia, promising to send 79,200 tons of food to the starving country. Germany and France have begun airlifts of food, and Italy and Canada plan such help soon.
This new international focus on Somalia's famine has created a Catch-22 for relief agencies who want the food, but also want it distributed well. Top military officials in Operation Provide Relief are vague about whether they will protect food from bandits and looters once it is in Somalia, and they have been warned by the ICRC that too much food in one place - or simple disorganization - could lead to chaos.
"We can only take as much as we can deliver right away," says Cesar Bachmann, an ICRC relief official who has been feeding people here since March. "Until the market is flooded with food, there will still be looting, because food is still money - and power."
In addition, lines of authority have yet to be determined to bring order to the chaotic relief effort. "I'm finding that a lot of people know very little about what is happening. We need someone to tell everyone what the grand strategy is," said Brig. Gen. Frank Libutti, the commanding officer in charge of the US operation. Later he told the Monitor that "the grand strategy is out of my foxhole.... Ask the USAID [Agency for International Development] people; they have a plan."
If such a plan exists, it is difficult to separate it from the half-truths and rumors in circulation.
Stephen Hayes, director of USAID's Office of External Affairs, says the plan for US aid is simple. Emergency food will be given free now to those who need it most. Later, much of it will be sold to merchants in the hope that "monetization" will help rebuild a shattered economy.
The ICRC has moved 100,000 tons of food into Somalia through 20 entry points since January - 75 percent of the total food supply for the country - and has the best network of local contacts and 500 kitchens in which food is cooked and served. The ICRC is expected to handle most of the US food sent into Somalia.
The amount of WFP food reaching Somalia has been "limited by security-related slow-downs," says Thomas Lecato, WFP director of operations in Somalia, who arrived in the country in early August.
"We're working toward airlifts and airdrops to some of these places, but we need contacts on the ground," Mr. Lecato says. "We don't want to create magnets of food which draw people from their homes, but this is Somalia, and we don't expect every grain of food to get where it should."
Belet Uen is not Somalia's hungriest town, by far, because the ICRC has airlifted 6,000 tons of food here in the last six months. But for the Americans, it was the safest option.
Andrew Natsios, President Bush's special coordinator for Somalia relief, negotiated with tribal elders for safe passage of the food the night before the airdrop. "It is important that we do this as a preventative measure, so that people do not die in three or four months," he said.
Belet Uen was chosen, he added, for security reasons. "This is a secure town, and for our first flights, we wanted to make sure there were no incidents."
Many of the worst-hit famine areas have been plagued by gangs of gunmen who roam major towns stealing food from civilians and relief agencies alike.
The ICRC kitchens cut down on looting, according to Dominik Stillhart, the head of the ICRC in Mogadishu. Because cooked food has little market value, and because only the most needy among proud Somalis will stand in line to receive it, the targeted population is reached.
"If you give someone a sack of rice instead, in two hours they won't have it," Mr. Stillhart says. Nevertheless, the famine situation is so bad that distributing dangerous dry rations now is critical.
In Baidoa, one of the hardest-hit famine areas, the population has swollen in the past three weeks as people marched here in search of food. In every direction one travels from this town, villages along the roads are abandoned, and those too weak to survive the journey have marked the route with their skeletons.
But in the few days, as agencies extended food distribution to outlying villages, the migration toward Baidoa appears to have slowed. In a bid to cope with the expected influx of food, the WFP targeted a triangular area around Baidoa, including the most desperate villages where airdrops would bring immediate relief.