Battered Somali Capital Tries to Restore Normalcy

Mosaic of images tells a story of hunger, lawlessness, and resilience. REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK

JUST across the street from a UNICEF office here in Somalia's once-lovely seaside capital, a man sets up a typewriter on a table, preparing to hire out his secretarial skills.

Minibuses, many of them windowless and overflowing with passengers, speed by.

Crowds of men, women, and children bustle through outdoor markets. They look over the kiosks and sidewalk stands offering a variety of goods - everything from walkie-talkies to plumbing pipes, mostly items looted during the past 21 months of anarchy and war.

Mogadishu strikes this visitor with contrasting images: revival and war rubble; healthy children and starvation; hope and despair.

Rebels overthrew dictator Mohammed Siad Barre here in January 1991, then fell into fighting among themselves. Two rival warlords, each claiming to be the legitimate new head of state, turned the capital into their battle ground. Between November and March more than 30,000 people were killed.

Meanwhile, drought and anarchy gripped the rest of the country, putting almost half of Somalia's 4.5 million people at risk of starvation.

Mogadishu is relatively peaceful now, although gunfire between armed looters forced relief officials on Tuesday to halt food airlifts temporarily. Most people look reasonably healthy. Feeding centers for children here are no longer dominated by the dying. More often it is the happy noise of recovering children, talking and shouting, which greets the visitor.

Structurally, most of Mogadishu has survived. Most of the buildings are still standing, but many homes and shops bear the scars of war - bullet holes and shattered door frames. Some sections of town have been reduced to rubble.

The international relief community has become the biggest employer in the country - hiring guards, manual laborers, and skilled staff. Organizations have set up the only telephones (via satellite) and electricity (by generator) in the city.

Another form of employment is the drug trade. Throughout the chaos of the past 21 months, small planes from Kenya, loaded down with narcotics, have continued to touch down here and throughout the country.

Never quite blending in with the mosaic of scenes here are the looted four-wheel-drive vehicles whose roofs have been chopped off, allowing young men carrying machine guns to patrol with an unobstructed view. Heavier weaponry on wheels include anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns.

But these images of anarchy, more than any other, capture the story of Somalia.

"No one is in control," says a professor at the now-defunct National University of Somalia.

In Baidoa, where the famine is perhaps most acute, armed Somalis pushed several hungry, begging children away from their vehicle.

"It appalls me that 18- and 19-year-old kids can point their guns at these stick kids in burlap bags and say: `Get away,' " said Ken Hackett, an official with Catholic Relief Services, who watched the incident.

Sometimes the attacks are more personal. In Baidoa's hospital, Gelani Mohammed Ali lies on a bed, one leg in a splint. He was injured while protecting his sister from three armed thugs.

In the face of such chaos are a thousand such stories of resilience, of Somalis trying to return to normalcy amid harsh and dangerous circumstances.

In front of a pharmacy in Mogadishu, a vendor markets a random selection of paperback books, probably looted, with titles in Somali and English: First Aid; Clear Speech; P.C. Computer; and The Year Ahead.

No one can predict with much certainty what the year ahead will be like for Somalia. But, remarkably, this city and its people impress the outsider with a sense of determination.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.