FIRST light broke over the trucks, Italian vehicles of World War II vintage, their oil-covered engines dirty but glistening in the rays of the sun.
Each packed with 10 tons of US, French, and Australian wheat - emergency rations for a few of the 2.5 million Somalis at risk of starvation here - the 40 trucks were so dilapidated that they were parked on a slope, so that they could compression-start.
On Sunday, for the first time in nearly a month, relief food was about to depart Mogadishu's port to be fed to the hungry. Though the port is crammed with 12,000 tons of food, it has yet to be delivered because gunmen routinely hijack relief convoys. The last group of trucks, which traveled on Nov. 11 from here to Baidoa, the epicenter of Somalia's famine, was attacked on the outskirts of the town. Up to 40 people died in the gun battle that followed.
This convoy, organized by CARE International, had been scheduled to depart on Saturday, but was delayed as rival forces on either side of the "green line" that divides the city failed to agree on security arrangements. The delay came as Somali gunmen anxiously awaited the arrival of the US-led intervention force of some 28,000 troops who aim to secure food shipments under a United Nations banner.
But by Sunday morning, the CARE drivers were confident. The trucks roared to life, finals OKs came from negotiators on both sides of the "green line," and the convoy rushed out of the port and turned along the corniche road. Flanked by armed "technicals" - four-wheel-drive jeeps mounted with anti-tank cannon and anti-aircraft guns - the convoy disappeared in a thick haze.
Relief workers say they hope that this convoy, and a few after it, are the last that will be sent under the "old system" of buying off warlords and security men for safe passage. CARE has been paying $3,000 every day to the 900 so-called security guards at the port, and hands over 60 tons of food from each ship that docks. A further 10 tons per shipment is taken at the checkpoint, euphemistically called "the ration" by relief workers.
The first tasks of the United States-led forces will be to secure the port and the airport - Somalia's two most important points for bringing in relief food - and then create "secure corridors" throughout the country to ensure that food reaches those who need it.
Violence is increasing daily, however, further threatening aid efforts, as the gap widens between President Bush's promise on Friday to send troops, and their arrival, expected early tomorrow.
The CARE International house in Baidoa was attacked twice last week. CARE had already evacuated much of its staff, but the incidents underscored the danger to the 20 or so foreigners who remain.
"Security just fell apart," says Rick Grant, a spokesman for CARE in Mogadishu. "The local governor locked himself in his house. The chief of police has fled to Mogadishu. Our people thought they would be killed."
Somali gunmen appear to be taking advantage of the slow deployment of the UN operation, called "Restore Hope," which will pit 28,000 US troops, and soldiers of a dozen other countries, against the bandits and warlords who have blocked the relief efforts for months.
Linda McClelland of Concern-Worldwide, which evacuated five of its 19 foreign workers from Baidoa on Saturday, says: "People in Baidoa are aware that the US is coming, and they're already reacting."
What is on the minds of most Somalis, however, is where they will find their next meal. Though relief agencies have been able to keep up work in the capital, the precarious situation at feeding centers in Baidoa, Bardera, and local villages will grow worse without daily attention.
The biggest problem, says Mr. Grant of Care, is that Baidoa is at the moment flush with much of the weaponry of Somalia's strongest warlord, Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed. General Aideed has said that his forces welcome US intervention in Somalia, providing it does not infringe on "Somali sovereignty," but on Sunday his United Somali Congress (USC) suggested that it had changed its position.
Abdi Osman Farah, deputy to Aideed, said that before US troops arrive that "there should be an understanding of common ground." If US troops do not coordinate with the USC, which nominally controls most of southern Somalia and nearly all of the capital, then the USC fighters "will react.... If they try to disarm us without [talking to us], then there will be trouble," he warned.