This Somali city, once synonymous with despair, today symbolic of a turnaround

THIS town has been called the City of Death, because it is located in what was the heart of Somalia's famine and civil-war zone. Thousands have died here of starvation or bullets in two years of anarchy.

There is still no peace among rival Somali clans, although on-again, off-again peace talks have begun. Some people in remote areas are still suffering, and large amounts of food, medicine, and other assistance are still urgently needed for town residents and area farmers until their own crops can sustain them.

But Baidoa has become a city of life again, a symbol of the beginning of a little-heralded turnaround in Somalia.

"We've changed very much since the Marines came," says M.K. Haji, a local employee of Goal, an Irish charity working here. "Life is restored to hope."

Arrogant Somali gangs used to cruise the main streets of Baidoa in cars and pickup trucks mounted with heavy machine guns or even artillery. They terrorized residents, looting without restraint day and night.

The arrival of United States Marines in mid-December, joined by Australian soldiers in January, caused most of the gangs to flee. Today, Aussie soldiers, now in charge of patrolling the town, respond to occasional reports of snipers by running down narrow alleyways and circling suspected hideouts. Local children look on with irrepressible curiosity.

The children "are a lot more friendly here than in Mogadishu," says Australian Pvt. Jamie Frankcombe of Tasmania. He uses gestures to communicate with youngsters crowding around his military vehicle.

As a result of the troops' presence, small restaurants and other shops are open again. Roadside stalls have mushroomed, selling soap, fruit, matches, and rubber sandals.

Soccer games have resumed on a dusty field at the edge of town. The games draw hundreds of spectators, including some children from local orphanages.

Streets are full of pedestrians, buses, private cars, and international relief agency vehicles. Some 200 women, with the help of 20 donkey carts, sweep the streets. Another Irish relief agency, Concern, organized the women and pays them a small salary as a way to pump income into poor families.

Concern has also rebuilt several small primary schools, where children like eight-year-old Leyla Omar and her fellow students greet visitors with energetic clapping. "I like to learn Arabic and English," she says, smiling.

"The lifeblood of Somalia will be the young people," says Mark Mullen, the Concern staffer who supervised the schools' reconstruction. Somalia is far from being self-sufficient, however, or out of danger.

A poor crop in the main harvest season this coming August could extend the need for food aid well into next year, and there have been recent battles between rival clan leaders. Gangs and militias have simply hidden their weapons from the US-led military forces.

But for now, looting of food has dropped sharply, as foreign troops escort many of the convoys. Relief agencies, including World Vision, Catholic Relief Services, CARE, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) deliver thousands of tons of sorghum and other food each week to villagers in this area.

The ICRC recently closed 14 feeding kitchens in Baidoa because so many people had returned to their villages. Those still showing up for food have been transferred to other ICRC kitchens which, for now, are continuing.

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