Somalia: a Flash of Color in the Sunlight

AS I sat recently on the back porch of our small apartment in Nairobi, Kenya, I spotted a bronze sunbird flitting about the branches of a nearby tree. A small, handsome bird with a long tail and a curving beak, its greenish, bronze-colored head glinted in the sun as it paused on a bending branch. Then it was gone.

That, to me, is Somalia today. Its good qualities, and those of its people, glint in the sunlight momentarily, all too easy to miss, then are obscured again by the violence.

I've been reporting on Somalia for more than two years. Catching dawn flights to Somalia from Nairobi on military or relief aircraft has become a way of life. Sponge earplugs to block out the noise on cargo planes, plastic bottles of water, and a bedroll are must-have items on the frequent trips my photographer wife, Betty, and I make.

In January 1991, we rode around Mogadishu, the capital, with an escort of armed Somalis, a practice that was to become standard in view of the many armed looters. Rebels had just taken over in a big battle a few days earlier. There were still some dead bodies in the streets. The city was badly damaged. Young rebels posed triumphantly on tanks. I knew the brutality of the ousted dictator, Mohamed Siad Barre. Somalis I spoke with were hopeful that things would get better. I hoped so, too, but I wasn't sure .

Then things began unraveling in rural areas. Somali factional leaders began fighting each other. People fled by the tens of thousands to the towns, but found no food there. Many starved.

Mogadishu itself exploded in four months of random shelling between rival factions from November to March 1992. Thousands died. A woman I interviewed at a hospital had been cooking spaghetti when a rocket hit her house, instantly killing two of her five children and wounding the other three. The senselessness of it all made me angry.

BUT the sunbird qualities of the Somalis glinted even amid the rubble and killing. Many Somali nurses, doctors, and other relief workers who could have run away chose to stay and help. I asked one nurse why she took the risks. "These are my people," she said, and continued tending to children.

However, some Somalis have become extortionists or racketeers. They offer their services as guards against other Somalis who are trying to loot relief food and are menacing relief workers. But in towns like Baidoa, the protectors are often the looters. Inside jobs have been common. And this Mafia-like group cares nothing for the dead or the dying.

But again, a glint of the true colors of the Somalis comes through: While some are extortionists, others risk their lives for foreign relief workers. A little-noted fact in the death of a foreign employee of the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1991 was that a Somali man jumped in front of him to try to shield him as the gunman aimed. Both men were shot and killed.

And when an armed gang in a car mounted with artillery chased Betty and me on a lonely stretch of road near Hargeisa, in northwestern Somalia, recently, villagers came to our rescue. Our driver wisely sought help in the village, knowing we couldn't outrace the gang's vehicle on the rougher roads ahead.

The gang tried to hijack our car, but the villagers blocked them, putting their bodies between us and the gang, waving their arms angrily, telling them to back off. I prayed that no one would be hurt - not my wife, nor I, nor the other two foreigners with us, nor the villagers, nor even the gang members. No one was hurt. After a while, the gang backed down and drove off.

In Somalia, prayer is our constant companion.

OUR brief encounters with violence are only a sample of the dangers Somalis have faced during two years of civil war and anarchy. When I go back to a town and meet Somalis I've met before, we embrace. We're both celebrating a basic fact: We're alive.

The encounter with the gang was only a temporary delay in our trip to a peace conference among Somalis in Borama. Again, a glint of hope: peace talks even though the road to the talks was dangerous.

At the conference, an old Somali elder said that even the gangsters listen when elders speak for peace. There is still a moral authority operating in Somalia in the form of the counsel of the elders. And even gangs sometimes obey it.

A year ago, I met a man in a hospital in Mogadishu who was paralyzed from a stray bullet that hit him when he went out looking for bread for his children. Recently I met him again, still lying in the same bed. I was so concerned that I spent hours getting a United States Marine doctor to come examine him. He came, but he had to be accompanied by a US military escort - a truck with several armed Marines.

The Marines apparently had never had contact with Somalis off their base. Two of the Marines, one a woman, took pictures of themselves with a small camera, posing with some Somali children they met on the hospital grounds.

I like that. Two worlds coming together, at least for a moment: Marines and Somali children. The barriers between their two worlds fell, revealing a bond as bright as the shoulder of my sunbird.

The Somali children had something sweet to offer these battle-ready soldiers: love, a smile, an eager handshake; the kind of things those Marines may remember more than the occasional snipers and hardships. And the Marines offered something, too: a moment when they stopped being fighters and became a young man and a young woman from another country who love children.

Children have been thrilled with the "invasion" by foreign troops; some have become thieves - daredevils stealing sunglasses and equipment from the troops or throwing stones at them. But most children simply pester the troops for candy and crowd around to talk to them. It's the best show they've seen in years.

Whenever I walk through a Somali neighborhood, the children crowd around, as they do with any visitor. Touching is much more a part of Somali culture than in the West. The children break through the cloud of doom and gloom with their smiles, leaning on you, holding your hands.

THIS place changes everyone who comes here. In Belet Huen, Canadian soldier Vincent Fowles, sitting in the back of a military truck, told me: "I saw kids drinking water as dirty as my laundry water. They use string to hold their sandals together. When I get home, I'll look at myself and say, `I've got enough.' "

I look at myself, too, and say the same thing. It's amazing how basic things, like being alive, having a bit of food, a place to lay your sleeping mat, mean a lot in a place like Somalia.

But so many people have died in Somalia in the past two years. The United Nations says more than 350,000 have perished and recently estimated that 250,000 of those were children age 5 and under.

A child died before my eyes in a feeding center in Baidoa. I just continued kneeling by him for a few moments.

Somali nurse Amina Sheik Mohammed, who had been spoon-feeding him, remained crouched there, too. Then, waving one hand before her as if trying to wipe out the horror, she stood up and walked over to the next child needing intensive care. I, too, slowly stood up. Taking a deep breath, I turned and followed her.

Yet many more children have survived. In the same feeding center, run by the Irish charity Concern, children like little four-year old Faduma have recovered and today are alive and well; Faduma is even chubby-cheeked. Her picture, as an emaciated famine victim, appeared in Newsweek magazine in December 1992, in one of Betty's photos. When Betty followed up, she found the child and her mother, Bishaaro Mallalin, doing fine.

I've tried very hard to sort my way through the labyrinth of Somali clan-based politics, to know when events are important and when they are just posturing. It's not easy.

Clans, the Somali ethnic divisions, are divided into sub clans. Even sub-sub clans are divided, sometimes politically and militarily. And their alliances keep shifting.

What appalls me about Somali politics is the way clans are always seeking the advantage over other clans. I sense little community feeling among most Somalis. They worry more about whether another clan is getting more relief than their clan than about how many lives are being saved or lost.

But there is also a sunbird-like quality in the culture: a deep-seated decency among most Somalis I know - a caring, a love of children, a yearning for peace. A group of Somali relief workers recently put on a rooftop party in Mogadishu, with dancing till 2 a.m., for some Western relief workers. It was a celebration of relative peace in the city, a sign of the reemergence of Somali cultural life even before full stability returns.

And Somalis are industrious, even as refugees. In the camps I have visited, I see a blossoming of tiny Somali-run stores, small bus services, and trucks carrying cargo. Many Somalis are good business people. That talent will help, and is helping, rebuild cities like Hargeisa, massively bombed by the government in 1988.

Is there hope for the future of Somalia? At least the West, which first armed Somalia and then mostly looked the other way as Somalis went through 18 months of agony, is no longer ignoring it.

Still, there is little reason for hope if one limits one's gaze to the massive deaths by gunfire and starvation (both greatly subsided now), the greed, the robberies, and anarchy. But that's looking down. Raise your gaze to catch a glimpse of the sunbird, to see the other side of Somalia and Somalis.

After two years of reporting on Somalia, I don't think my assessment is naive. I believe the underlying authority of the Somali elders, bruised but still intact in most regions, the dedication of Somali relief workers and others to peace and recovery, and, yes, the ambitious business qualities of the Somali traders, can help patch together a community, or communities, beyond war and anarchy.

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