THIS northern Somali city, one of the most war-damaged in the world, is coming back to life.
Somalis returning to the city, often with money earned abroad, are rebuilding homes and businesses from the rubble caused by three months of intense shelling and bombing in 1988. They typically clear out a room in their former homes, squeezing the family into it until they can afford to rebuild the rest.
"It was a bomb," explains Fadua Aden, standing in front of her ruined home with her daughter, Nura Awil, and her grandson, Mohamed.
Her roofless home (roofs were often looted after the battle) has no windows or doors, and there are gaping holes in some walls. In one shell of a room is a rusty, twisted bedspring. The family lives in a restored room at the rear of the house.
A few schools are open. Some, like the Yussef Konen primary school, operate amid the ruins.
"I'm very happy here," says Abdurahman Ismail, using a small rock as a chair in an outdoor class. He had started school just the week before, and now studies math, Arabic, and English.
Two other classes are held in the remains of two school rooms, separated by a fragment of wall. On one side, math was being taught; on the other, English.
A fourth class is taught under a tree.
All four teachers are graduates of the College of Education of the now-defunct Somali National University in Mogadishu. They are volunteers, in effect. Parents contribute small amounts of money to the school.
"We are really proud of this," says headmaster Hassan Osman Abdi.
A police force was formed in Hargeisa late last year, financed primarily by businessmen.
Armed looting has plagued most of Somalia since rebels overthrew Maj. Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre in January 1991, then began fighting each other. The United Nations estimates some 350,000 Somalis have died in the anarchy and related famine in the last two years, including some 250,000 children aged five and under.
The battle here followed attacks on Hargeisa and several other northern cities by the rebel Somali National Movement (SNM), which was trying to overthrow Siad Barre. He had become an outright dictator and was playing one clan against another in a deadly strategy aimed at staying in power.
The battle here was led by Siad Barre's son-in-law, Mohamed Siad Hirsi, known by his nickname, Morgan. Here, he is also known as "the butcher of Hargeisa."
Morgan's forces, after taking the city, planted thousands of land mines in Hargeisa, often in homes. In a November 1992 report, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) calls this mining of civilian property "one of the cruelest - and clearly unlawful - mine-warfare tactics used by Siad Barre's troops."
Hundreds of thousands of mines remain in Northern Somalia, PHR estimates, though Hargeisa and several other cities have largely been cleared of mines.
Col. Abdurahman Ahmed Ali, badly out-manned and out-gunned, held on in the face of the withering fire from government troops.
"We had 1,200 men, including 400 outside the town, and old anti-aircraft [guns]," he recalled recently in an interview in Borama, Somalia.
Colonel Ali says the government had about 4,000 men, some 40 tanks, three aircraft, and 70 pieces of artillery. He voices a widely heard opinion in Somalia that the pilots who bombed Hargeisa were from South Africa. According to reports, some 15,000 people died in the battle and 80 percent of the buildings were destroyed.
This reporter's first impression on arrival was that the damage was much worse than expected: hardly any buildings were spared; many were damaged to the point that they could not be rebuilt. Whole areas had been leveled.
The United Nations' World Food Programme estimates the battle forced some 300,000 Somalis, mostly of the locally predominant Isaq clan, to flee to Ethiopia.
Though many Somalis have still not returned, others, like Abdurahman Yussef Adam, are testing the waters. "I came back to see my country," said Mr. Adam on a recent visit. A former businessman here, he has been working as a driver in Saudi Arabia. Most of his property here has been destroyed.
"I'm happy to see my country free again," he said of this region, which declared itself independent Somaliland in 1991. (No country has recognized it, however.)
A months-long peace conference of clan elders, meeting in Borama, may look at the independence question, but is currently absorbed in trying to sort out security problems. Economic challenges are also enormous.
"Nobody wants to help us," says Ahmed Jamma Botan, a businessman living here.
Relief officials say looting and a lack of cooperation from local Somalis has retarded aid efforts. But a UN official warns that unless donors and the UN step up aid to northern Somalia, including Hargeisa, this region may fall into the anarchy that grips the south.
A Western relief official says aid here must be given in close cooperation with Somalis and not just "dumped" on the region, if the projects are to get local support.
"Rebuilding ... is a slow process," the relief official says.