Somalia's Child Survivors

In Baidoa, hundreds of youngsters orphaned by years of civil war, famine, and poverty are looked after at two centers

THEY are the children of Somalia - survivors of two years of civil war, famine, and often the death of brothers, sisters, or parents. For them it is often the small things that bring a smile: rain falling on an uplifted face; a hug from another child; a game of soccer.

"Just taking them out is quite a break for them," says Margaret Reilly, a nurse with Concern, an Irish charity here. We are squeezed into a van taking 14 young Somali children to a soccer game. They live, without parents, at Concern's rustic, intensive-care feeding center.

At the playing field on the edge of town the boys and girls take their seats along two rows of the old cement stands, crowding around Ms. Reilly, who obviously cares for them as much as they do for her.

Some of the children living at the Concern center have parents but were separated from them in the confusion of fleeing from battles, or in the process of being rescued from starvation by relief workers.

In September, Abdurahman, who says he is 15 but looks younger, was found with his sister in a village outside Baidoa. Both were starving. They were brought to the center here by a Concern nurse. Abdurahman's sister died, but he survived.

In January, his father, Issak Maalim Hassan, showed up at the center and was reunited with Abdurahman. Mr. Hassan had come from Wajid, nearly 60 miles away, looking for his children.

Some of the other children at the soccer game are orphans.

"My father died five months ago in the hospital," says Mohamed Sheikh, who looks about eight years old, "and my mother died two months ago in the [Concern feeding] center. I don't know what to do." He rubs a bare foot in the dirt. "My brother and sister and I will be in the center as long as it lasts."

As in most of Somalia, law and order broke down here when rebel groups began fighting each other after toppling longtime Somali dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in January 1991. The United Nations estimates that more than 300,000 people, many of them children, starved or were killed between then and now.

Yet for all they have been through, these children have not lost their childlikeness. They laugh, run, and play games - not always constructive ones. Daredevils in Mogadishu, the capital, snatch sunglasses from foreign soldiers and steal equipment from military vehicles.

A few blocks from the Concern feeding center is an old one-story building housing classrooms and bedrooms that open onto a dirt courtyard. Several hundred children sit beneath a few shade trees, or along the steps.

Many sit in bunches, copying Arabic script from the Koran onto long wooden boards they use as tablets. Others walk, two by two, arms-across-shoulders, or sit alone on low wooden beds. It is a crowded, noisy, but peaceful oasis.

This is the Institute for the Disabled and Orphans, run by Somalis and funded by several relief agencies, including Goal, another Irish charity. But despite its name, there are only 28 disabled youths, and few orphans.

"Their mothers bring them here," says Abdi Noor Ali, the director of the Institute since last May. "The mothers live in town or a village near Baidoa," he says above the din of the courtyard, "but are too poor to care for them."

There are no luxuries and few activities - no TV, no cassette players. The children like what they do find, though: safety, food, friends, and education in such subjects as English, Arabic, the Koran, and arithmetic. Often, when mothers come to pick up their children, "the children refuse to go to the village," says director Abdi. "This life is very good."

"I like it here," says five-year-old Sokrey Mohamed Noon. She lived with her mother in Baidoa until a month ago, she says. "I learn something, and I get food." But then she adds, quietly: "I want to see my mother."

"I'm here to learn," says eight-year-old Osman Ahmar, who adds that his father has gone to the capital but will come back tomorrow. His mother lives in town, he says. Asked if he knows how to count, he proudly counts to 50 in Somali.

Asked what he wants to be when he grows up, he replies: "I want to have a car, and be a driver."

And would he like to own a gun? "No," he replies, shaking his head.

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