Peaceful Belet Uen: `The Other Somalia'

Life slowly returns to normal: schools reopen, markets are busy

IN sharp contrast to the recent scenes of aerial bombings and gunfights in Mogadishu, the streets of the Somali town of Belet Uen are peaceful. They are also more representative of the country as a whole.

Rebuilt schools are crowded with eager students; markets are jammed with goods and customers. A computer school and several video shops have opened in the past few months. And a uniformed police force, though unarmed, has helped restore a sense of law and order.

"The life of Belet Uen is quite secure," says Shure Mumin, a Somali agricultural expert with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), whose family lives here.

Chiding the international press for its almost total concentration on the conflicts in Mogadishu, Mr. Mumin adds: "Journalists focus on the hot issues. They don't give their audience ... an opportunity to see the other side of [Somalia]."

Belet Uen appears to be a model in Somalia for restoring peace and effectively using foreign troops during this country's transition from anarchy to a national government.

Working with the local Somali leadership, Canadian troops deployed by the United Nations as part of its peacekeeping effort refurbished four of the 10 primary schools and recruited teachers. They helped to reestablish a police force and gave them riot-control training with shields and batons. They met frequently with ethnic leaders to minimize conflicts between them.

"Canadians were very well accepted," says Didier Roguet, an ICRC official who worked here during the Canadian presence. "They were open-minded; they tried to be in touch with the community."

Brig. Gen. Serge Labbe, who headed the Canadian contingent in Somalia until mid-June and who spent much of his time here, says the most achievable scenario for national reconciliation in Somalia is through regional autonomy, such as Belet Uen has demonstrated, and a weak central government.

A walk through the dusty streets of this town shows what has been achieved here, as well as what remains to be done.

At a bustling outdoor market, Hadija Ahmed sits behind a bag of grain she is selling, nursing her six-week-old daughter under her gauze shawl. She says life is good and that she wants her child to grow up healthy.

A woman wearing a red dress, green flip-flops, and a head scarf says "security is OK." And, she adds, "prices are not too high, not too low." Six of her children are in school.

But a farmer says he can't afford irrigation equipment, and an ex-civil servant says joblessness is high. Policeman Mohammed Hasan says, "There's no government rule; no taxes."

At the Ahmed Warsame primary school, 12-year-old Noor Mohammed, wearing a blue shirt and jeans, says he began school in April. The curriculum is limited: He studies only the Somali and Arabic languages. Before, he says, "I was studying the Koran."

"We thank the Canadians" for the schools, says local school official Ahmed Habibula. But teachers are unpaid and most villages have no schools because villagers can't even afford to compensate teachers with food.

Teenager Said Moussa declares: "I want to be a teacher." He sits proudly in a new, red wheelchair he had been given just five days earlier by the Red Crescent, a Somali relief agency. Prior to that, Moussa, long disabled, had to crawl around town.

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