LAST week, in an old airport hangar guarded by United Nations tanks and dozens of Belgian troops, clan elders sat on stools at a knee-high table adorned with flowers and signed a pact.
They agreed to end hostilities, disarm their militias, form a local coalition government, and settle disputes over property looted during Somalia's civil war. Making the agreement stick will be difficult, the elders acknowledge, but few Somalis want the alternative of more war.
"The people, after two and a half years of civil war, are empty inside," says Awil Hassan, one of the elders.
From this southern port of Kismayu to landlocked villages in the north, Somalis are seeking a return to their traditional ways of settling disputes. In contrast to the open military confrontation rattling the capital, Mogadishu, long talks between civilian leaders are beginning to bring peace to some towns in this shattered nation.
Earlier this year, lengthy talks between community elders resulted in a peace pact in Borama, a city in the northern region known as Somaliland. Further talks are under way between rival groups from Hargeisa and Bosasso, also in Somaliland.
Here in Kismayu, several weeks of traditional negotiations netted the Aug. 6 pact between elders of some 20 warring clans.
Omar Mohallim, one of the principal negotiators, explains the Somali way of settling disagreements. "We Somalis used to go under a tree and talk and talk and settle our problems," he says. Land disputes and cattle thefts were settled in long, frank sessions, unhurried by outsiders.
This time, a UN official chaired some of the key sessions - a modern adaptation that some elders found encroaching. The UN forced the talks "too fast," charges Hussein Haji Hirad, a businessman.
The weeks of talks were too short to allow the two sides to air all their deep-seated grievances, which is considered a key element in traditional peacemaking, says another Somali businessman, who prefers to remain anonymous. Both businessmen praised peace talks earlier this year in Somaliland, which took four months to achieve an accord and were carried on without the UN.
But civilian leaders here are counting on the Belgian troops to help them prevent either of the dominant warring militia leaders from resuming hostilities.
The main conflict here is between forces loyal to Omar Jess, of the Ogaden clan, backed by Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed, and forces of Gen. Mohamed Said Hersi, known as "Morgan," who is aligned with General Aideed's rival in Mogadishu, Mohamed Ali Mahdi. The UN allowed Mr. Ali Mahdi to speak at the signing ceremony, giving the event a pro-Mahdi tilt, some Somalis here charge.
General Morgan, whose forces pushed General Jess out of Kismayu earlier this year, supports the peace pact, according to one of his main backers, Mohamed Abshir Mussa, head of the Somali Salvation Democratic Front, a strong political party based in central Somalia.
Both Jess and Aideed, however, oppose the pact, says Omar Mohallim, a distant cousin of Jess. But both Mr. Abshir and Dr. Mohallim say peace can be achieved here and in the rest of Somalia - except for Aideed's stronghold in southern Mogadishu, the capital - without the two militia leaders.
"Aideed and Jess are a very small minority," Mohallim says. "Before, they were kings." He claims Jess's fighters are deserting him.
Bashir Omar Ali, a young Somali who fought with Jess for five years, but has now left him, sees no future in fighting and wants to return to his farm: "I learned nothing, only shooting." The ex-fighter warns, however, that if Morgan is not captured by the UN, Jess's fighters will begin returning to him. The UN has no plans to arrest either Morgan or Jess.
Meanwhile, a drive through Kismayu showed markets and many shops are open and the streets full of pedestrians. But tensions over the city continue. Supporters of Morgan are calling for his presence in the city, while many supporters of Jess are still too afraid to return here.