Alone Again: UN Leaves Behind a Somalia Torn Apart but Sorting Out Its Own Future

HE sits atop a soft couch in a tranquil Mogadishu residence, his smile quick and his loose-fitting clothes billowing in the breeze.

Osman Otto doesn't fit the image of a militia chieftain. But Somalia's future lies in the hands of local strongmen like him, who combine militia might with lucrative commercial dealings.

Like many Somali businessmen, Mr. Otto has reaped the rewards from well-paying contracts during the recently ended United Nations mission here.

Now that relief dollars have slowed to a trickle and UN blue helmets have quit the country, Otto says Somalis can get down to the business of sorting out their differences.

''They were strangers that came through the window and tried to impose their wishes.'' he says. ''The Somalis know what's good for them, no one else does.''

But Somalis are no closer to selecting political leadership than they were when United States Marines landed on Mogadishu beaches more than two years ago. Their battles are increasingly internal.

Otto, for instance, was once one of militia leader Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed's chief supporters and financiers. Both come from the powerful Habar-Gedir subclan. As a sign of the increasing fragmentation on Somalia's political scene, the alliance of these two longtime partners from the same grouping has ruptured.

Somalis say the two-hour battle at Mogadishu's airport Sunday was over a dispute between Otto and Mr. Aideed's fighters. Otto plays down his differences with Aideed, but doesn't rule out the possibility of future fighting.

''I think that once this family feud is solved, then everything will be fine,'' he told the Monitor this week. ''Little setbacks have always been foreseen,'' he says, but added that Aideed must make certain ''corrections.'' Observers say fighting within and between subclans is likely to continue.

One tentative step forward has been made. In late February, militia leaders signed a pact that calls for an end of hostilities and joint management of Mogadishu's sea and airport. Similar pacts have broken down before, and even minor combat could shut down the facilities, which are vital links to the outside.

But business interests are pushing the factions to adhere to the pact. It could prove a test for future agreements.

The United Nations was Mogadishu's biggest employer. Now that it is no longer pumping millions of dollars into the economy, the militia leaders are being pressured by their own supporters to create enough stability for commerce to flow.

''Because of the pressures there has been a lot of dialogue on lower levels. It hasn't resulted in the complete settlement of problems overnight, but I think it puts enough pressure on the militia leaders to be able to be flexible and compromise,'' says Somali businessman Mohammed Jirdah Hussein.

To bring some order, Islamic law courts have begun to spread. The courts are popular with many Somalis despite their harsh sentences. Detractors say the courts are unlikely to gain more followers as an alternative to no law at all.

The UN's Special Envoy to Somalia Victor Gbaho says the winding down of the UN operation known as UNISOM will pose problems for faction heads.

''All those that used to derive an income from UNISOM are [now] going to turn to their faction leaders,'' Mr. Gbaho says. ''And the faction leaders have no answer as of now.''

Departing UN officials have urged the world not to abandon Somalia. But Stefania Peace, an aid worker with the International Committee for Popular Development, says local groups must begin to look to Somali resources to finance humanitarian projects. ''I hope that Somalis have come to understand they have to take responsibility not only for their politics but their needs,'' she says.

Statistics from the UN World Food Programme show that the recent harvest in the most-fertile regions in Somalia was up to 80 percent of prewar levels. Still Ms. Peace says famine could return if Somalia's infrastructure is not rebuilt and political stability remains elusive.

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