Death rate doubles in Somali city frightened to plant for the future

Mark Huband in Baidoa reports on the effects of bandits moving from Mogadishu, killing with some weapons and hiding others for when the foreigners leave

The Guardian, 14 December 1992


DEATHS from famine and disease in one of Somalia’s worst- hit towns have doubled in a month because of armed clashes between rival clans and seasonal rains afflicting people already severely weakened by hunger.

Figures issued yesterday by the Red Crescent Society show that 60 people, most of them adults, died in Baidoa on Saturday. A month ago the figure was around 30. The figures are much lower than those for August and September, but they reflect a worsening trend caused by the continued looting of food in villages.

Relief agencies have tried to restart crop growing but people are too frightened of bandits to return to their villages.

American Marines, of whom 3,000 have arrived out of a total expected force of 28,000 being sent to protect food convoys, are expected to arrive in Baidoa on Wednesday.

A French military spokesman said yesterday that French troops from the 2,100 promised win accompany them. The US yesterday moved further out of Mogadishu when it occupied the military airbase of Balydoglay, 60 miles from the capital on the road to Baidoa. On Saturday a Marine helicopter in Mogadishu fired missiles at three armoured vehicles driven by gangs who had shot at the helicopter with machine guns. A US statement said the three vehicles were destroyed without US injuries. It gave no casualty figures for the bandits, who are all assumed to have been killed.

The continued drift of people to Baidoa from the town of Bardera, which fell to forces loyal to the deposed Somali dictator Siad Barre in October, has brought a new wave of sick and hungry victims of the famine. Villagers have continued to drift in from fighting, hunger and looting by bandits, concentrating both the continued humanitarian crisis and the political crises which have become increasingly influential.

“It’s raining a lot, and that is hurting very much. But also the thieves they just wait outside the camps. They have even taken my shirt from my back and threatened to kill me if I don’t give it to them. We are afraid in our homes. The thieves have all come up from Mogadishu. The educated people have all gone abroad. The only people left are the tribal people. The ones with guns. People are doing very shameful things,” said a Somali relief worker yesterday. Insecurity has led to most relief agencies reducing their expatriate staff in Baidoa.

Those who remain are advised not to go out during the afternoon, by which time most of the gunmen have spent several hours chewing the drug qat, which means they become barely responsible for what they are doing.

Death rates in Baidoa increased by 20 per cent in only two days last week when clashes between rival clans erupted, the Red Crescent figures show.

The clashes, plus the activities of the thieves – called the “moryhan” – have created reluctance among people to follow the advice of the relief agencies and return to their villages, despite the promise of seeds to plant and the steady growth of crops planted earlier in the year.

Baidoa will be a major test for the foreign troops. Relief agencies have been critical of the fact that they have not occupied the town already, as their absence has given the gunmen time to hide weapons, while high expectations of the troops have worsened tension.

Two Somali relief workers said yesterday they estimated that 2,500 weapons have been buried, to be used once the foreign troops have gone. Even so, vehicles with heavy guns mounted on them, as well as AK-47 machine guns, were yesterday still present throughout Baidoa.

The town is in the clan territory of the Rahanwen, whose military leader Mohamed Nur Alio is part of the Somali National Alliance led General Mohamed Farah Aideed, the country’s main faction leader. However, relations between Gen Aideed’s Habagadir sub-clan and the Rahanwen have been deteriorating in the past month, largely due to the heavy presence of the Habargidir looters in Baidoa after their expulsion from Bardera.

The two clans were united in the overthrow of President Barre, but are traditional rivals. The clear determination of the foreign troops to disarm all gunmen, irrespective of their affiliations, will leave these two clans defenceless while still at odds with each other. This will increase their determination to hold on to their guns.

“If the US comes they will not be defending the Rahanwen against the Habagadir. If they simply take the guns then it will end the problem, but people are burying their guns, and we people who want to see peace will still be too afraid to tell where the guns are hidden,” said one frightened refugee who had walked 50 miles to Baidoa to flee fighting in the south.

The Rahanwen clan also dominates Somalia’s religious institutions, and Baidoa is the home of the most powerful of the country’s Muslim leaders, Imam Haji Ali Mahmoud. Yesterday he blamed continued clashes in and around the town on the moryhan.

He reflected the doubts of many Somalis about the foreign troops’ presence. He said that while most people want to see an end to the banditry, “I don’t know whether the troops will bring peace or not. But if they interrupt our religion then there will be bloodshed.”

© Guardian Newspapers Limited