Looters lurk among starving as Marines move in

Mark Huband in Baidoa

The Guardian, 17 December 1992


JUST as the mosques were calling the faithful to prayer yesterday morning, American Marines and French foreign legionnaires trundled into the disease-ridden and anarchic Somali town of Baidoa.

The arrival of the convoy of 77 military vehicles may mark the end of a nightmare for a town where more than 2,000 people a month are dying from famine, sickness and armed clashes.

By the end of the day the troops had escorted a food convoy to an orphanage. The gunmen who systematically loot relief food had faded into the crowd of onlookers, having hidden up to 2,500 guns and driven their mounted weapons out into the villages.

Today, Care International will drive its first US-protected food convoy of 100 tonnes of wheat from Baidoa to Bonkai, 18 miles away. The last convoy to the village was attacked by bandits; 10 people were killed.

The suffering has gone on for so long that the adults who have watched their children die are now traumatised, lonely and devastated, Yesterday they smiled as they watched the foreign troops arrive, aware that this was their last chance for survival.

“Welcome. Welcome. Welcome.” A young woman, her face lined with fatigue and the horror of what she had seen in the past two years, waved, weakly and smiled a shy smile, her eyes sparkling with delight. Old women carrying loads of wood on their backs put down their burden to watch the spectacle.

“It’s as if they have been liberated,” said Colonel Bourgain of the French foreign legion.

The convoy and an airlift later yesterday morning brought 530 US Marines and 142 French legionnaires and paratroopers to Baidoa. They secured the town’s airfield and are arranging meetings with relief agencies to discuss security for their personnel and for food convoys.

The agencies, which pay enormous amounts to hired gunmen for protection against looters, have been told they will not get US protection for their compounds or staff unless they ask for it.

“The Marines are not going to push us around,” the head of one organisation in Baidoa said yesterday. “This is our operation. The Marines are not really the ones for this job. They’re going to have to learn how to be more flexible.”

The local political situation is volatile, because of worsening relations between the Rahanwen clan which traditionally controls Baidoa, and the Habagadir elan which dominates General Mohamed Farah Aideed’s United Somali Congress.

In Baidoa, the leader of the Rahanwen Somali Democratic Movement, Mohamed Nur Alio, said yesterday that he did not expect any resistance to the foreign troops and welcomed their arrival.”

© Guardian Newspapers Limited