US-led convoy heads for stricken Somali town

EYEWITNESS: Mark Huband in Baidoa

The Guardian, 16 December 1992


ALONG roads until recently used only by refugees, nomadic camel herders and merchants transporting the daily supply of the narcotic drug qat to the interior of Somalia, American forces moved north in convoy last night towards the stricken town of Baidoa.

“We are all one big happy family from now on,” declared Robert Oakley, the United States ambassador-at-large, after meeting clan leaders, religious elders, aid officials and heads of the faction that controls the town, the Somali Democratic Movement. He did not expect the troops to meet any resistance from armed gangs, he said, although gunmen have set up new checkpoints along the road to Baidoa along which several hundred American and French troops will pass.

The 70-vehicle convoy left the capital, Mogadishu, yesterday morning carrying 500 soldiers. It was to join other vehicles at the air base of Baledoglay before carrying on to Baidoa, where the death rate has doubled to up to 70 a day in the past month.

Groups of gunmen sit beside the road chewing qat, yelling at cars to stop and demanding various bounties to allow them passage. Vehicles with mounted weapons still speed through the streets of Baidoa, although most of this fleet of what have become known as “technical” have been hidden outside town. Somali relief agency workers estimate that 2,500 weapons have been hidden in town to avoid confiscation.

“The Somalis understand disarmament to mean that foreign military forces are coming in to take their weapons away, but this is not in the mission,” Mr Oakley said. “We are going to work co-operatively with the Somalis. They are going to take the lead, which is the right way because it is their country. This is so as to avoid a backlash against the foreign forces who have come in to help.”

More than any other town engulfed by Somalia’s famine, which has killed up to 500,000 people, Baidoa has revealed the extremes of experience the tragedy has created. There is still a steady drift of hungry, sick people into the town from the surrounding villages. Continued fighting to the east, as well as fear of the gunmen who continue to loot in the villages, has created this drift.

Visits to the famine victims of Baidoa now have to be booked in advance with relief agencies operating the town’s feeding centres. Since reporters trampled starving children at one centre in their desperation to obtain the best photographs during a recent visit by Sophia Loren, the Irish aid organisation Concern will allow journalists to visit two centres only, and has insisted that visits are pre-booked so as to limit the number of reporters at anyone time.

The arrival of 100 journalists in a town with one hotel, one two-lane street and two restaurants has heightened the cruelty of the famine by providing stark contrasts. A reporter with an American television network was seen openly consuming a diet drink in front of famine victims at a feeding centre in the town.

Meanwhile the local value of the US dollar has fallen by 50 per cent in two days as money changers cash in on the arrival of the press and the anticipated arrival of the troops. “We’re paying $1,300 a day to be here. And we’d have paid double that if we’d had to,” said an American television producer.

In recent weeks most famine-weakened victims have died from the effect of rain rather than hunger. Clashes between rival clans have also increased the death toll. Meanwhile, thefts from relief agencies have boosted the local economy, revived businesses and led to shops reopening. Such is the lawlessness that thieves who stole a generator from the relief agency Care at gunpoint last week returned the next day and demanded six million Somali shillings for its return.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited