Baidoa is still starving
The U.S. is now sending troops into somalia, to fight the extremist group al-Shabab, according to the Associated Press. Al-Shabab is taking advantage of a weak, emerging democracy and a famine gripping the horn of Africa. That famine is one of the biggest humanitarian disasters since World War II, wrote Jeffrey Gittleman of the New York Times on March 27th. The shadow of starvation looms over Somalia, Sudan, Nigeria and Yemen, and was also reported by 60 Minutes in March. One focus of the famine is the town of Baidoa in South Central Somalia.
Baidoa was also the focus of famine relief efforts a quarter-century ago when President George H.W. Bush sent American troops into the country to lead a U.N. protection force. The military muscle was needed because armed clans intercepted food shipments before they could reach the hungry. Those clans no longer fight for control of the country, but al Shabaab, a terrorist group, remains a threat to the nations wobbly emerging government.
News 8 reporter Gary Reaves, photographer Cliff Williams, editor Brad Kaplan and myself accompanied Army and Marines into the nation in December of 1992. The notes and photographs are mine.
Tuesday, December 15th
Today on the way to the ABC News compound, near the Legionnaires checkpoint, I notice a donkey, one day dead, lying on the sidewalk. The corpse continues to the reek in this area of the city, which might be called stench hollow Children lay a few feet away, undaunted by the birds pecking t it, and the flies buzzing above. People walk by, stop, chat, go about their business. In this nonexistent society, there are no police, and no city services of course, so nobody thinks twice about moving it. Death, human or animal, wherever it is, is ignored.
We need petrol for our land rover. It falls upon me to venture to the marketplace to buy some. Merchants live in makeshift shacks all up and down Mogadishu’s main drag. But one crossroads is he center of activity. That’s were you buy petrol. There is no gas pump, of course, but five liter cans from which folks siphon gas into your tank. I get out of the land cruiser and wade into the crowd with Mahat, our translator, at my side. Immediately, I’m surrounded by people, some of whom want to touch me, just for the novelty, some of whom are beggars, and some of whom are thieves. A news camera was stolen here yesterday and several Americans have been mugged at this location.
My task is to procure fuel for two vehicles. The woman selling diesel insists the exchange rate is 440 Somali shillings to the dollar. The man selling gasoline says the exchange rate is 5000 to the dollar. Time passes. We start yelling at each other. The Somali man comes to me and puts his hand on my shoulder, a form of apology, I sense, and an interesting gesture. He touches Mahat’s chin with his thumb and forefinger, another signal of rapprochement. We strike a deal. I agree to pay $20 to have one vehicle filled and $50 for the other, taking the money out of my wallet in public. A stupid move, we all agree later. But soon we are off without incident.
The rainy season (of which there are two) has just ended. The countryside is verdant. Along the road, nomads are moving their camps. Their flexible stick-tents are roped to the backs of camels. The animals stride softly to their next encampment, the locator bells around their necks tinkling gently with their rhythmic steps.
The camel is elemental to the nomadic life, providing transportation, milk and meat. Each animal has a distinctive face defined by the nose and upper lip, which imparts a near human expression.
When Somali society was healthier, these nomads were its backbone. But a series of droughts drove the nomads into the city, and civil war threatened their existence. Today, in 1992, those still in the country tell us they’re afraid that their animals will be stolen by armed bandits.
Gary interviews several herders on their opinions of the American presence, something we hope the audience has not seen.
Driving back to our beds late that night, the eeriness of Mogadishu after dark is enchanting. A city of a million people without electricity. After dark there is little movement or sound. Night, although often broken by the odd gunshot, brings a kind of peace.
Along the road, thronging with people during daylight, are isolated kerosene lanterns and charcoal fires. Dark forms squat. Faces flicker in the illumination, as fathers, mothers and children wonder what comes next.
Wednesday, December 16
Baidoa is about a hundred miles northwest of Mogadishu. It is a city of about a quarter million people, which holds some of the biggest pockets of starvation in the country. To get there, you must drive through a dozen check points, half of which are manned by armed guards. The road is pocked with chuckholes, and you’re lucky to average more than thirty miles an hour on the journey.
We arrange for an extra guard for the Rover, and extra guns. The U.S. Marines moved into the city yesterday, but where the Marines are not, the bandits are. And there’s a vacuum between Mog. and Baidoa.
Immediately, Baidoa appears poorer than Mogadishu, as impossible as that seems. There are fewer walled compounds and more wrecked cars. The children seem scrawnier. The place is abuzz with excitement in the wake of the Marines’ arrival, as the crowds seem to anticipate that change is coming. We interview two officials of NGO’s, (Non-government aid organizations such as CARE), who tell us how different this day is because the Marines have arrived.
We visit a feeding center. Here the images of suffering children, spindly arms and protruding bellies, that have been lurking in our minds since we left Texas, become reality. In a rocky yard next to a CARE facility, a hundred mothers and children squat in lines, waiting for a dole of red beans and rice. They hold tin pails, plastic bags and wooden bowls to carry their meals, which they will take back to their makeshift tents to eat. The food is cooked up in metal vats over wooden fires, and passed over a stone fence to the lines of people. Flies buzz over the vats, which smell like spoiled frijoles.
Yet the children line up, have their food dumped in their plastic bags, and smile back at you when you grin at them.
The most haunting image of the trip came to me here, of a mother and her small daughter. The mother was so thin that the outlines of her teeth were visible through her cheeks. Her little girl stood next to her wearing a maroon-striped dashiki, with what appeared to be a silver necklace around her neck. On closer inspection the necklace proved to be a zipper, ripped out of a discarded pair of pants and made into an ornament. The child had a sweet broad smile, quickly given, which revealed perfect, brilliantly white teeth. When she waved at me I noticed her hands were covered with yellowish bumps, some kind of skin ailment. But whatever was eating her and whatever she did not have to eat did not keep her from bestowing that smile.
There were fewer smiles at the IMC hospital in Baidoa. The now familiar stench of vomit and decay hung in the rooms like an invisible fog. The sicker here were sicker than the invalids we’d seen before. A man laid on his side in the middle of a bare concrete floor, the edge of his pelvis like a blade under his skin. Women and children laid quietly in one ward, laboring to breathe, staring straight ahead.
And yet we were told that conditions began to improve in Baidoa even with the rumors of the Marines arrival. Food started to get through. People were eating more. Fewer were dying every night.
At a gate outside the Baidoa airport, where the Americans were camped, Marine guards pumped energy into throngs of children simply by their presence. The young men, so much bigger and healthier than the people they were there to help, were the embodiment of a Marine ethos I was to encounter in Iraq. U.S. Marines: No Better Friend, No Worse enemy. The kids wanted to see for themselves. The Marines were prepared. Using a pamphlet they’d printed up, they pointed to a drawing of themselves and talked the children through it in English. “This is me. This is you. We shake hands. U.S. Marines, Number One,” was the refrain. . And one Marine threw in another line. “Budweiser Number One, too.”
We finished our stories and drove back to Mogadishu without incident. Two days later an ABC convoy would be fired on for several minutes and have their Rover stolen on the same route.
Thursday December 17
Cliff, Brad and I accompany a Marine food convoy to the north part of Mogadishu, past the “green line” which separates the city’s two warring clans. We pass hulks of bombed out buildings--the ugliest remnants we’ve seen so far of the civil war. As we drive, people line the streets and wave, as if we’re a parade.
We arrive at a crossroads. The Marines, in their machine-gun armed HUMVEES, take up guard positions, and we walk to the feeding center. That sweet death reek is in the are again, as we pick our way up the sides of a dirt street. The street is firm on the edges and soft in the middle. We are told that the center of the street is used as a burial ground.
The Dutchman who runs this operation tells me that as long as the troops remain, there’ll be no troubling getting food through. How long should the troops stay? Four or six months, he says. (U.S. troops finally left the country in 1994, near two years later).
Friday December 18
Our last stories are edited and fed. We depart today.
When I tell Mahat, our translator, we are leaving, he almost starts to cry. “You must help me get out, Mr. Byron,” he says. “There is no work here. We are prisoners in our country.” He often lapses into a falsetto chuckle when discussing a hopeless topic and he begins the laugh.
Aircraft are landing at the airport now with ever-greater regularity. Standing on the roof of our compound, we can see it all happen, while also watching Somali children play in the street. Choppers roar over our house to a new landing zone close by. 747’s and DC-10’s in civilian markings are disgorging troops onto the runway. The brilliant sun is magnified by the white walls of the city. Gunshots go off in the distance, and soon a Cobra attack helicopter is hovering on the horizon.
In the street below, an anchor woman from WLS-TV in Chicago is passing out cans of fruit cocktail to the well-fed neighborhood children while her photographer shoots it.
At home, our Christmas trees await us. shopping centers. Television. Thinking of all that, I can hear Mahat’s laugh.