A Return To Somalia

Our plane to Mogadishu is a Soviet-made Ilyushin-18, built in the Khrushchev era. The exhaust funnels are charred black, the tires bald. A Russian in blue overalls paces the aisle with an extra-long screwdriver and a lit cigarette as Somali passengers complain--in short, sharp blasts of invective--about the heat. Everyone is sweating, it seems, except for the man across the aisle, who has a graying beard and wears a turban in the style of an Afghan warrior. "To believe in God, you have to believe in his messenger, Muhammad," he says after takeoff. "Everyone who accepts Islam will be successful in front of Allah. If you don't, you will be sent to hell."

For the 90-minute flight from northern Somalia, as the Ilyushin growls and lurches, Yaacob Haji Abdo relentlessly works to convert me. He speaks in parables, inducements (four wives!) and dark warnings about the wrath of God. He sings poetic verses from the Koran in a haunting voice that strains to reach the higher registers, and one of his bearded companions rubs sweet perfume on my wrist. All of which is harmless enough. But fundamentalist groups have grown more powerful in Somalia in recent years, and it's sometimes difficult to distinguish religious zealots from radical extremists. So when Abdo asks me where I'll be staying tonight, I feign ignorance; the Ilyushin hits the tarmac to a murmur of mumbled prayers.

Photographer Mark Peters and I have returned to Somalia to see what has become of the African nation since we covered the war, famine and massive relief effort of the early 1990s. One of my last memories from that time is of a U.S. marine hitting Mogadishu beach in December 1992--an inky spot against the moonlit surf before television klieg lights hit him in the face. Within weeks, some security had been restored and food was getting to the needy. But by the following October, Somalia had become, for many Americans, a byword for the perils of intervening in far-off lands: in a famously fierce Mogadishu street battle, Somali gunmen killed 18 U.S. soldiers, and the public saw pictures of naked Army Rangers dragged through the streets.

To this day, Somalia casts a long shadow over U.S. policy. Even as Washington sends troops to other global hot spots, the administration's first priority is not to expose them to dangers of the sort that might turn public opinion. But Somalia's lessons extend well beyond Washington. For now, there are two Somalias. One is described by United Nations officials as a "black hole," where rival militias fight over scarce resources and terrorists recruit and train. The other is a peaceful if dilapidated territory with its own fragile government. The most ironic aspect is this: the success story is unfolding where international forces never intervened.

Our Ilyushin couldn't land at Mogadishu airport because opposing warlords claim it as their own. Instead, we put down at the old Soviet air base at Bale Dogle, 60 miles to the northwest. Someone in the jostling crowd grabs $50 for "landing fees," which will go to the local militia. "It's very precarious here now," says Hassan Shire Sheikh, a human-rights researcher who has come to greet us. "This is a very strategic place." The Rahanwein Resistance Army, the militia representing the clan of the same name, took the central town of Baidoa in June. With backing from the Ethiopian Army, the RRA now is threatening to take Bale Dogle.

We drive about a mile past the rubble of old buildings and the gutted husk of a MiG fighter to the perimeter of the air base. There we meet our "security detail," seven former militiamen who now work for a Mogadishu guest house. "The militiamen now are war weary," Hassan assures us. "Most of them are dead, and those who survived want to live."

I wonder aloud about Dr. Ayub Yerow, the Somali UNICEF doctor who was killed in an ambush a week before near Jowhar, 50 miles northeast of Mogadishu. Hassan tells us that he made the mistake of traveling with guards in just one vehicle. "When you're bringing VIPs, which means foreigners or people working for foreign agencies, you need two cars," he says. "Defense has to come from the escort car." Not five minutes later, we realize that we've lost our escort and pull to the side of the road. Eventually, the missing vehicle races up and its gunmen toss small bundles of khat--the leafy narcotic that Somali men chew for an amphetaminelike high--to the guards in our car.

Once swarming with relief workers, Mogadishu these days is out of bounds for nearly all foreigners. Journalists occasionally drop in, but the media horde is long gone. Where once the city was a battleground for two main militias and their subclans, now at least five militias claim vaguely defined pockets as their own. Western intelligence agencies believe that Osama bin Laden, the Saudi exile who allegedly masterminded the bombings of U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania last year, visited Mogadishu seven months ago. "He was prospecting to see if he could establish himself in Somalia," says a diplomat familiar with intelligence reports. The conventional wisdom is that he decided he'd be too easily betrayed there.

Physical evidence of the once massive American presence is scarce. The $35 million American Embassy, where U.S. forces set up base when they returned, is wrecked and abandoned. All we can find of the two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters shot down in the firefight on Oct. 3, 1993, is what appears to be a rotor joint, tangled in a coil of barbed wire like a discarded chicken bone. "People feel that international [forces] should come back and make peace," says Hassan, expressing a view we'd hear several times in Mogadishu.

Few countries would have the stomach for that. (The Somali precedent, in fact, helped paralyze world powers while as many as 500,000 Rwandans were slaughtered in 1994.) But reboard the Ilyushin and fly to Hargeysa in the north, and you'll find a different Somalia. The people here call their territory Somaliland, and they want no part of the thuggery to the south. In Hargeysa, children in crisp white shirts attend school and play cheerful games of soccer. Their parents busily rebuild broken homes, hammering new roofs or whitewashing walls. Astonishingly, not a gun is in sight.

It wasn't always this tranquil. As in the south, the fall of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 gave way to clan fighting. But northern clans rejected outside intervention, and relied instead on traditional institutions--including clan elders--to make peace. With loans from local businessmen, the Somalilanders eventually formed their own government. "All along, it was an indigenous process," says Finance Minister Mohammed Said Gees. "There were no imported ideas from outside."

Why did Somaliland succeed while the south failed? The north didn't suffer mass starvation, and other local factors also came into play. Somaliland was colonized by the British, who allowed traditional clan structures to function, while the south was colonized by Italy, which largely crushed them. Still, the huge rescue effort in the south, while achieving the urgent aim of eradicating starvation, also fueled the militias. When they weren't stealing aid, the warlords took a cut on rent, transport and "security." The mere act of negotiating with the warlords enhanced their stature.

The warlords, in short, got their payoff. So you'd think the peacemakers in Somaliland would get theirs. But officials here, who would like Somaliland to be recognized as an independent state, are often shunned. Foreign governments don't want to encourage secession, so Somaliland exists in limbo. It can't establish a postal service. Its central bank can't issue letters of credit. And it can't get World Bank assistance. "We've established a healthy haven in a very rough neighborhood," says Deputy Parliament Speaker Abdulqadir Ismail Jirde. "We just want a nod from Uncle Sam that we're going in the right direction." As the world gropes for ways to save failed states, it might try helping those who help themselves.