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  Somalia Looks To Make Fresh Start

By George Mwangi
Associated Press Writer
Monday, Oct. 2, 2000; 2:38 a.m. EDT

BAIDOA, Somalia –– At a derelict military base in Baidoa, a beheaded statue of a soldier stands guard next to a toothless statue of a lion.

This "city of death," as it became known during Somalia's civil war, with its vandalized statues and young men in pickup trucks tricked out with anti-aircraft guns, is about to become the seat of the country's new government – the first in a decade.

If all goes according to plan, here a transitional parliament will make a new beginning after a conflict that raged through the 1990s, shocked the world and drew in American and other foreign troops.

Somalia has been chaotic, violent and without a central government since faction leaders joined forces to oust dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. The factions then fought with each other, splintering the Horn of Africa nation into battling fiefdoms.

Even now, after the election of a president by Somali elders and his return to a rapturous welcome, the temporary capital-to-be is controlled by the clan-based Rahanwein Resistance Army.

Having restored a semblance of law and order in Baidoa, the militia says it is ready for the new government. "We welcome the new parliament. We are prepared for it because we are committed to peace," said Mohamed Mohamed, a senior Rahanwein official. "We are going to solve everything in dialogue. As far as warlords are concerned, their time is over."

"The main problem in Somalia is insecurity. Somalia's people need peace," said Mohamed Alasow, as he supervised a UNICEF/WHO polio vaccination campaign.

Baidoa lies 110 miles northwest of the official capital, Mogadishu. It had 50,000 people in the last census, but that was in 1981 and no one has counted since.

Once a key market town in an area dominated by the Rahanwein clan, Baidoa fell to forces loyal to Mohamed Farah Aidid, the late faction leader, in 1991, when war-induced famine killed thousands and made it "the city of death."

Last year, militiamen loyal to Aidid's son, Hussein, looted and wrecked the town as the RRA pushed them back toward Mogadishu. The restoration of a local administration was the first step to restoring peace to Baidoa, and renewing hope.

"If there were no war, I would be a doctor," said Abdullahi Isak Suubow, who was to have enrolled in Somalia's National University in the year the troubles began. Today the 30-year-old is a radio announcer: "We are calling the people, using the radio to make peace."

The 245 legislators and President Abdiqasim Salad Hassan, who were elected in neighboring Djibouti in August, are expected to begin meeting in Baidoa under a big tent sometime in October, according to Mohamed, the militia official.

Some $150 million belonging to the Somali state has been transferred to the new government, and police and security forces are being recruited in Mogadishu, he said.

A lot remains to be settled, though. Somalia's neighbors have accepted the deal worked out in Djibouti, and the new president was cheered when he toured the country a month ago. But the international community has yet to sign on to the arrangement or release badly needed funds and support.

Nor have all Somalis accepted the new government. Leaders of the breakaway regions of Somaliland and Puntland say they're waiting for peace to be restored in other regions before meeting with the new president. Militia leaders in Mogadishu have also refused to embrace the new administration.

But in Baidoa, people have only to walk down the streets to sample the fruits of peace: a central market brimming with goods ranging from secondhand shoes to homemade candy; entrepreneurs producing electricity for sale with small generators; four primary schools refurbished by UNICEF.

In one of the rehabilitated classrooms, Abdul Karim Osman sings his heart out.

"We are students, we are students, and we hope Allah will help us learn," the 15-year-old sings with 40 other Muslim students in one of the rehabilitated classroom.

Osman dreams of becoming a teacher. "I hate war," he says. "It is very bad."

© Copyright 2000 The Associated Press

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