MOMBASA, KENYA, JAN. 6 -- Of all the horrors 45-year-old Mohamud Aden Yusuf encountered during 10 days he spent recently in Mogadishu, the war-ravaged capital of Somalia, he said none surpassed the grisly sight of 35 dead Somali soldiers lying in a perfectly straight row on a downtown street, rotting in the afternoon sun.
"Why don't you bury these people?" Yusuf said he asked several young rebels guarding their human trophies closely, weapons in hand. "Why do you leave them like this to waste away?"
Because President Mohamed Siad Barre's men did the same thing to a rebel squad last year, one of the youths replied. "This is eye for eye," he told Yusuf.
As the week-long fighting between anti-government rebels and troops loyal to Siad Barre flared today with renewed force in Mogadishu, Yusuf and scores of other foreigners, evacuated to this Kenyan port town Saturday night, gave some of the first accounts of life and death in Somalia since telephone and telex links were severed there last week.
Rescued from Mogadishu by Italian cargo planes, the evacuees -- about 200 in all, Italians, Egyptians, French and Soviets among them -- described a city swathed in thick clouds of smoke and gripped by anarchy and terror, a place where armed robbery, mass looting and clan violence spurred by fervent desires for retribution appear to take precedence over more generally accepted ways of warfare.
"We were never attacked or threatened," said an Italian woman, who fled with her two children and declined to be identified for fear of endangering Somali friends and relatives remaining in the capital. "But the guns are shooting all the time. The people are taking such revenge on each other. All we could do was hide."
Siad Barre's government has battled three rebel groups for six years. But the evacuees said the current fighting apparently was triggered on Dec. 30 by the killing of a Somali military officer during a robbery of a government warehouse in Mogadishu by suspected rebels. Government troops subsequently conducted house-to-house searches for the bandits, allegedly slaying at least 20 people.
According to Africa Watch, a London-based human rights group, the victims -- possibly as many as 61 -- were all members of the Hawiye clan, the majority clan in Mogadishu and central Somalia. Siad Barre's government, which has been accused of numerous atrocities against civilians in the past, is made up mainly of the minority Marehan clan but has managed to hold power for 21 years by playing rival clans against each other.
According to evacuee accounts, the government tried to counter the Hawiyes by providing arms to another clan, the Ogadenis. "But the plan backfired," said Yusuf, an ethnic Somali who holds Italian citizenship, teaches mechanical engineering in Turin, Italy, and owns a construction business in Mogadishu. "These people went about committing robberies and looting businesses instead of helping Siad Barre. . . . They are just as much against the government as the Hawiyes."
At the same time, the city was inflitrated by rebels of the Hawiye-dominated United Somali Congress, who began to attack government posts. But several foreigners today said the group's guerrillas -- who often can be identified on city streets by white headbands adorned with the letters "USC" in red and armbands proclaiming, in Arabic, "God is great" -- seem to constitute only a fraction of the anti-government combatants fighting in Mogadishu.
Yusuf said much of the fighting is being done by "petrol station owners, taxi drivers" and many other Hawiye civilians with weapons taking revenge on the government and the Marehan people. "This is not war," said Yusuf. "It is chaos, anarchy."
He said most of Mogadishu's dead -- more than 1,500, according to rebel estimates -- appeared to have been slain during armed robberies, looting sprees and seemingly wanton shelling by government artillery.
Last month, weapons were so plentiful in the city's markets that an AK-47 assault weapon could be bought for less than $300, the evacuees said. "The economy went so bad some of the soldiers were selling their weapons to make money. So many people have arms in Mogadishu -- some are even walking around with axes in their hands," said Yusuf, who said he purchased two AK-47s last month and gave them to his guards to protect his construction business.
Yusuf said he flew from Italy to Mogadishu shortly after Christmas to visit his two sons; the fighting began a few days later.
"Nothing is safe," he said, running through a list of things stolen and places looted in the city by soldiers, women and even children, seemingly every place from the United Nations complex and the University of Mogadishu to the Ministry of Veterinary Medicine.
"The soldiers went to the American apartments and took everything, even the windows," said Yusuf. "I saw three soldiers carrying a computer. They thought it would be a good thing to hold water."
Yusuf and the other evacuees, who were interviewed at a Mombasa hotel, said Mogadishu's population of about 500,000 has been cut at least in half as streams of people flee south on foot and increasing numbers of government troops and Marehan clan members head west toward the town of Garba Hare, a traditional Marehan homeland.
"I think the people will have to be fed up soon. No food around, no transportation. Everything is closed in Mogadishu," he said. "It's a ghost city."
Underscoring the sense of anarchy that has come to define life in Mogadishu is the fact that none of the foreigners interviewed here could name a rebel leader. There also was a sense among them that Siad Barre, apparently still holed up at a military barracks south of the city, continues to command more firepower than the insurgents.
Yusuf, who said he belongs to a clan affiliated with Siad Barre's Marehan, said he believes "more than 90 percent of the Somali people hate this man and want him to go." In the end, he added, Somalia's future may be decided not by war, a national referendum or even a new political program but by a peace agreement reached by the nation's clan elders when everyone is finally sick enough of the killing to talk.
For now, however, the killing goes on. Fierce fighting in Mogadishu today stalled Italy's evacuation efforts as two Italian cargo planes were unable to land at Mogadishu airport to pick up the remaining 150 foreigners stranded there.
Meanwhile, two U.S. naval vessels that were detached from the Persian Gulf armada to rescue 87 Americans and an unknown number of other foreigners from the U.S. Embassy in Mogadishu returned north toward the Arabian Peninsula with the evacuees. U.S. officials said the ships were urgently needed for Operation Desert Shield and that the evacuees would fly home once they reached an unnamed port in the gulf region.