Catholic Relief Service workers just returned to their Baltimore headquarters from Somalia said yesterday they believe the presence of U.S. troops will effectively inhibit the armed bands that have blocked distribution of humanitarian aid to starving thousands of Somalis.
"We have ample food, medicine and plastic sheeting available," said John A. Swenson, deputy director of the relief agency. "My impression is that, when confronted by well-armed and well-disciplined U.S. troops, the Somali bands are not going to challenge them."
He said one of the euphemistically named "technicals" -- armed teen-agers and even pre-teens in seized vehicles who provide protection from looting for a fee -- assured him just before he left Somalia: "We're not looking for trouble when the Americans come."
Mr. Swenson and Peter Shiras, senior Catholic Relief director for Africa, returned to Baltimore Sunday night from their fact-finding trip to Kenya and Somalia.
They said people in the 12 villages south and west of Baidoa in south central Somalia, where food is so urgently needed, had been pleading: "When are the Americans coming?"
Two members of the Catholic Relief Services staff, Pat Johns and Dan Smith, remained in Baidoa. They were not injured by a firefight in front of their office that took at least 20 lives Sunday. Two other staffers were evacuated over the weekend.
Fighting between rival clansmen continued yesterday in Baidoa, and officials said the death toll had reached almost 50.
"The situation in Baidoa is fluid," Ken Hackett reported to his superiors in Baltimore. "We are continuing to feed the hungry for now, but we can't say what will happen tomorrow."
Mr. Hackett, who oversees CRS' emergency aid program in Somalia from a regional office at Nairobi, in neighboring Kenya, said: "We will continue working as long as we have minimum assurances of safety."
While last week's move by the United Nations and the Bush administration to dispatch up to 30,000 peace-keeping U.S. troops to Somalia is thought to have aggravated tensions among warring factions in the countryside, Mr. Swenson predicted: "U.S. intervention is the right thing. The danger will be abated by a demonstration of force."
In addition to the two staffers still in Baidoa, CRS employs about 20 Somalis as translators, liaison with the truckers and representatives in the villages. All are unarmed and will remain so, Mr. Swenson said.
"The killing is among the Somalis," he said. "Not many aid workers have been threatened."
However, he attributed their relative safety in part to the protection paid to the so-called technicals.
"These are young kids, some teen-agers, some younger than that, all armed, who ride around in seized jeeps, vans, lorries," Mr. Swenson said. "They are involved in the protection rackets, or in some cases they are just plain looters.
"It looks like the movie, 'Road Warrior.' "
He said he saw hundreds of such people roaming the streets of Baidoa last week.
There are higher levels of armed opposition within Somalia to the distribution of humanitarian supplies to the people who actually need them, he said. They are "the warlords with their own, somewhat disciplined armies competing for political power" and "clans or sub-clans with shifting allegiances."
Despite the comparative safety of the unarmed relief workers, Mr. Swenson said, the uncertainty can be unnerving. Last Thursday, he and Mr. Shiras were on their way to the Baidoa
airport when their driver suddenly made a U-turn and sped back to their compound. The driver explained that a firefight had been under way just ahead of them.
Catholic Relief Services has an annual budget of about $260 million for food, development and other aid in 70 countries. The U.S. government pays $188 million of the total, including $55 million in reimbursement for overseas transportation of goods. About $54 million comes from private U.S. sources and $16 million comes from international organizations and various governments.
In Somalia, since the current CRS emergency aid program began about two months ago, 6,700 metric tons of food have been supplied by the U.S. government, with an estimated value of more than $13 million, a CRS spokesman said.
The Somalian emergency program also includes $3.2 million in private funds, he said.
The plan is to add 31,000 metric tons of food next year for a total of nearly 38,000 tons for Somalian relief.
The CRS feeding program in Baidoa supplies 110,000 Somalis in critical need, the spokesman said. It now includes 34 metric tons of food daily being airlifted in by a Protestant relief agency, Lutheran World Federation.
CRS also operates a cross-border feeding program for another 70,000 Somalis from Mandera and El Wak on the Kenyan border, he said.
From Baidoa, the relief efforts in the hands of Somalis employed by CRS push out to 12 villages of the Bey and Gedo regions extending as far as Dinsor and Qansandere.
The cost of the food they are distributing ranges from $182 to $220 a ton for grain to $400 a ton for powdered milk.