BAIDOA, Somalia -- Five months ago this was a town full of skeletons, the staggering ambulatory kind, and the supine and torpid, the light of life visibly disappearing from their eyes. The living population was losing ground to the recent dead.
Most of the infants were dying off; the adults fell down dead in the road and were buried in shallow graves on the margin.
There seemed to be no end to it. Baidoa swelled from a town of 7,000 into a crowded camp of some 30,000 wretched souls. And day by day more and more of the desperate starving stumbled in from the surrounding scrubland.
Things have changed.
"Today," says Dan Smith, one of the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) people here, "some people are leaving, going back to the villages."
The death rate has fallen from over 100 a day to near 20, and many of those are dying of disease rather than starvation: dysentery and diarrhea, hepatitis, bronchitis, measles are rampant.
It is a blasted filthy town, full of wrecked and gutted buildings. It is dust-covered, a friendly habitat of flies, a place of many smells, only a few of them pleasant. Much of it was destroyed by warfare between the factions that fought over it so ferociously, fought so much in fact there was nothing valuable left.
The skeletal creatures of Somalia's starved, wrecked condition are still here.
But it is no longer simply a graveyard with a fast-growing population. Most, but not all, of the children in the streets have flesh on their bones. There is commerce in a market; a power company provides electricity about five hours a day.
The countryside, at the end of the short rainy season, is greener.
The relief effort is incessant. Four to six huge cargo planes land each day at the rotted airstrip outside of town, each one carrying 15 to 20 or more tons of grain.
They are unloaded in about 20 minutes by a squad of Somalian stevedores in a kind of loony but effective drill, with lots of chatting, grunting and shouting. Then the plane is off again to bring more from the stockpiles of U.S.-donated food in the warehouses of Nairobi and Mombasa, in Kenya.
CRS, CARE and the two Irish agencies, Concern and GOAL, move the food immediately to their feeding centers in Baidoa and truck it to the villages, sometimes going nearly 100 miles. No one ever wastes time around here.
A sorghum crop -- a staple of the Somalian diet -- is due for harvest in two weeks. Not a big one, but a start.
"If we make the March planting," says Mr. Smith, a 26-year-old Kansan, "then we'll be on our way."
Thus, there is progress to report: The Somalian famine is not beaten, but it is not advancing either. Mogadishu has sufficient food for its population. But out here things are still much harder than in Mogadishu, the capital. It will take time, and many more will die.
But in the end, the combined efforts of the relief agencies at work here almost from the start, and the new security offered by the U.S. troops, are likely to pay off. Operation Restore Hope, in the end, just might work. Soon the food will be trucked up in convoys from Mogadishu, a more efficient way of moving huge amounts than by air.
The special U.S. envoy to Somalia, Robert Oakley, came here yesterday to meet with local leaders and with the relief agencies. In effect, he was announcing the arrival of military units from Mogadishu that followed into town at daybreak today.
Considerable anxiety had been expressed by relief workers over the slowness of the Marines to move up this way from Mogadishu. There had been some shooting around town and some brandishing of weaponry by the thugs who used to dominate and terrorize the entire area. There were a couple of isolated killings.
And though the quiet of the night is shattered occasionally by automatic-weapon fire, nothing has happened to match the violence of two weeks ago, when more then 20 people were killed during gunfights, most of them bystanders.
Most of the gunmen are believed to have left town or stashed their guns.
U.S. jets have been flying over the town. Yesterday, as a prelude to today's arrival of ground troops, A-5s and F-14s were doing aerobatics over the town. On Monday they dropped leaflets, which many of the children had gathered up and were running around town with.
One side showed a U.S. Marine and a Somali shaking hands. In the background was an attack helicopter and a "technical" vehicle, the jury-rigged battle wagons favored by Somalian gunmen, parked under a palm tree.
3l The reverse side had a message in bad Somali (according to one translator) that said, in effect, that the Marines come as friends to the Somalis.
Thus, everybody was awaiting the arrival of the Marines. After Baidoa it was expected that Bardera would be the next stop on their itinerary and, with that, probably, the U.S. mission into Somalia would be more or less complete.
Last summer Mr. O'Mara was in Somalia to report on the starvation and civil war in the country. He has returned to write about conditions there during Operation Restore Hope.