No pictures or verbal accounts, not even his visit to Ethiopia last fall, had prepared Bishop John H. Ricard, Baltimore's urban vicar, for the emotional impact of seeing "living skeletons -- people on the borderline between life and death" in Somalia.
Bishop Ricard is just back from a Christmas season working with Catholic Relief Services in that war-torn country, where he was profoundly moved by an experience he hopes others will seek.
FTC "The pencil legs, the bloated bellies -- you can't imagine," he said, recalling a hospital where "people were lying on mats, mothers and children. You are literally seeing a human skeleton . . . just skin covering the bone. I was told four or five children would die every day from malnutrition, too far gone to recover."
And "just across the street, I saw 350 children running and laughing and getting in the way," he said, "and they told me two, three weeks ago they were near death. Within a month, these children sprang back."
The number of 2- to 5-year-old orphans is staggering, he said, yet even they flock around the U.S. soldiers like fans to a movie star -- not begging, but saying "Hello, hello," or giving the thumbs-up sign the troops have taught them.
During his ten days in Baidoa, Somalia's second-largest city, the bishop traveled to the surrounding villages to pass out food, mostly sorghum. A bucket-full of grain -- used here to feed birds or livestock -- must last a family for two weeks, he said.
Because his luggage was lost, Bishop Ricard had to borrow civilian clothes for work. On Christmas Eve, he borrowed vestments from a Protestant minister to celebrate Mass at the U.S. base, held outdoors where "you could see every star"
because there's almost no electricity.
Back at home and in his clerical collar, Bishop Ricard described his visit during an interview yesterday at his residence at St. Francis Xavier Church, Caroline and Oliver streets, in East Baltimore.
As a board member of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the national Catholic relief agency, he said he had suggested the visit by a bishop to show support.
Although he would willingly return to Somalia, he said, it might be more useful if others go.
"It's a conversion experience," he said simply, his eyes alight.
In Baidoa, U.S. soldiers were everywhere, and eager to know whether their mission was supported back home. He said he was able to reassure them without hesitation, which would not have been the case for many previous military actions.
Similarly, upon his return Monday, he was eager to let Americans here know that the intervention is having an immediate effect: Food is getting to the villages, and the daily deaths from starvation are decreasing.
"I think one thing American donors would like to hear is that there is recovery. There is a harvest to take place this month -- sorghum, wheat and corn -- and another planting season in March," he said.
Bishop Ricard was also amazed at the resourcefulness of the Somalis when his 5-ton convoy truck had a flat tire along the mine-cratered dirt track to a village.
Vehicles that seem no more than a "Sanford and Son junkyard," he said, are patched and patched again "with glue and ingenuity."
But he's concerned about what will happen after the intervention ends.
The so-called "technicals" -- stripped down Land-Rovers with mounted machine guns -- have disappeared from the streets they terrorized, he said, but the warlords remain, though underground for now.
These are the thugs who took people's homes at gunpoint, he said, moving into the residences or sometimes stripping whole blocks of their tin roofs and plumbing to sell.
CRS was offered a building for $2,000 U.S. dollars -- plus rent -- by the five gunman who had taken it from the homeowner.
Guns are everywhere. The soldiers are taking them, he said, but they are registered and returned. Although many of the weapons are old, the demand for them is high and guns pour in from neighboring countries.
That much seemed like home, he said, noting that the sounds in Somalia echo the gunfire and police helicopters he hears from his inner-city residence at night.
Returning to the comforts of home has been difficult, he said. "It's a sobering thing to come back into the First World and see how much we need, after being there and seeing how little they need." The starvation deaths -- about 30 to 50 a day before the intervention -- "say something about the balance in nature that is out of whack."
Although Somalia has been left in anarchy, Bishop Ricard said, ++ "a semblance of government exists in the small villages. In one I went to, where we have a major feeding station, [there were] 6,000 people in a village with a system of elders.
"We put down a tarpaulin in the center of the village and we had these 50-kilo sacks of sorghum. . . . They stood in line, women and children, with sacks. Each had a CRS card, good for food every two weeks.
"It was very well structured and organized," he said. "It was 95, 100, 105 degrees. . . . Frankly, I didn't know what the result was going to be when we ran out of food, but I told the elders, and they told them to come back.
"I want to emphasize above all how little they survive on
But there was no trouble at all. "It was all they had, yet they heeded the elders and came back." he said