Tue, May 02, 2006 - Page 6 News List

`City of death' to become Somalia's interim capital

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , BAIDOA, SOMALIA

It can be hard to shed a nickname after it has caught on, especially one as potent as "city of death."

That is the title this place earned in 1992 when a famine struck Somalia and the suffering was centered in Baidoa, a bush settlement in what had been the country's breadbasket.

But Baidoa is eager to redefine itself after years of war and drought. There is something in the air here that has not been around for ages: a glimmer of hope.

There was little of that 14 years ago, when Baidoa's streets were lined with the skeletal bodies of the dead and the only orphanage was losing 10 to 15 children a day to hunger.

The first US President George Bush, who at the end of his term initiated an ill-fated attempt to bring aid to this war-torn region, visited Baidoa in January 1993. He saw refugees sleeping on patches of cardboard along roadsides. At Baidoa's orphanage, he visited ailing children.

"I don't think there will be any leaving of the Somali people to suffer the fate they had been suffering," Bush said.

Things did not turn out that way, as the US peacekeeping mission soon collapsed after an American Black Hawk helicopter went down in Mogadishu and a deadly battle ensued between the US soldiers and a local warlord, General Mohammed Farrah Aidid.

The gunmen continued a long history of terror in this city, which had witnessed Somalia's slow descent into chaos.

Baidoa's dismal past hung heavy in the air on Saturday, as scores of Somali leaders gathered in a food warehouse converted into the country's parliament building. There was speech after speech about everyone's desire to end the suffering.

"We appeal to Somalis wherever they are to stop fighting," Parliamentary Speaker Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden said.

Somalia's transitional government, carefully balanced by clan, came into being in 2004 after marathon peace talks in Kenya. It had a rocky start, with the first session of parliament, in a Nairobi hotel, descending into a melee.

Because the fighting by militias continues, finding a foothold in Somalia has been difficult. Mogadishu is considered too unsafe for the new government, so President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed and Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi opted instead for the town of Jowhar, 96km to the north. But Aden objected.

Baidoa, about 224km to the northwest of Mogadishu, is the compromise. It will be the capital until Mogadishu's warfare can be quelled.

"The warlords are the problem creators," said Malak Muktar Malak Hassan, chief of the traditional chiefs in Baidoa, who puts his age at 104.

He is optimistic, but only if the power shifts to the vast majority of Somalis seeking peace.

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