Americans dug into the sand along a razor wire perimeter of Mogadishu’s beachfront on Tuesday. On the other side of the wire coils, an “eerie quiet” settled over a violent landscape.
“It would make anyone wonder if this is the calm before the storm,” said Army Special Forces Maj. Bryan Whitman.
Under a relentless tropical sun, about 1,800 American and 350 Italian Marines consolidated their hold on the sand of Mogadishu, providing protection for the retreat of U.N. peacekeeping forces from Somalia.
By 9 a.m. on this first full day of the U.S.commanded evacuation, 900 Bangladeshi peacekeepers had boarded two cramped, run-down ferries and departed for home after their long and unsuccessful attempt to bring order to the capital.
Without serious incident, U.S. Marines assumed temporary control of the Bangladeshi bunkers guarding Mogadishu’s port.
Wednesday, some 1,500 Pakistanis with 70 armored vehicles must retreat form their advanced positions surrounding the adjacent city airport. These last U.N. troops will hurry through the American-Italian lines positioned just to their rear.
Their retreat will open the airport to Somalis - and provide the world a clue to this troubled country’s future. Americans anticipate mobs of desperate Somalis will move in behind U.N. peacekeepers to loot the airport and nearby U.N. properties. Worse, the sudden evacuation of this choice real estate could trigger an all-out battle among Mogadshiu’s warring clans for control.
No matter what, once the Pakistanis have loaded aboard ships and cleared the coast, Italian and U.S. Marines will, if all goes well, follow on Thursday and retreat to a 23-ship task force standing offshore. And that will open the second choice property to Somalis, the port.
It also will leave the Somalis, long dependent on outside relief and assistance, alone and isolated from a world that has now forsaken them.
Stray gunfire from Somali clashes already has rained across the Marine position.
Somalis are not really viewed as enemies by the rank-and-file U.S. forces, but neither are they friends. To Marines, they are simply an unknown danger on the other side of razor wire.
For two days in advance of the Marine arrival, heavy and intermittent clan fighting occurred within eyesight of the city’s beachfront.
But Tuesday, only isolated gunfire was heard through the city.
Some military veterans said the Americans, thus far, had kept the Somali clan fighters at bay with a show of force, which included a flotilla of ships offshore, fixed-wing gunships overhead and visible artillery positions.
If the U.N. peacekeepers had to retreat on their own, they would have found themselves fighting their way to the beach, said Army Special Forces Sgt. Maj. Hank Gallahan. “But the Somalis have a deathly fear of the Marines because they know they are aggressive. So these young guys have done a good job of scaring the hell out of them.”
The United States and the United Nations have invested 150 lives and $2 billion into Somalia in the last 2 1/2 years. After assisting with the recovery from famine, the U.N. tried without success to bring clan leaders together to form a government. All along, the peacekeepers have managed to keep open the sea and airports which nourish this arid city.
Now, there is great anxiety within Mogadishu and among the outsiders who have invested so much: Will Somali clans resume fighting, even if their lifeline to the rest of the world is jeopardized?