The Age
When agents from America came to CARE

By SUE NEALES

Thursday 10 February 2000


In December 1992, the Somali highland town of Baidoa was a dusty, bedraggled centre, shrouded in death.

Its outskirts were ringed with teeming refugee camps where thousands of starving villagers lived in fragile humpies made from flattened cardboard boxes stamped with "Biscuits - Gift of Australia".

Its streets were lined with bullet-pitted, white-washed buildings, while 15-year-old clan fighters armed with machineguns mounted on rusty jeeps tore through the central market place, apprehensively awaiting the arrival of United Nations troops.

Each morning a body truck slowly sputtered down the main street. It was piled high with about 30 dead, mainly children, old people and women killed by hunger, weakness, dysentery and respiratory diseases that were rampant in the refugee camps.

Down a red dirt road were the three white-washed buildings of the CARE Australia compound. Wooden gates to the compound were barricaded by hundreds of sandbags, put there to ward off rebels who had been arriving with guns late at night trying to steal the aid agency's wheat stores.

Inside the compound, besieged CARE Australia staff were also awaiting the arrival of the relieving forces of Operation Restore Hope. Tension had been growing in Baidoa since the UN had secured Mogadishu, and vital aid work to help outlying villages deprived of food and water had temporarily been halted.

The only link to the outside world for CARE Australia leader Mr Lockton Morrisey and his remaining staff - as well as this journalist - was a satellite phone and a small dish that sat on the ground under a palm tree.

On the other side of the compound walls, gunshots could be heard.

In the early hours of the morning of 15 December, four United States State Department agents dropped into Baidoa and made their military base for the next crucial 24 hours within the CARE Australia compound.

They were supposed to be inconspicuous. But these military agents in their white shirts and black paratrooper pants, carrying cases of communications equipment, succeeded only in looking ludicrous in this dusty, hot war town.

It was hard not to laugh when they introduced themselves within the CARE Australia compound as being from the US State Department.

As if we hadn't guessed.

Two hours later we were no longer laughing. That was when Lockton Morrisey told us that two of the agents, with their hand-held military GPS boxes, would be coming with us on the CARE Australia van that we had already arranged to take us on a tour of the still-dangerous streets of Baidoa.

As we drove off, the van detoured to some of Baidoa's outer streets and intersections - meeting the main road from Mogadishu down which the United Nations convoy would arrive the next day.

For the next two hours the US agents aboard the CARE Australia vehicle furiously keyed map coordinates into their handsets, designing a route by which the troops could arrive in Baidoa and quietly encircle the city, while avoiding its troublespots and main thoroughfares.

All that day, brightly colored paper notes blew down Baidoa's laneways, past its few remaining barricaded homes and across its overgrown soccer pitch.

They were United Nations propaganda leaflets - apparently dropped by the same US planes that had delivered our State Department emissaries - picturing a smiling US soldier backed by a rifle, helicopter and armored car shaking hands with a happy Somali villager in his sarong.

It was meant to read: "We are international soldiers from the United Nations and we come in peace to help you", but the Somali language had been mangled, causing much hilarity in the Baidoa market-place when it called the US-led forces "soldiers of the United Slaves".

But there was nothing to laugh about later that night on the flat white roof of an outer building in the CARE Australia compound. After waking about 2am and hearing noises, I climbed the concrete stairs to the roof and found about six black-garbed figures moving around in the shadows under a clear, starry desert sky.

Lime-green snap fluorescent sticks were laid out across the flat rooftop of this Arabian-style villa. There was much whispered talking into walkie-talkies, while large transmitters and communication boxes buzzed and crackled.

The US agents were talking with the UN forces, to their combat helicopters, tanks, armored cars and marching men, who were on the outskirts of Baidoa ready to enter the town before dawn.

There was no pretence that this was the roof of an independent, supposedly neutral, aid agency. This was a precision military operation being carried out from within the safety of CARE Australia's Baidoa compound.