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THIS GUN FOR HIRE
By ANNA BADKHEN
One of the guards takes a break on a trip from Jowhar to Biyo Cade, where physicians trained by Doctors Without Borders receive patients in a converted clay house. Chronicle photo by Michael Macor.
Medical staff evacuate by plane after a man wearing a military uniform showed up at the heavily guarded Doctors Without Borders compound in Galkayo. "He said (we) had to leave within 24 hours, otherwise no one could guarantee our protection from looting or killing." Chronicle photo by Michael Macor
The sign tells it all: Weapons are strictly prohibited at the hospital in Galkayo, a town north of Jowhar that is ravaged by civil war. Chronicle photo by Michael Macor
Jowhar, Somalia, April 10, 2006 – Spanish aid worker Josep Prior Tio climbs into the backseat of a Toyota Land Cruiser. Mohammed the gunman gets in next to him, clasping his Kalashnikov assault rifle between his knees. Ahmed and another Mohammed -- who, like many Somalis, go by only one name -- squeeze in next to the driver, clutching their own AK-47s. Two more gunmen, also brandishing Kalashnikovs, climb into another Toyota.
Prior Tio and two other international employees of Doctors Without Borders, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning humanitarian agency, are finally ready to travel the 25 miles south from Jowhar to a remote village clinic. As their cars rumble through the gate of their compound onto the rutted dirt road, a cluster of guards stays behind to protect the compound. Under a metal awning where they lounge, a lone M-16 assault rifle hangs from a rusty nail, the words "Property of the U.S. Government" etched into its metal handle. It is a relic of a failed U.S. military operation to assist aid distribution in Somalia 13 years ago, recounted in the book and movie "Black Hawk Down."
Aid agencies operating today in Somalia -- where the worst drought in decades has put at least 1.6 million people on the brink of starvation -- face a cruel choice: If they want to help victims of the drought and of 15 years of clan-based civil war, they must work with the gunmen who perpetuate the incessant violence that exacerbates the effects of food and water shortages.
"All of the humanitarian agencies operating in Somalia have armed guards," said Colin McIlreavy, head of the French charity's operations in Somalia. "We're very uncomfortable with it, but there's very little option to pull out of (the security arrangements)."
In most countries where they operate, aid agencies such as Doctors Without Borders never use armed guards. They place stickers depicting a crossed-out gun on their cars and the gates of their compounds, to demonstrate that they operate in a weapons-free environment.
"But if you want to travel in Somalia, you have to make some concessions," said Lisbeth Pilegaard, who works with the Norwegian Refugee Council.
The aid groups' safety depends mostly on the benevolence of local warlords, and one way to gain their cooperation is by hiring the warlords' gunmen. The Doctors Without Borders mission in Jowhar, a town 50 miles north of the capital Mogadishu, has 10 gunmen; their operation in Galkayo, a west-central Somali town near the border with Ethiopia, employs 19 armed men.
"The average salary we pay is $100 for a nurse and $300 for a doctor," said Prior Tio, who together with three other international workers is training Somali nurses and doctors and vaccinating children against measles. "So we pay security about $200 per person, like a highly trained nurse."
Other agencies pay between $150 and $200 per gunman per month to warlords. The money to pay for security comes from the groups' restricted budgets, reducing the funds available for aid to needy Somalis.
"For a time, we've been discussing whether we need armed guards. But the moment you decide you don't need a guard, something happens," said Salah Dongu'du, from Sudan, one of the international workers at the Doctors Without Borders' Galkayo mission.
The gunmen's mandate does not always correspond with the humanitarian goals of the aid groups they protect.
As U.N. World Food Programme workers were handing out sacks of food March 21 in a bush village in southern Somalia, where seasonal rains have failed for three years in a row, the crowd became agitated and gunmen hired to protect the distribution point opened fire, accidentally killing one man and forcing the aid workers to flee.
"The crowd became a little out of control -- some people came who were not registered," recounted Stephanie Savariaud, a food program worker who was present at the shooting. "It was shooting in the air to disperse people but one man got accidentally shot.
"Even a small incident can degenerate because people have a lot of guns. But what is the alternative?"
The bizarre relationship between gunmen and aid workers sometimes evolves into confrontations. Last month, one southern Somali warlord claimed that the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) owed him $200,000. The warlord kidnapped and held for a day Robert McCarthy, a UNICEF worker in southern Somalia. McCarthy, an American, was later released, unharmed.
Denise Shepherd-Johnson, a spokeswoman for UNICEF's Somalia project based in Nairobi, Kenya, refused to comment. But other aid workers who operate in Somalia confirmed that it was possible for warlords and their gunmen to turn against the aid groups they have been hired to protect.
"Any agreements are made on very fragile ground," McIlreavy said.
Hiring guards does not always mean aid workers are protected from outside threats. Last year, Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean attacked two World Food Programme ships, which were carrying food aid to the country. The agency temporarily halted all deliveries to Somalia by sea, which is about one-third cheaper than bringing food by road from the neighboring Kenya. But militias operating random roadblocks often stop and sometimes hold up its food convoys for days, Savariaud said. The food program now brings food into the country both by sea and by road.
And last Monday, a man wearing a military uniform showed up at the heavily guarded Doctors Without Borders compound in Galkayo. "He said (we) had to leave within 24 hours, otherwise no one could guarantee our protection from looting or killing," Dongu'du said.
James Lorenz, the agency spokesman, said a local militia has tracked down and arrested the man who had made the threat, who turned out to be a rogue gunman unaffiliated with any of the local warlords. But most of the Galkayo team's international workers evacuated the next day to Kenya, and it is unclear when they will return.
"We are very committed to providing medical care to this community, but we're not there to be martyrs," McIlreavy said.
After two hours on bumpy roads, Prior Tio and his entourage arrive at the clinic in the village of Biyo Ade, where physicians trained by Doctors Without Borders receive patients in a converted clay house that does not have electricity. The foreign doctors head into the clinic, and the five gunmen loiter outside in the dusty courtyard, smoking cigarettes and chewing khat, a semi-narcotic leaf popular in this region. Their Kalashnikovs remain slung over their shoulders.
Source: San Francisco Chronicle