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In Lawless Mogadishu, It’s ‘Have MiG Rocket, Will Travel’ With PM-Somalia

September 2, 1992

MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) _ It would be better to be elsewhere if the guy with the MiG rocket pod on his jeep ever hits the trigger. It’ll be a Mogadishu moment to remember, but it won’t be pretty.

On Mogadishu’s mean streets, mayhem has turned a graceful, whitewashed port city into a nightmare only a doomsday-minded moviemaker could love.

This place is no joke. But death is so close, suffering so pervasive, that tension is tinged with graveyard humor and a certain civic pride: No one’s streets are meaner.

With no law and - apparently - less order, there are only ‘technicals,’ the aid workers’ term for gun-studded jeeps that look more like a prop for Mad Magazine than Mad Max. For example, that pod-mounted job.

″The driver doesn’t know what a kick that thing has,″ said Brig. Gen. Imtiaz Shaheen, a U.N. observer, with a merry laugh. ″One push of the button and no more technical.″

But for all the appearances of utter chaos, Mogadishu is ruled by the shifting forces of clan warlords, merchant kings, elders, politicos, mob chieftains and crazies acting on their own.

On the south side, power lies with Gen. Mohamed Farrah Aidid, short and scrappy, with a demonic gaze, who is preoccupied with desert warfare against diehard remnants of the deposed regime.

The port, airport, what’s left of the old town and most United Nations and voluntary agency officers are in south Mogadishu.

North Mogadishu belongs to Ali Mahdi Mohamed, an owner of destroyed hotels, who calls himself president of Somalia and fools no one.

His militiamen wear clean uniforms and keep a lot of freelance gunmen off the streets. A Cabinet includes what may be the least busy man in Somalia: the minister of tourism.

On both sides there is plenty of life among the ruins.

The central bank is a blackened ruin in the bombed-out downtown on the no man’s ‘Green Line’ dividing south from north. But economic activity continues.

Vendors in the Bakaaraha market offer the latest in computers, Italian pasta, penicillin, and rice in sacks stamped with foreign-aid symbols of a half dozen nations.

Its rutted alleys are choked with 10-ton trucks full of looted food aid. For a block, stalls are heaped with rockets, M-16s, grenades, and Pancho Villa cartridge belts. Customers fire at will to test the goods.

Traders with no cash use what they’ve got. An old man dug out a Maria Theresa thaler - the currency of the old Austro-Hungarian empire - worn thin with fingers from Djibouti to Timbuktu. Another offered a live mini-deer, a dik-dik.

The streets are an unending theater of the absurd.

Private buses carry more people on the roof than inside. Gas stations are rows of women squatting behind jerrycans.

One flatbed truck, flying the logo of the relief agency Save the Children, carried five little boys. Their machineguns suggested they were able to save themselves. This was playing war for keeps.

A slammed-up open Toyota half-ton truck bore a swivel cannon and 12 toughs aiming heavy metal over the sides. The youngest looked 10 years old. Swaying antennas were wrapped in red plastic roses.

Gridlocks of technicals, trucks and donkey carts clear magically at the first cock of a Kalashnikov assault rifle.

The city’s half million residents go about their business. In the mornings, the guns everyone packs are part of the scenery, like umbrellas in London or baguettes in Paris.

Men hang out as always drinking spiced, sweet tea in cafes, some air conditioned by tank hits through their walls.

After deliveries of khat, the mildy narcotic leaves that Somalis chew, people watch for signs of sudden gunplay. By dark, the mean streets are quiet, aglow from hurricane lamps of street stalls, Africa’s convenience stores.

In Mogadishu, death is a way of life. Along dirt roads, humps of sand stretch for blocks, each marked with a scrap of junk metal, a stick or a concrete block. They are graves and headmarkers.

At Digfir Hospital, the emergency ward is a few empty rooms with blood- stained rough wood tables. Each morning, the stains grow bigger.

A first-time visitor’s senses rocket from horror to horror, from amusement to amazement. But older hands detect signs of improvement.

″I think we’ve touched bottom and are starting to climb out of it,″ said Abdulkader Egal, a former professor of physics who works for the United Nations. ″People are looking around and asking, ’What have we done?‴

Like many Mogadishans, he laughs a lot, and not because anything is funny. Laughter seems better than any of the alternatives.

T-shirt messages and signs on buildings provide ironic captions in Mogadishu gone mad.

Technical jockeys have worn through early shipments of shirts reading, ″I Am The Boss,″ and ″Cool And Deadly.″ Now a new one is common: ″Join The Professionals.″

Mahat, a 13-year-old bodyguard who can hardly see over his assault rifle and sometimes forgets his shoes, wears a bright yellow jersey that says, ″Love Nest.″

Many reopened shops are marked only by painted symbols. Barbers and dentists are obvious. One baffling picture shows a man aiming something at another’s head, perhaps denoting an acupuncturist or an assassin.

On the main drag, at a filth-choked intersection where youths lounge on their battlewagons, a shattered building is emblazoned with its old sign: ″Cleaning and Pest Control.″

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