Lone Survivors, Somalia’s Volunteer Policemen Offer Hope for Order
KISMAYU, Somalia (AP) _ With their snowy hair, stooped frames and tattered uniforms, they look like Somalia’s over-the-hill gang. Their thin canes are no match for the machine guns wielded by the thugs who menace them.
But these remnants of the country’s respected police force constitute the sole surviving civic institution, and offer hope for the future - albeit one as threadbare as their blue berets.
The national police, which numbered 3,000 men, ceased to function when war among rival clans plunged the country into chaos in early 1991. But many policemen kept their uniforms, and hid their weapons, at home.
When U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Lawson Magruder searched for a ″glimmer of authority″ in this rudderless, southern port city, he was invited to come to the police station.
Magruder said in a recent interview he was surprised to see more than 150 policemen - many past their prime - in formation and ready to go to work without pay or weapons. They snapped a smart, British-style salute.
Similar scenes were played out in other towns secured by the U.S.-led forces, including Baidoa, Bardera and parts of the capital Mogadishu. There, police cling to shreds of dignity despite being routinely ignored by strutting gunmen and speeding drivers.
″I am a policeman. I do it for the people,″ said traffic cop Ahmed Barre, 39, when asked why he remained at his post despite two bullet wounds and no pay. He was interviewed while being treated at a U.S. Navy clinic after he had been struck by a 45-pound drum that rolled off a truck.
In Kismayu, one of Somalia’s most lawless spots, the police managed to retain some cohesion and refused to be pressured into taking sides during the civil war, according to the U.S. military.
″We are the national police force. We support no faction. We are neutral,″ said police chief Col. Mohamed Sheikh Dahir, 27, who refused to give his clan affiliation.
He said he currently had 300 men under his command but needed weapons.
Magruder, who commands the joint U.S.-Belgian force in Kismayu, said he had no authority to arm, train or pay the police. But those who help allied troops man checkpoints and perform minor security duties are given bottled water and one packet of dry U.S. military rations daily.
The policemen could unquestionably be swatted aside by Somalia’s warlords and gangs if they did not enjoy the backing of the U.S. and allied forces. And their current number and effectiveness is woefully low.
But given the force’s history of non-partisan professionalism and its current good standing in the community, U.S. and U.N. authorities hope the thin blue line can serve as the foundation of an apolitical agency of law and order.
Philip Johnston, the U.N.’s Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs, said a national police force was one of the 10 top priority items in the world body’s 1993 reconstruction plan for Somalia.
Washington is looking at immediate measures to help the police, and the U.N. has asked Germany to provide long-term assistance in recruiting, training, paying and equipping the force.
Although the force traces its roots to when Italy and Great Britain held areas of what is now Somalia, West German advisers played a major role in helping to create an anomaly in this me-and-my-clan-first society.
″It appears the Germans did a good job in training and sensitizing a cadre in the police force who saw their responsibility as national and not responsive to a political or clan perspective,″ Johnston said.
Dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, whose ouster in January 1991 precipitated the civil war, made some attempts to subvert police neutrality. But he asssigned his special secret service, rather than the police, to ″political work.″