Christmas: Day of Purgatory for GIs in Somalia

TIMES STAFF WRITER

About 20,000 Americans here, lonely and homesick, exchanged field rations with foreign soldiers, built makeshift ornamented trees or raced captive sand crabs--almost anything to try to make Christmas Day festive.

But no matter how inventive the troops got, the punishing equatorial sun and the constant silent stares of the poor, starved and bedraggled Somalis made this just another harsh day in purgatory.

"I hate this place, it's miserable and we don't even have mail yet," groused Ingrid Miller, a teen-age Seabee based in Coronado. She and some other women Seabees down at the city's port fashioned a tall Christmas tree by draping green mosquito netting from a pole and hanging colorful decorations that included spent brass cartridge casings, tiny paper containers of salt and instant coffee and packaged condoms.

An officer, seeing a reporter around, energetically denuded the tree of the sealed condoms.

But the more that Miller and the other American troops scurried to create the trappings of Christmas, the more it seemed that they only reminded themselves how far from home and loved ones they were.

"I think everybody was OK until the carolers came through," said Seabee Rhonda LeBeau. "Everybody got bummed out. It sank in."

Even the clergy here knew that--although most Americans here want to help Somalia and its war- and famine-stricken people--this place was anything but joyous on this holiday.

"It doesn't seem like Christmas," said Duane Purser, a Protestant chaplain from Irvine who is attached to a Marine unit from the Marine Air Station at El Toro.

Purser, who has been in the Navy for 10 years, said he gave a special sermon to the troops to emphasize that the hardships they are experiencing here are for a higher cause.

"I talked about the idea of hope," he said. "You strip away the trees, lights and ornaments and all you have is the hope in Christ and what that means to people. We're doing Christ's work and bringing hope to these people."

But it was not just sermonizing that Purser has been offering the sad, mostly young Marines in Mogadishu this Christmas. He offered a ready ear to the troops who streamed to him seeking soothing words for their depression and homesickness. A Marine visited him "every 10 minutes" to ask when the American troops--some of whom had participated in the Gulf War and were away from their families for the second year in a row on overseas missions--will get to go home, Purser said.

In this Somali danger zone, all religious rituals had taken on some peculiar modifications. In an open-air service celebrating Hanukkah, a rabbi wore a camouflage yarmulke. A handful of seven Jewish military personnel sat on packing crates for the service, their M-16 rifles lined up against the wall. On the opposite wall was a crucifix for the Christians who would hold the next service in the same room.

At the Mogadishu airport, where the international relief effort is stockpiling goods to feed the starving nation through a network of inland bases, most troops were too sweaty and too preoccupied with their heavy labors to dwell on being away from home during Christmas.

Indeed, even as many of the troops in the capital were bemoaning their absence from the familiar or thanking their fates that they and their families do not suffer the wretched conditions that most Somalis have struggled with, the U.S.-led Operation Restore Hope was extending its reach.

American and French troops finally occupied the town of Hoddur and began searching for an estimated 5,000 potentially lethal land mines that could wreak havoc on efforts to bring food to outlying villages in the region.

In Bardera, U.S. Marines delivered a Christmas present of wheat to a refugee camp--and set off a small riot in the process.

The fighting broke out at the Bardera feeding center after the Marines brought in the wheat and left, the Associated Press reported. Somali workers tried to control the crowd with sticks, but young men tore bags of wheat from the hands of those lined up for food, and the distribution broke down in confusion. Witnesses said one person was badly hurt, and some of the smallest and weakest were pushed aside and got no food.

After the 350 French Legionnaires and 250 Marines skirted thousands of land mines to reach Hoddur, where they secured the airfield, again without resistance, the U.S.-led humanitarian effort was expected to secure Belet Huen, near the Ethiopian border in western Somalia, and Gailalassi, about 100 miles north of Mogadishu, in the next few days.

Mines have proved one of the greatest hindrances to relief workers trying to truck food to outlying villages. Laid by warring clansmen, the deadly devices usually are easy to spot. But many may have become hidden after months in blowing dirt and sand. A mine claimed the life of the only American slain so far on the Somalia mission, a civilian Army employee killed Wednesday.

The tumult in all of Somalia, and three attacks on journalists on Friday, underscored that, even as troops reach new parts of the starving interior, lawlessness continues just beyond their reach.

In Bardera, a group of men stole a car at knifepoint from British Broadcasting Corp. reporters, and Marines had to rescue NBC, BBC and Reuters journalists after their compound was surrounded by angry youths. A BBC employee was roughed up in the second incident, Marine spokesman Col. Fred Peck told reporters in Mogadishu.

Meantime, a mob of about 50 people tried to steal a car being used by the Associated Press, but AP photographer Jerome Delay managed to get the car started and drive it out through the crowd.

The incidents were a lesson in the complexity of Somalia's clan hatreds.

Many reporters arriving in the interior had brought cars, drivers, guards and translators from Mogadishu. That intrusion of outsiders--from other clans--angered some people in Bardera, and there also were claims that some of the cars originally had been stolen in Bardera, the AP reported. Col. Buck Bedard, commander of the Marine force in Bardera, said the town's clan elders were "visibly upset" that Somalis from other clans came in with the Marines.

At a Christmas service, Bedard warned Marines not to be complacent about their own safety, although they have met no resistance in any of the towns taken so far, AP said.

For the Marines in Mogadishu, besides the occasional quiet lament, the pain of separation from families persisted.

Marine Sgt. Nelson Guzman of Oceanside happened to gaze down at his watch and realized his family was home opening presents. "I got teary-eyed this morning," he said. "I miss my wife. She's my best friend, my absolute best friend."

Other Marines found other distractions to make the day more tolerable.

A group from Camp Pendleton, based at the sand dunes near the airport, caught some of the plump sand crabs that leisurely crawl through their tents and put them to sport. As officers and sergeants looked on, the troops plopped the crabs atop a large metal drum and let them race. Some Marines came away with winning pots totaling $3 to $5.

"That broke the monotony for a while," said Cpl. Sean Gilligan of Oceanside. "We're cracking jokes, but we're all kind of homesick."

The Marines also swapped field rations, their MREs (meals ready to eat), with French and Italian troops in the multinational humanitarian effort. Although they found the Italian cuisine somewhat salty, the Americans rejoiced to discover every package of rations contained a small bottle of booze labeled Cordiale.

But one of the most grateful servicemen to be found on Christmas day was Lance Cpl. Chris Rau of Carlsbad, who was standing guard at the military's public information compound near the U.S. Embassy in the center of the capital here.

After nearly 10 days in his dusty camouflage garb, including a helmet and heavy flak jacket, the Marines got permission to take showers.

"That's our Christmas present," Rau said.

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