LOCK AND LOAD!" SHOUTS CAPT. Brian Fletcher. Instantly the 34 U.S. Marines of Lima Company's weapons platoon are combat-ready, snapping live rounds into the chambers of their M-16 rifles. The metallic clatter echoes along the rubble-strewn street in Baidoa, Somalia. Weapons in hand, eyes scanning doorways and rooftops, the marines file warily into the city's crowded market area. Children scamper after the troops, adults—hawking soap, cigarettes, tea, bread and bananas—stop to stare, and against a gray morning sky two blackbirds swoop over Baidoa's main mosque. At one corner, Fletcher suddenly raises a hand and orders his men to start running: The raid has begun.

Despite the cumbersome weight of flak jackets, water bottles, assault rifles and machine guns, the marines sprint ahead. Then, as a security precaution, they dash back around the block and halt abruptly before a darkened storefront. After pushing back scores of curious onlookers, several troops push open the closed double doors and charge inside. Surprised, one man, possibly a guard, is found at the rear of the long, cavernous room. The marines motion for him to stand with his arms raised, facing a wall to await later questioning by Somali-speaking translators. In boxes and under canvas, they discover an impressive cache of weapons—AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades, antitank rounds, even a land mine. Raids like these have become almost a daily event for American and United Nations troops charged with protecting food deliveries in Somalia while trying to disarm thugs and rival clans. "We usually find out about these places when one side points the finger at the other side," say's Fletcher, 31. "It's really not a whole lot different than what goes down between rival gangs in Los Angeles."

At the center of one of the hardest-hit famine areas, Baidoa—160 miles northwest of Somalia's capital of Mogadishu—was once known as Heaven's City because of its many gardens and peaceful streets. Today it wears the look of loss and devastation. Hundreds of buildings remain burned-out hulks, walls still standing are cratered by bullets, and thousands of burial mounds for war and famine victims dot the surrounding landscape. But since the arrival of the Marines on Dec. 16, hunger has diminished, relief workers no longer face assaults by wild, young clan gunmen, and order in this city of more than 50,000 people is slowly being restored. A sense of security, however, may lake a bit longer. "Bad guys are still around, so we've got to keep a presence," says Fletcher, an 11-year veteran of the 7th Marine Regiment based at Camp Pendleton, Calif. "And there's nothing like a raid to get their attention."

Like Fletcher, First Lt. Ian Smith, another 7th Regiment marine, keeps the peace by maintaining a presence. In Bardera, a smaller city 120 miles southwest of Baidoa, where marines are camped by the city's airstrip, Smith commands a motorized platoon operating six four-seater Humvees with .50-caliber machine guns mounted on lop and names like Big Dawg, Young Cuns and Thor painted on the sides. All day long, two-vehicle patrols run slow, regular routes through the city, alert to trouble and looking for weapons to confiscate.

"A lot of bandits and clan guys have .50-calibers," says Smith, a 25-year-old native of Wantagh, N.Y., riding shotgun along Bardera's narrow dirt streets. "They're not so sure theirs work—we're sure ours do. Maybe that's why we haven't had any big scrapes, just a lot of scares. Like some kid, trying to play Big Man, will pop up with what looks like a weapon, and from a distance we can't tell if it works or not. We all aim in, and he's a half second from losing his life. The adrenaline's pumping, and we're about to wax him. But there's a lot going through our minds. Kids are crowding around—we could kill innocent people. So the heartbeat passes, nothing happens, and we confiscate what turns out to be a real gun." (Last week the U.S. military in Somalia suffered its first fatality when Somali gunfire in Mogadishu killed a marine.)

Smith explains the rules of engagement: "You see a man with a weapon. You tell him to halt. If he runs, you shoot him. That is, if he runs, it's a hostile act. Sounds harsh, but around the corner that same weapon could kill you."

Along with the danger of snipers and the possibility of having a grenade lobbed among them, Smith and his men feel the human touch of Bardera at virtually every turn in the road. Though fewer critically sick and famished nomads show up these days at the city's feeding centers and medical posts, diseased and malnourished children affect the marines most deeply. "Being here has been the real gut check for me," says Staff Sgt. Robert Salazar, 29, of Pueblo, Colo., the father of a 3-year-old boy. "I'm seeing the reality and not just the starving people they show on television back home. You see healthy people around the market in town. Then, when you see families dragging in from the villages, that's when it gets to me. The kids can barely walk or sit up or turn their faces to get food. It's not their fault they were born into this environment. They're the innocent ones, and you don't turn your back on them."

As the afternoon patrol of two Humvees slows to a halt on the city's outskirts, a ragtag group of a dozen barefoot children emerges from the brush shouting, "OK! OK!" Roderick Henderson, a 22-year-old corporal from Chicago, leaves the driver's seat of the lead vehicle and motions to one of the girls, who looks about 6 years old. "You!" he yells with a grin. "There you go, you my girlfriend!" She giggles. Some of the kids are coughing, others just squat by the road and stare, ribs showing through raggedy shirts.

While the other marines keep an eye out for weapons or hard-staring young men, Henderson sits among the children and, with hand signals and a few Somali words picked up from a phrase book, leads them in singing the Sesame Street alphabet song. "Last week they picked it up in no time," he says, scanning the clearing for a particular 5-year-old boy. "He's my personal favorite," Henderson adds. "I call him Noodles. Whenever he's around, we just sit down for a few minutes and have ourselves a friendly good time. But maybe not today. It doesn't look like he's going to show."

Henderson says his own dark skin and African-American features provoke curious stares from Somalis. "At first they couldn't get over that I was American," he says. "They'd call me Somali or Negro Christian. Now they're getting used to seeing plenty of black Americans. They accept us like anybody else. Just being black doesn't give you any special edge with Somalis. Actually, the most popular guy with the kids is our gunner, and he's white." Cpl. Howard Anderson of Culver City, Calif., also African-American, adds, "When they see white guys, they'll wave. Us, sometimes they'll call us names. I'm not sure if they're good or derogatory, and it used to get on my nerves. Now I just ignore them and do my job. No problem."

Lieutenant Smith signals the patrol to continue. As the two Humvees rumble on, a few of the healthier children run behind, waving and shouting, "Yes! Yes!" Farther on, the marines pass two emaciated corpses, their motionless forms partially covered by tattered robes and left by the side of the road. "When we first got here," Smith says, "there were a lot more bodies lying around. I heard if a family buried somebody but didn't pay for a burial plot, the dead person would be dug up and replaced with another body. So you had all these bodies just piled off to the sides. I guess you get kind of calloused to it all, except for when you see dying or dead kids. Kids will get you every time."

As they near Bardera's fly-ridden, open-air meal market, where chickens, goats and camels are occasionally slaughtered and sold, an urgent radio message signals a change of route. A foot patrol from another company has just uncovered some buried rifles in an outlying refugee camp that the troops call Little Italy, a holdover name from the Italian colonization of the area during the 1930s. "The patrol needs an escort out of the area," Smith explains. A short while later the marines arrive at the encampment of twig huts, stopping by the hole in the ground where the rifles, wrapped in plastic, were found. Someone had tipped the patrol to check out the site.

"This is where a lot of s—t used to go down—rapes, murders, robberies," says Lance Cpl. Ed Rist of Harrisburg, Pa. "When we first started patrolling, people would come up to us and say they'd been beaten or robbed or someone had been murdered. We couldn't help them. That wasn't our mission. Now we can get more involved. Mostly it's the young guys chewing khat [a leafy stimulant] that are problems. They get wired in the afternoon, start shooting, and after a while they go ballistic."

While Smith watches a marine probe other spots nearby with a shovel, Sgt. Dave Sherbert, 29, regularly stationed at a base in Twentynine Palms, Calif., moves away, stepping between several fresh burial mounds. A human skull and other bone fragments are scattered in the sandy soil. "I've been in Thailand and the Philippines," says Sherbert, "but nothing's been this bad—not on this scale."

He had been standing in the Little Italy area just a few days before when two very thin children, about 4 and 12, approached him. "I guess they were too far gone because they just flopped right down," says Sherbert, who has two small daughters. "They had no energy to move. They just laid there and died right on the spot." He is silent and teary-eyed for a moment. "It's the strongest and oldest who live," he says, "and the littlest and weakest who die. They can't fight off the others." Later, at another checkpoint on the patrol's route, Sherbert slips an apple apiece into the hands of some of the smaller children who gather around him. "It's frustrating," he says, "because as soon as the troops leave, the guys with the guns are going to take over again. And the kids will suffer the most because they're the helpless ones. We should take all the weapons we can. They're hidden, and we should find them. The Marines pride themselves on doing a good job, leaving no loose ends. But I get the impression it's not going to be that way."

As the two dusty Humvees roll into the clearing by the airstrip where the marines have set up their tents, the platoon leader, Lieutenant Smith, orders the next patrol into the city. Watching them depart, Sergeant Sherbert says, "I'd feel much better about this whole Somalia mission if the other UN troops could promise they will finish the job. For the children's sake, leave no loose end."