Samaritan in Somalia

updated 12/28/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/28/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

Long before Operation Restore Hope and the arrival of the first 3,000 U.S. troops in Somalia, nurse Mary Taylor had established her personal beachhead, helping the sick and starving people of that desolate East African nation. Having worked previously with refugees in Thailand, Malawi and Iraq, Taylor, then helping AIDS patients in San Francisco, applied last summer for a field position in Somalia with the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross. She was accepted in August. "I had one week's notice to leave my job, close up my apartment and say goodbye to my folks in L.A.," says Taylor, 34. "But I love relief work. It's what I'm trained for." Five weeks before U.S. Marines hit the beach at Mogadishu, senior writer Ron Arias and photographer Donna Ferrato visited Taylor in Somalia and got a firsthand look at life on humanitarianism's perilous front lines.

Despite the stifling midday heat, Mary Taylor strides briskly, as if in a hurry to pass the hundreds of fresh burial mounds outside Belet Uen, a dusty crossroads town in central Somalia, 180 miles from Mogadishu. Followed by a ragtag troupe of kids, the Red Cross nurse enters a brush-hut encampment of 30,000 victims of drought, famine and war. Though their needs far outstrip the town's resources, they come here, walking for days, because they've heard Belet Uen has feeding centers and is safer than other parts of Somalia. Suddenly a barefoot woman cradling a small, bony child rushes up to confront Taylor. "Help my son," the woman pleads in Somali. "I can only watch him die." A Somali health worker translates as Taylor looks at the toddler, who stares up blankly, breathing in whispery gasps. The American offers the mother a concerned smile and a few calming words, then moves on. It is all she can do. "Too late," she explains later. "He's severely malnourished and has that listless, glazed-over look that's common just before death." Still, she says, "things here are actually getting better. Earlier in the year the death rate was over a hundred kids a day. Now it's down to 30."

On this afternoon, Mary Taylor is feeling cautiously optimistic. "I wouldn't be here if I thought it was hopeless," she says. Yet, like most relief workers—she is the first of four American nurses to enter Somalia with the Red Cross—Taylor admits the suffering and violence in this desert outpost "beat anything any of us has ever seen." Every day hundreds of starving nomads—their camel and cattle herds ravaged by drought—straggle in, drawn to one of Belet Uen's 26 feeding centers. Without the presence of any effective peacekeeping force at this time, Taylor's life is a daily flirtation with disaster. Bands of heavily armed thugs in battered pickup trucks roam the town's dirt streets, threatening to loot relief warehouses or attack food-laden trucks returning from the town's airstrip, where cargo planes from Kenya have been delivering tons of beans and rice. Feuding clans skirmish regularly for food or for turf, playing out their bloody roles in the country's chaotic two-year-old civil war. "You learn to move away from windows," Taylor says. "But the Somalis think it's great fun. They call it Somali music—not to worry, it's just an incident."

Every day is "tense," adds the soft-spoken Californian. "Last month I was in my office at the Red Cross compound, looking out my window at some camels, when a machine gun opened fire outside. Then things just exploded out of control—bazookas, grenades, bullets whistling all around us. For six hours we huddled in an inner hallway. One clan tried to steal a truck from another clan, and we got caught in the middle. That night, we talked about our fears for hours. We also helped take care of the wounded."

Accompanied by an armed guard whenever she leaves the compound or the residence she shares with a half-dozen other Red Cross workers, Taylor usually travels about town by pickup and always keeps in touch with the others by walkie-talkie. She and a cadre of local assistants she has trained operate four small, mud-walled health posts where they tackle the area's basic medical, sanitation and water-supply problems. "By training Somalis, I have more effect than if I were doing hands-on treatment myself one person at a time," she explains. "It's hectic, but I just click into a problem-solving mode. That doesn't mean I don't have feelings. I'm not immune to all the children dying. But I force myself to go on. I'd be no use to anyone if I were crying all the time.

Taylor wakes most mornings at dawn, showers with water from the nearby Shebele River hauled in barrels by donkey, then shares a quick breakfast with the other relief workers. "We're out seven days a week and come back exhausted, so our Somali cook makes sure we're well fed," says Taylor, explaining that most of their food—like pasta, canned tuna and fresh fruit—comes in on the daily relief flights. Although she will fly to Nairobi, Kenya, for periodic rest breaks during her six-month tour here, she believes her "quiet times," alone at sunset on the residence's rooftop deck, fortify her for the next day's onslaught of woe.

Taylor credits her family with nurturing what her mother calls "Mary's naturally giving nature." The third of seven children of John and Ramona Taylor of Canoga Park, a Los Angeles suburb, Mary likes to joke that among four brothers and three sisters, everyone gave. "We saw a lot of hand-me-downs," she says, "but it never bothered us because we didn't know any different. We were just a big, close Catholic family." Though neither parent works in medicine—her father is a research assistant at Hughes Aircraft; her mother is an elementary school teacher—as a child, Taylor admired an aunt who was a nurse. She went on to study nursing at the University of Southern California, receiving her diploma in 1979.

In 1981, Taylor answered a recruitment ad for nurses to care for refugees in Thailand. "When they called me, I didn't have the slightest doubt about going," she says. "In those days I was naive, so I signed a three-year contract, never thinking about where I was going. I just wanted a developing country. When I got to my village in the north for the first time, I remember thinking, 'Oh, my God, what did I do?' " Not only had she spent the previous three months learning the wrong Thai dialect, but, she says, "the place was boiling hot, a lot of people had leprosy, and everybody was laughing at me." Taylor soon realized that her hosts were actually very shy people who were only giggling nervously because they seldom saw outsiders. "It was a lonely three years, and I missed my family," she says, "but I learned how to problem-solve and be comfortable with my own company. Not that I ruled out marriage. But how many guys have my kind of interests or would share this kind of life?"

On an afternoon visit with more new arrivals outside Belet Uen, Taylor looks at yet another emaciated child—a sad-faced 10-year-old girl propped on the ground by her mother. People gather around, coughing and waving away flies. "Death is here, too," Taylor says, briefly touching the girl's forehead, then telling her assistant to make sure the girl receives more easily digestible food, "There's a sparkle in her eyes. With the right food, she'll live." As Taylor starts to walk away, the girl struggles to pull her knobby knees up under her chin, cocks her face to the sky and smiles at the stranger in the dusty flip-flops. "That," says Taylor, "is what this is all about."

From Our Partners