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UNICEF Optimistic about Somalia's Future - 2003-02-19

Despite slow progress at peace talks aimed at ending more than a decade of anarchy in Somalia, the United Nations Children's Fund says it is optimistic about the future.

Steven Lauwerier was UNICEF's project officer based in Baidoa, in southern Somalia, until fighting broke out there late last year. He had to be evacuated and is now constantly on the move, sleeping in whichever town is safest at the time.

Despite such difficulties, he says, progress is being made because UNICEF is investing in people rather than infrastructure.

The conflict in Baidoa has not stopped UNICEF's child vaccination or education programs "Polio vaccination continued in Baidoa." said Mr. Lauwerier. "When there was a week of no fighting, we had a polio vaccination round, which before would not have been possible. But now there is that commitment from the community to do that. Schools reopened, we were able to deliver the textbooks."

Peace talks aimed at re-establishing a central national government in Somalia have been dragging on for four months. The talks were moved last week from the Kenyan town of Eldoret to the national capital, Nairobi.

Although progress is slow, Somalis are confident that the talks will produce results, Mr. Lauwerier said. "During the past months I have seen more hope than there was before. And certainly talking to leaders as well as local authorities, I get the indication that there is far more clearer prospect for peace than there was before," he continued. "Also, people who come from the Eldoret conference and you talk to, they say it will come out to something, to some kind of a peace deal. What it will be, how it will be, when it will be, that is the question that nobody can answer at this moment."

Although fighting continues in Somalia, UNICEF officials say it has become much more localized and sporadic than before.

The current phase of the Nairobi talks, which involves drawing up recommendations in six key areas, like land ownership and demobilization, is expected to last another three weeks. After that, the delegates will move on to the final and most difficult phase working out a transitional federal government for Somalia.

Somalia has been without a central government since President Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991. Since then, it has been ruled by rival warlords.