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Their hearts have been melted by Somali children who lost their parents to famine and civil war. But soldiers and civilians who have tried to adopt orphans are frustrated in a land without a government.

Some relief officials say maybe it's better that way.Statistics are scarce in this chaotic nation, but aid agencies estimate tens of thousands of children were orphaned in the war that broke out in 1991 and a famine that has killed hundreds of thousands.

"All I remember were bombs," Abdirahin Abdullahi Mohamoud, 12, said Friday in a grimy orphanage of about 200 children near Afgoi, 20 miles south of Mogadishu. "My house was destroyed and we ran."

Abdirahin, who lost both parents in the war, spoke with little emotion.

The orphanage, which tries to keep families together, provides lodging for Abdirahin and his aunt.

The buildings are filthy, the pink and blue walls covered with dirt. The classroom has a dirt floor and no chairs. The kids wear tattered and soiled clothes, and many run around barefoot.

As in other natural and man-made disasters, foreigners have sought to rescue children from misery. But UNICEF spokesman Ian Macleod says adoption "should be a last resort."

"We need the exact opposite. We should be working with children in their own countries," Macleod said. "One thing that has to be understood is the trauma that they faced here. They saw their parents die. To suddenly uproot them can cause psychological problems."

But Cheryl Shotts, founder and managing director of Americans for African Adoptions, Inc., said her organization brought out a 6-year-old Somali boy in February for adoption in the United States.

"It's not easy, but it absolutely can be done," said Shotts, whose Indianapolis-based non-profit agency works with African orphan children. She spoke in a telephone interview.

Shotts said the legal problems in adopting Somalis can be surmounted since U.S. immigration officials accept secondary evidence in lieu of official documents for certain countries where official papers are hard to secure.

Armando Barucco, first secretary to the Italian government office in Mogadishu, said some Italians, including soldiers, have expressed interest in adopting, "but it's been impossible."

"We have to wait for a government," Barucco said. "Most documents have been destroyed, and some that do exist could be falsified."

Anyone with $20 and a snapshot can get a Somali passport in a downtown marketplace.

Marine Col. Frederick Lorenz, senior legal adviser for U.S. forces in Somalia, said it can be difficult to establish a minor's ties to his parents, or even to his country.

U.S. military and diplomatic officials say they have received adoption requests from soldiers and civilians. The Americans arrived Dec. 9 to lead a multinational force to ensure the safety of food shipments.

The legal snarls will plague Somalia until rival factions can agree on a government. Peace talks are scheduled March 15, but officials hold little hope of forming an interim government soon.

Another complication is the lack of embassies that could approve visas for children. Without a government, the U.S. liaison office is Washington's only diplomatic entity in Somalia, and it lacks consular services.

Shotts said the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya helped her organization get the 6-year-old boy out of Somalia.

Many Somalis look down on adoption, especially by non-Muslims. Extended families and clan ties provide a social network for children who lose their parents.

Ahmed Ibrahim, 13, says he has suffered hard times and might want to be adopted by another Muslim, but "I don't know how it would be different from now."

"It's a sensitive thing, Christian people adopting a Muslim," said CARE Spokeswoman Cynthia Osterman. "There's also the danger of undermining the family structure. People may want to give up their children."

Instead of adopting a child, foreigners should help extended families take in orphaned relatives, said Sterling Abdi Arush of the Somali women's relief group Iida.