Diary

Stephen Smith

Reflecting on Somalia at the recent UN-sponsored peace talks, I found the more I heard about warring factions, Western intervention and the re-drawing of boundaries, the more I felt like shouting: ‘That’s enough about Bosnia – what about Africa?’ Although it was impossible to grudge the Bosnians their summit in Geneva, it was possible to be disappointed that the serious British media were in Switzerland for talks on what used to be Yugoslavia instead of in Ethiopia for talks on what used to be Somalia.

I wish I could say that it had been the plight of Somalia’s starving children that had impelled me to take the story personally. Perhaps I can blame television, with its seasonal images of African catastrophe, for the feeling of déjà vu that I experienced even at the heart of the famine. As so often happens, it was the unanticipated – inhaling the charnelhouse odour of Baidoa as I opened my case back in London – that brought the horror home, literally for a change. No doubt my obsession with Somalia had something to do with pride in having crossed Mogadishu’s ‘green line’, and drawn a warning round or two from armed looters in the port. I suspect, however, that the real attraction lay in the fact that so few others knew quite how good the Somalia story was, or indeed quite how bad.

The few others became many in December. The curiosity of the American networks in particular was such that a press corps cheeseparingly estimated at three hundred gathered in Mogadishu to attend the arrival of the Marines. The Somalia story was being invaded and occupied as surely as the country itself. The American intervention proved in many ways to be the least hairy of my experiences in Somalia. Yet it disturbed me more than any of the others. The first sign of this was in my dreams. I dreamt all the time; a very bad dream indeed, that involved someone I knew but didn’t recognise ushering me through a pair of tall doors onto a breezy precipice. Or sometimes I was breasting rapids at the top of a waterfall. The dream and its meaning troubled me.

A military failure seemed out of the question: the Toyota gunships of Mogadishu’s mobsters were patently no match for the Humvees and Cobras of 20,000 United States servicemen. Even the risk of being winged in crossfire had dwindled after gunmen began stashing their weapons to prevent the Americans from confiscating them. But my dream proved resistant to rational thought. When we were marooned in Nairobi, trying to find a pilot who had not yet been bought up by American television to fly his light aircraft to Mogadishu, I would lie in bed, the time difference working against me, my body insisting it was only eleven when my watch said two, and the dream would run a trailer or promo of itself, round and round in a video loop. At such times, I was glad of the inclement telephone, not really waking me because I wasn’t really asleep, and of the office, calling down the fizzing cistern of the international lines to find out when we would arrive in Mogadishu, and how much it was all going to cost.

The night before the Marines came ashore, I was lying on the tarpaper roof of Mogadishu airport. In the gauzy blue ABC tent beside me, producers wearing their baseball caps – like submarine ratings on periscope watch – were tending to shuddering monitors and talking into satellite telephones. The moon was full. In the brief interval before Chinooks began winnowing the darkness, you could have fallen asleep imagining you were on a Nasa spaceshot.

That night, a Somali whose former job with an airline had presumably taken him to the United States had said to me: ‘I felt different when I saw Dan Rather here. I felt millions would be watching around the world.’ What millions saw were perspiring, cork-blackened Marines conquering the airport and harbour of Mogadishu – no matter that they had both been under UN auspices for three months – and, at length, pushing out from the capital to blackspots like Baidoa and Bardere. It played well in the diners and Dairy Queens back home, and the President flew out to celebrate hogmanay in the Horn of Africa amid what he memorably called ‘this human suffering situation’. More pertinently, the mission appeared to go down well with aid workers, with the leaders of Somalia’s clans, and with the men and women who welcomed the troops on the streets. By the time journalists were leaving Somalia, for Switzerland and other points west, none but the cussed could have levelled serious criticism about the way Operation Restore Hope had gone thus far. The Americans, with support from other nationals including the French and the Belgians, had effectively made the supply lines of Western aid safe.

Even the notorious Bakara gun market was closed down. That was more than could be said of my insomniac mind. In waking hours, I asked myself whether the British media had really got to the bottom of the Somalia story before pulling out of Mogadishu. These doubts were not something I had in common with the British media: with the exception of one or two writers, the press appeared supinely content that Somalia had become a filler, a par. In a favourite phrase from the argot of their calling – always absurd, but now plain back-to-front – journalists were apt to say that Somalia had ‘gone away’. In Somalia, Somalia hadn’t gone away. Three things had begun to happen: in the absence of the press Somalis were getting shot, aid staff too, and talks between the clans in Addis Ababa were petering out – though the talks had opened in such an atmosphere of uncertainty they could as accurately be said to have petered in.

The climbing Somali ‘attrition rate’ has been alarming in the light of anecdotal evidence about young grunts hoping to notch a ‘kill’. Official sources have usually linked the casualties to real or feared assaults on United States positions or personnel. Such was the justification for a strike led by attack helicopters on an arms dump in Mogadishu which left ‘an unknown number’ of Somalis dead. On closer inspection the incident revealed just the kind of queasy anomaly about Operation Restore Hope that saturation media coverage a week or two earlier had failed to expose. The weapons in the dump were impounded after the raid. They belonged to General Mohamed Farah Aideed, the most powerful clan leader, who was out of the country at the time, attending the Ethiopian summit.

With Aideed already cutting up rough in Addis about foreign interference in Somali affairs, it was inopportune, to say the least, for the Americans to be turning over his lockup quite so brusquely. Moreover, their dawn swoop jarred badly with memories of the kid glove that the Marines had extended to Aideed less than a month earlier, at the height of the prime-time invasion. Then, a platoon commander who had stumbled onto a rockery of ordnance in Aideed’s yard was firmly told to forget about it. (His discovery occurred as Robert Oakley, the President’s special representative, was wheedling Aideed and his enemy Ali Mahdi Mohamed into a hug opportunity for the cameras.) Any questions about disarmament have been met by the commanders of Operation Restore Hope with an insouciant ‘don’t know.’ Though the troops stripped Aideed’s arsenal in the Somali Capital, and put a stockpile of confiscated weapons on show for their commander-in-chief at New Year, they have not carried out the general disarmament urged on them by voices as diverse as those of relief workers in Mogadishu and Boutros Boutros-Ghali in New York. It would be difficult to overstate the size of such a task, and it’s evident that the pre-publicity for Operation Restore Hope gave technical crews plenty of time to run for cover in Ethiopia. In the meantime an inexhaustible reservoir of arms and ammunition continues to destabilise Somalia. The failure to disarm means that the American-led forces have forfeited any opportunity they might have had to hand on a peaceful beat to the United Nations.

But then, Marine commanders have latterly given the impression that the only peacemaker they approve of is one that can be worn in a holster. On 8 January, with few of the Mogadishu press corps still in town, General Robert Johnston, the US commanding officer, acknowledged a new aggressiveness in the American approach: ‘We are providing pre-conditions for us getting involved in confrontations with technicals and gangsters.’ After establishing humanitarian relief sites in the interior, Johnston said, the operation had entered ‘phase three’: ‘Now we are systematically going after the technicals and the bandits.’

Colonel Mike Hagee of the Directorate of Operations, not so much doctoring the spin as applying snake oil to it, said: ‘This may be Dodge City, but Wyatt is in town.’ According to this model, it seems that the marshals from out of town would sooner shoot it out with ‘the bandits’ than, say, take advantage of superior numbers and firepower to encourage them to throw down their guns and come out with their hands up. It is in this trigger-happy context that relief agencies, which emerged virtually untouched by the civil war that followed the flight of dictator Siad Barre, and from the subsequent months of daylight robbery, have taken their first casualties. As I write, the number of expatriate aid staff in Somalia killed in 1993 is two, a 100 per cent increase over the rest of the Nineties put together.

A year ago, when the death of a member of an international aid agency could still be regarded as freakish bad luck, Martinka Pumpalova, a Bulgarian doctor, was murdered while she ate breakfast in the northern town of Bossasso. Her killers were never traced, but they were linked to a fundamentalist Moslem movement, Al Itahad, or ‘Unity’. Al Itahad may be no threat to the Americans militarily, but according to Richard Dowden of the Independent it could become a rallying point for disaffected Somalis. The risk of Somalia falling to intemperate Islam – this has been a straw many have clutched at in attempting to explain President Bush’s motives for launching Operation Restore Hope. On this analysis, consternated State Department rune-readers placed an emergency order for a million MREs when they discovered that Moslem extremists in Somalia were backed by Sudan, which itself had close ties with Iran.

Other rumours suggest that the White House was galvanised by Washington lobbying. Last November, Fred Cuny, styled as the Red Adair of the relief business, persuaded Paul Wolfowitz, the head of the Defence Department’s policy planning, that the Somali gangs snatching humanitarian supplies could easily be overwhelmed by sophisticated United States forces. A fair copy of their doodlings was slipped into the Oval Office in-tray by Frank Wisner, Under-Secretary for international security affairs at the State Department, and the rest is history (One gloss has it that the President was trapped into taking action on Somalia after his tentative moochings about the Wisner memorandum were unsportingly leaked.)

In Paris, where the Secretary of State was signing a chemical weapons treaty and stiffening the Europeans on Saddam, I had the opportunity to ask his officials about the reason for Operation Restore Hope. A senior aide to whom I addressed the question said simply: ‘Television.’ He meant that distressing pictures of the famine had built up a head of political steam for an American response, but a gratifying ambiguity allowed for the possibility that the project had been a big-budget Christmas special, co-produced by the networks and White House Features. The pleasing elasticity of this remark was some com pensation for missing the latest phase of the Somalia story, the emergence of an accord from the Addis summit. The dozen clans and sub-clans promised to disarm their militias and observe a ceasefire. General Aideed told the closing session; ‘Somalia is not going to go on fighting. There will be no factional fighting and we shall try to resolve our differences through dialogue.’

This statement was to be treated with distinct coolness, since Aideed had brought the discussions to the brink of collapse on more than one occasion. (He had refused to participate in a national reconciliation conference on 15 March, because he would not accept being considered to be on merely an equal footing with the other leaders; Aideed wanted recognition for the role his faction had played in toppling Barre.) A Reuters reporter covering the summit filed as follows: ‘Few Western diplomats, UN officials or Somalis believe that Somali militias or freelance gunmen will easily surrender the very weapons which give them power.’ That ominous thought brought me back to the Geneva talks over Bosnia, with Aideed cast in the role of Radovan Karadzic the dissembling spokesman of the Bosnian Serbs. Journalists will be well advised to brace themselves for gunfire in Sarajevo, whatever appears to have been settled in Geneva; so it is with Mogadishu and Addis.

What might be called the Bosnian character of the Somalia ceasefire emerged within days of its initialling, with the death of Marine Anthony Botello in the capital on 25 January. On the same day, the Pax Americana was also breached in Kismayo, where as many as ten Somalis were killed, and forty wounded, during clashes involving United States helicopters. They destroyed six technicals, an armoured vehicle and a rocket-launcher belonging to General Mohammed Said Hersi Morgan, Barre’s son-in-law. The incident revealed that the Americans were ready to interpret their mandate ever more loosely: their firepower was being used not to escort aid lorries, or even to go after bandits, but to intervene directly between warring clans. General Morgan had been threatening to capture Kismayo from Colonel Omar Jess, who is an ally of Aideed: Aideed understandably thanked the Americans for inflicting such damage on his enemy, graciously overlooking the trashing they had given his own compound a fortnight earlier. ‘It starts to look an awful lot like more traditional police work,’ said Marine Colonel Chip Gregson, who was presumably thinking of the kind of old-fashoined community policing that the LAPD administered to Rodney King.

Some American military spokesmen have hinted that they would like to hand over to the UN sooner rather than later – of a complement of nine thousand Marines, only about a tenth have been replaced by UN personnel so far. Rapid repatriation seems unlikely, however, in the light of resurgent clan strife, and the newly-advertised American willingness to break it up. The only people who have been getting away are aid workers in Kismayo, many of whom have been withdrawn for their own safety. Relief flights have also been scaled down; ironically, the decision was made just as Lockheed took a full page in the Herald Tribune showing its aircraft bearing food to Somalia.