In the Heart of Somalia

Shortly before the United States military forces intervened in Somalia, I spent several weeks visiting feeding centers where thousands of Somali children are surviving on porridge from the West, while thousands more have been dying. Like so many others, I wonder how aware the US is of what it may be getting into. Are we in effect establishing a protectorate in Somalia? If so, how long will it last? Are we glimpsing the start of a new scheme of things that might spread to other hungry and chaotic parts of Africa, and elsewhere in the world?


Within moments of my arrival at the compound of the German Caritas relief agency in Mogadishu one evening in late October, I heard the sound of automatic weapons. My hosts paid no attention, but I later learned that two doors down the road at another relief compound, two Somali guards had killed each other in a shoot-out. Next morning, I set out to see Mogadishu for myself. For $80 a day, Rasheed, a local businessman, arranged for me to be driven in a white Toyota with new blue upholstery and accompanied by four young men with Russian and American automatic rifles. My driver was named Mohammed; and my “interpreter,” a boy of about fifteen who sat next to me in the back seat, chewing the green leaves of qaat, the local drug of choice, called himself “Mussolini.”

I was not anxious to advertise that I was a writer, for Western journalists are not popular with Somali gunmen. Therefore I had come to Somalia as the guest of the US Catholic Relief Services. The CRS had no compound in Mogadishu, so I was lodged in the spacious white villa of its sister agency, German Caritas, the (very rich) relief arm of the German Catholic bishops working jointly in Somalia with the Lutheran World Federation.

In a mixture of English, Arabic, and Italian I told Mussolini that I wished to see the Medina Hospital and we drove swiftly through teeming streets. Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, a city of more than one million, has been described on American television as a heap of rubble but it is in fact largely intact. Many of its buildings, erected by the Italians earlier in this century, have bullet scars, and entire blocks are devastated from clan conflicts and civil wars, but the city does not resemble Berlin in 1945 or even Beirut in the 1970s. Amid the piles of uncollected garbage and the rows of shacks, most of the people looked adequately fed. The Somali shilling had stabilized against the dollar, prices had dropped, and food was available to anyone who could buy it.

Yet there is no government and no police force, and all the foreign embassies have fled. The streets roared with vans, trucks, and open jeeps mounted with machine guns and crammed with youths—eighteen, fifteen, twelve years old carrying Russian AK-47s, American M-16s, grenade launchers, and bazookas. Many, like Mussolini, were chewing qaat, a stimulant like benzedrine imported from Kenya, which makes them high. Some called themselves security guards but where they were rushing, down this street, up the next, no one seemed to know. Their bumper stickers say, in English, I ♥ SOMALIA. Many wear T-shirts with the message I AM THE BOSS.

At the Medina Hospital, nearly the entire medical staff, about fifteen people, all of them Somalis, crowded into the director’s office to meet me. I explained that I was only a guest of the CRS, but they implored me to intercede with the director of CRS in Nairobi to save their hospital. “We have only ten doctors,” the director said. “Six months ago we had forty, but they fled the country. We cannot pay our workers. We have no medicines.” The deputy director wrote out a list of supplies the hospital needed urgently: “Glucose, plasma, penicillin, ampicillin, morphine, insulin, syringes, iodine, soap, plastic gloves, catheters, colostomy bags, beds, mattresses, sheets, surgical lamps, stethoscopes…,” and on for several pages. He added, “Médecins Sans Frontières [Doctors Without Borders] used to help us, but now they refuse. Please help us.”

He took me through the crowded hospital—several low cement buildings with nearly five hundred patients. There were no sheets on the beds, and the mattresses were filthy; the rooms and corridors had not been swept for weeks, or months; excrement lay heaped in the toilets. Many of the patients had gunshot wounds: a woman’s stomach had been ripped open; an adolescent boy had lost a testicle. An Egyptian surgeon told me, “I can’t operate—no electricity.” The wards spilled out into the sunshine of an open yard, where beds were set up haphazardly in the dust. Hundreds of hungry squatters, refugees from the famished countryside, were camped on the hospital grounds in huts made of twigs and plastic.

I went at once to the compound of Médecins Sans Frontières to ask why they had refused further aid to Medina Hospital. An official told me, “During the war, we ran that hospital. We still give what help we can. They want us to reconstruct the entire place, and we can’t.” Whenever MSF sent medicines and supplies to the hospital, he told me, they rarely reached the patients: the staff stole them and sold them on the open market. Such accusations are common among the nongovernmental relief organizations (NGOs)—food and medicine intended for the starving are constantly intercepted by Somalis and sold for high profits.

Médecins Sans Frontières inhabits the former embassy of the United Arab Emirates—a vast palace with wide verandas, marble floors, and crystal chandeliers. Other NGOs are housed as comfortably in the armed compounds of abandoned embassies and the villas of the vanished rich. Mogadishu has no electricity, but each aid compound has its own generator and refrigerators, china, cutlery, and cooks; a visitor can expect cool drinks and a hearty meal. The SOS Kinderdorf hospital, run by Italian nuns of the Consolata, feeding and caring for hundreds of sick and hungry children a day, is even air-conditioned, and it is as clean and well-equipped as any hospital in Europe. Many of the relief workers, I noticed, smoke cigarettes constantly. The women—often young and pretty—imitate Somali women by covering their feet and the palms of their hands with elaborate floral patterns of henna dye. At night, the hard-working staffs of the aid organizations mingle at cocktail parties and dances with live orchestras, while outside in the streets the gunfire goes on.


At the beginning of December, before the arrival of the American forces, there were two sources of power in Somalia, two de facto governments—the gunmen and the foreign relief agencies.

ICRC, the International Committee of the Red Cross, each day feeds about 1.5 million of the hungry at nine hundred kitchens throughout Somalia, including several hundred in Mogadishu alone. Hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees have poured into Mogadishu, where the ICRC feeds them high-nutrient porridges of rice, wheat, beans, and oil. In a country of six million people, ICRC is now spending nearly a quarter of a billion dollars, or a third of its global budget, to reverse the Somali famine, one of the worst of the century, in which some 250,000 people are estimated to have died so far and as many as 1.5 million more are said by American experts to be threatened with death by starvation if aid does not reach them quickly.

In addition, dozens of smaller NGOs—among them CARE, Oxfam, Irish Concern, Irish Goal, World Vision, Save the Children UK, International Medical Corps, Action Internationale Contre la Faim, Catholic and Protestant church agencies—run supplementary feeding centers and medical and development projects throughout Somalia. Because of the enormous need, most of the smaller agencies tend to concentrate on feeding the starving young children and their mothers, leaving other adults to fend for themselves. Yet at one agency or another, many of the adults manage to obtain minimum amounts of grain and high-protein biscuits, which they share with their families in their squalid camps.

I visited many feeding centers, and watched the swarms of hungry children and their mothers waiting patiently at the compound gates and then rushing forward to get the plates of porridge and plastic cups of milk when at last the gates opened. Geraldine, an Englishwoman at Save the Children UK, told me:

At home, I used to work in the National Health, but my children are grown up, so I came to Somalia. It’s bad, yes, but you should have seen Mogadishu a few months ago. Our cases of starvation are way down. And look, we’re not all Europeans—we work with Somali doctors and nurses from the old Ministry of Health. To cure a case of malnutrition, the ICRC minimum is 2,000 calories a day. We feed our children 900 calories a day—beans, maize, and oil—in our supplementary program and therapeutic section. Milk for the sickest. Look at my little miracles: this child came to us eight months old, weighing three kilos, almost dead. Look at her! She’s healthy now.

The relief agencies meet regularly to coordinate their efforts, though Caritas officials told me that in practice such coordination is ineffective, causing duplication and waste of resources. Officials of smaller agencies criticize the ICRC for overspending, for paying such high salaries to Somali workers and guards that their own costs have soared. They criticize both CARE (which distributes much of the US government food) and the ICRC for sloppy methods of delivery. “In the interior,” I was told, “the ICRC and CARE have dumped food on the side of the road, leaving it there for hungry villagers, but the food is often stolen by gunmen.” These criticisms may be valid, but in view of the terrible conditions of security it seemed to me a marvel that the larger and smaller agencies have managed to function at all.

Somalia covers about 247,000 square miles, almost the size of Texas. The northern part—including about a third of the country up the coast of the Indian Ocean, then westward along the Gulf of Aden—is more stable, and prosperous, and better fed than the southern part, near the Kenyan border, though its resources are now strained by refugees from the south seeking food and survival. Northeastern Somalia, dominated by the Somali Salvation Democratic Front of the Majerteen clan, even has a working civil administration influenced by clan leaders. Northwestern Somalia, corresponding roughly to the former protectorate of British Somaliland, has benefited recently from good rains and the growth of livestock as well as food and veterinary assistance from the ICRC.

The famine, which is most severe in the center and south of Somalia, grew out of clan and civil wars, drought, the destruction of agriculture, livestock, infrastructure, and the death of the economy. The famine has created two million refugees, many still living inside Somalia but displaced from their villages, while hundreds of thousands of others have fled into Ethiopia, northern Kenya, and places beyond. Huge amounts of food and medical assistance are being sent to the most stricken regions in the center and south of Somalia, and to refugees just outside the country.

A metric ton of grain can feed 2,500 Somalis a day. According to estimates by the US government, since January 1992 the ICRC has delivered nearly 100,000 metric tons of food to the interior of Somalia, while the World Food Program of the United Nations has sent more than 50,000 metric tons since last May. The US government is pledged to deliver an additional 145,000 metric tons to Somalia mostly through the World Food Program and the private relief agencies. The food is delivered by air (partly by the US Air Force), by ship, and by truck, though once inside Somalia more than half of it has been looted by gangs, port workers, and so-called security guards. The gangs have been stealing it for themselves and their families; they sell it on the open market and, in large quantities, across the borders to merchants in Kenya and Ethiopia. The American forces, I have been told, stopped much of the stealing at the port of Mogadishu when they arrived; the question is how long they must stay if it is not to start again.

In 1992, US food aid and assistance to the NGOs exceeded in value $150 million, while European governments have contributed lesser, but substantial, amounts. Nevertheless, as late as last July the ICRC estimated that 95 percent of all Somalis in the center and south of the country were undernourished and that three quarters of them were starving. Thousands of people a day were dying in the center and south and in the camps of nearby Kenya and Ethiopia. By the end of November, the numbers had diminished, but probably several hundred a day were still dying. The ICRC has called for deliveries of 60,000 metric tons of food per month indefinitely—one of the goals that the US intervention is intended to accomplish.

The plans for Somalia of USAID (the Agency for International Development) and the NGOs go far beyond indefinite handouts of food, and now, with the American intervention, they may have a chance to put some of them into practice. They stress the need for “development”—rehabilitating wells and livestock, planting seeds, encouraging self-reliance, and discouraging theft. They aim to give the hungry population a more stable life by providing labor-intensive projects that will put cash in the hands of the poor, stimulate agriculture and cattle-breeding, improve public health by purifying the water and promoting sanitation, and repair the roads. The schemes, USAID officials say, are not to be carried out in imperial isolation, but in consultation with village elders or wherever a semblance of local government exists. On a limited scale, some NGOs have already started such projects, but whether USAID and the NGOs will effectively consult with elders and realize the schemes of larger scope remains to be demonstrated.

The overall program is known by the curious term “Monetization”—which reflects its emphasis on increasing the buying power of the poor. “We want to saturate the market with pasta and tomato sauce at reasonable prices,” a USAID consultant told me. “This should reduce the looting of relief food.” Whether or not pasta and tomato sauce will help to save Somalia, it is clear that the UN failed to give any such projects the protection they needed during most of 1991 and 1992.

The five hundred UN troops under the command of Pakistani Brigadier General Imtiaz Shaheen were supposed to control Mogadishu International Airport and the docks of the seaport to allow the unhindered flow of relief supplies. However, the UN’s authority was tenuous at best and constantly challenged by Mogadishu’s chief warlord, General Mohammed Farah Hassan Aideed, who claimed that UN troops were violating Somalia’s sovereignty. The UN’s military mandate was purely defensive; UN soldiers could only return fire, and they lacked the numbers—and, it seemed, the will—to stop looters effectively.

When I visited the airport in mid-November, UN tanks were deployed there and seemed to be in charge, but General Aideed was threatening again to send in his gunmen to chase them out. While armed thugs were extorting payments from relief organizations and stealing food and medicine at will, the blue berets of the UN, whose mission was to patrol the docks and warehouses, were seldom seen. Ambassador Mohammed Sahnoun, the UN’s chief envoy in Somalia, resigned in late October, accusing the UN relief organizations of slowness and incompetence in responding to Somalia’s famine, and the Security Council of inertia and indecision in providing relief shipments with adequate protection.

In early November, General Aideed declared yet another “truce” with his rival warlord, the self-styled interim “president” of Somalia, Ali Mahdi. Eager to see the northern sector of Mogadishu, which he controls, I arranged to visit the ICRC hospital across the “green line” on Ali Mahdi’s side of the city, accompanied by a Red Cross midwife.

In the devastated area called no man’s land, our Somali driver ran over a machine gun set up in the middle of the road; and when we reached the northern sector we were immediately surrounded by thirty armed, threatening, and screaming men. They seized bags from our van and robbed my companion of $180, while our own armed guards in the truck ahead of us sat watching and laughing and fingering their guns. Had they aimed their own guns, they would have been shot at, and not only the midwife and me but dozens of hungry children crowding around our van would have been caught in the crossfire. At the ICRC hospital, an old prison overlooking the sea, the wards overflowed with men suffering from gunshot wounds. The stench was nearly unbearable. On my way back, I could see groups of youths waving automatic weapons on nearly every hill of sand I passed.


According to the English anthropologist and historian I. M. Lewis: “In their dry, savanna homeland, the Somalis are essentially a nation of pastoral nomads.” The country is divided among five main clans—the Dir, Issak, Hawiye, Digil-Rahanwein, and Darod. The Darod are the largest, but like the rest of the clans they are fragmented into a profusion of subclans and further sub-divisions that no outsider can lucidly decipher. This is a society that for many centuries has been dominated by clan warfare over camels, pasture, sources of water, and the payment of “blood money” to compensate for murders and other wrongs. Raiding and looting have been a way of life.

Lewis makes two points about the Somali pattern of authority. First, “It is the elders—and this in its broadest connotation includes all adult men—who control clan affairs”; and second, “a hierarchical pattern of authority is foreign to pastoral Somali society, which in its customary processes of decision-making is democratic almost to the point of anarchy.”1 In the competition for control over territory, clan alliances and counteralliances have continually formed and fallen apart, formed again and fragmented in bizarre patterns; and because of the near anarchy within the clans, it is seldom clear who can be held responsible for any decision.

At the Caritas villa, I met Somali intellectuals who tried to unravel for me the complexities of clan politics. A former official of the Ministry of Finance, educated in Italy and the US, told me, “In the north, the elder system works. This is Somalia as it should be—poor but viable.” His friends went on to explain that no matter how large the number of city dwellers today, the nomadic psyche lingers. “In the past, our people wandered from plateau to valley, from water hole to water hole. If there were enough water and pasture to share, all went well—if not, families and clans fought to kill.” Though Somalis are ethnically homogeneous, universally profess Sunni Islam, and speak the same language, they are not, these intellectuals said, culturally equipped to live with one another in times of want.

In better times,” a former professor said, “elders of different clans conferred with one another and settled feuds—even murders—by agreeing on compensation. But even in the best of times, unsettled feuds could lead to wars between clans and inside clans themselves. If a clan is united, the elders can control lawlessness. If it’s divided, they rarely can. The greater threat—always—is the other clan.”

France, in 1860, was the first imperial power to gain a foothold in Somalia. By 1887 the British had created the Somaliland Protectorate in the northwest of the country; the French took Djibouti in 1888; and the Italians colonized most of Somalia along the coast of the Indian Ocean after 1892. After contending with a fierce dervish holy war to expel the foreigners, which lasted until 1920, Italy ruled Somalia harshly but not without benefits to the people. Under Mussolini, vast banana plantations were established because (according to Somalis) “Mussolini decreed that every Italian should eat a banana for breakfast.” The Italians also built roads and railways, and introduced elementary schools and modest health services. They continued to develop the country with even greater vigor during their UN trusteeship from 1950 until Italian Somalia and British Somaliland were reunited and Somalia achieved independence in 1960.

The rivalries of clan and subclan then reasserted themselves and with great destructiveness. Amid much corruption and political chaos, General Mohammed Siad Barre seized power in a military coup in 1969. Though pretending to be above clan politics, General Siad Barre in practice progressively favored his own Darod clan from the southwest—and particularly his subclan, the Marehan—in governing his new “Somali Democratic Republic.”

Aligning himself with the Soviet Union in exchange for arms, Siad Barre imitated the Nasserist model of rule by army officers and proclaimed that Somalia would pursue “Scientific Socialism.” Soon he had established a Mao-style cult of personality; he was hailed in children’s hymns as the “Father of Knowledge,” and revered in a holy trinity of Marx, Lenin, and himself. The KGB trained his security officers, and Somalia by degrees became a harsh police state in which members of the Marehan clan were used to suppress members of rival clans.

In 1977, a huge reversal took place. War broke out between Somalia and the even more brutal Marxist regime in Ethiopia of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam over Somalia’s irredentist claims to Ethiopia’s Ogaden region. When the USSR provided Ethiopia with large amounts of military aid, Siad Barre broke with Moscow and turned to Saudi Arabia and the United States for economic and military support. The US did not endorse Somalia’s claims to the Ogaden, but it did want an ally in the strategic “Horn of Africa,” bordering the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. Somalia lost the war with Ethiopia, but in order to thwart Soviet dominance of the region, the US thereafter assisted Somalia with military aid, sending small amounts under the Carter administration, and much larger amounts under President Reagan. OPEC and West European nations also gave military aid to Somalia.

During the 1980s, according to US diplomats in East Africa, the Reagan administration provided Siad Barre with about $1 billion in military and economic aid and sales. Between 1982 and 1986, US military aid to Somalia exceeded $115 million.2 American diplomats are highly defensive about this today, but one wonders whether US policymakers at the time had any notion of the complexity and instability of Somali clan politics, or indeed gave any thought to the possible consequences of delivering so many weapons to so volatile a society. We are witnessing the aftermath of their ignorance and neglect now, as US diplomats admit that the Horn of Africa has become “devalued real estate” and Somalia “an orphan of the cold war.”

By the end of the 1980s, and as disgust with Siad Barre’s corrupt and brutal rule increased, conflict grew among the clans. More and more, the president depended on the Marehan clan to keep him in power, but the small arms he distributed to his followers also got into the hands of his enemies. The north, disturbed by hundreds of thousands of ethnic Somali refugees from the Ogaden, would no longer tolerate Siad Barre’s repressive militias, and sought autonomy. In May 1988, civil war broke out when guerrillas of the anti-Barre Somali National Movement, dominated by the Issak clan, attacked towns in the north of the country. Siad Barre sent in his artillery and air force, and during the next nineteen months he killed at least 50,000 civilians, punishing them for their presumed support of the guerrillas. The fighting quickly spread to central and southern Somalia, where Siad Barre inflicted similar atrocities on the Hawiye and allied clans for their support of a second opposition group, the United Somali Congress and other rebel movements. Of that civil war, Africa Watch wrote,

Counterinsurgency methods have resulted in wholesale slaughter of noncombatants, aerial bombardment of civilian targets…the burning of villages, indiscriminate use of landmines, deliberate destruction of reservoirs and the killing of livestock…. Entire regions have been devastated by a military in combat against its own people, resembling a foreign occupation force that recognizes no constraints on its power to kill, rape, or loot.3

By that time over eighty years old, Siad Barre was overthrown in late January 1991. But the US had just then begun the air war against Iraq and few in the West noticed. Mohamoud M. Afrah, a Somali journalist, has described the last hours of the Siad Barre government in Mogadishu:

Government rockets landed on crowded residential areas and marketplaces, and an estimated 20,000 civilians…lost their lives. In retaliation, the rebels have carried out a slaughter against the President’s clansmen and top officials….Bloated bodies of civilians and soldiers have been hurriedly buried in shallow graves with their hands and legs sticking out.

Afrah then described the assault on Villa Somalia, Siad Barre’s fortress:

Guerrilla forces…captured over $45 million in US-supplied military hardware, including 25,000 M-16 rifles. [Also captured were] 15,000 AK-47s, thousands of hand grenades and landmines, 20 Soviet-made T-55 tanks, 35 artillery pieces, 36 rocket launchers, 40 armored personnel carriers, six Chinese-made MiGs…and enough other material to field the entire armies of two African countries.4

These are the weapons one now sees on the streets. Siad Barre fled to the south of Somalia; he is now in Nigeria, and I was told by diplomats that he is plotting to regain power. His tyranny in Mogadishu has been replaced by warfare between General Aideed and Ali Mahdi and the widespread shooting and looting by local gangs who acknowledge no authority whatever; tens of thousands more citizens have been killed in fighting since Siad Barre was overthrown.

The rivalry is all the more inscrutable since Aideed and Ali Mahdi, both in their late fifties, come from the same clan—the Hawiye—though from different subdivisions, Aideed from the Habr Gidir subclan and Ali Mahdi the Abgal. Both men belong to the United Somali Congress, which was formed in 1989 to fight Siad Barre. Ali Mahdi has claimed to be the interim president of all Somalia, and Aideed the chairman of the USC—a distinction without much meaning today.

Both warlords have had questionable careers. Aideed, once an officer in the Somali army, spent several years in prison before Siad Barre released him to fight against Ethiopia and then appointed him ambassador to India, where, as a diplomat, his critics in the USC say, he trafficked in drugs and acquired a considerable fortune. Ali Mahdi, a former restaurant owner with Italian business connections, is accused by the Aideed faction of having links to the Mafia. Their struggle seems only for power and for the lucrative spoils that are to be expected from international recognition, but in the meantime neither has been able to control the lawlessness and rapacity of his own gunmen.

In early November, Aideed announced that he was creating a 2,000-man police force “to improve security.” Abdul Karim Ahmed Ali, secretary general of the United Somali Congress and Aideed’s deputy, assured me that within several months the quarreling factions of the USC would be completely reconciled; national elections would follow, and they would produce “democracy.” Ali Mahdi declared that he was beginning a fast “to share the hunger of his people.” No one I talked to believed either Ahmed Ali’s promises of reconciliation or that Ali Mahdi would long continue his fast.


With guards and an Irish nurse, I left Mogadishu to see some of the interior of Somalia where I had been told the famine was at its worst. I first went to Baidoa, nearly two hundred miles to the northwest, the center of a region whose people are largely of the Rahanwein clan. They are more drawn to farming than other clans, which are proud of their descent from herdsmen and tend to regard the Rahanwein with contempt.

Only a few months ago, three hundred Somalis a day were dying of starvation in Baidoa. By November, the number had been reduced to about sixty a day, thanks to the heroic efforts of the NGOs. At the Baidoa airport, which sometimes came under fire, US Air Force C-130s and private transport aircraft were delivering scores of tons of food and medicine daily. The ICRC, CARE, and Catholic Relief Services (CRS) were trucking more and more food to remote villages of the region to encourage the hungry to stay at home and thus to prevent the population of Baidoa, now over 100,000 people, from swelling further.

Baidoa is an even more violent place than Mogadishu. Only days before I arrived at the primitive CRS compound, an angry former employee turned up at the gate with a machine gun and killed several Somali passersby. Nominally Baidoa is controlled by General Aideed’s USC gunmen, but their presence is contested by the Somali Democratic Movement, a political militia dominated by the Rahanwein clan, and bloodshed is commonplace. ICRC’s huge warehouse was being routinely looted at gunpoint. While I talked to Lockton Morrissey, CARE’s director in Baidoa, he learned on his radio that seven CARE trucks, after loading at the airport, had just been hijacked—by CARE’s own Somali drivers. More reports came in on the radio. “Make that ten trucks,” Morrissey said.

Baidoa’s open marketplace was sickening to see. Dates and meat swarmed with flies among abundant quantities of soap, shampoo, toothpaste, cigarettes, combs, mirrors, Sacks of stolen grain, marked A GIFT OF THE PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, were piled about. Skeletal children wandered around, begging scraps of food, but not so many as in August, when, a CRS official told me, “this marketplace was empty except for corpses and dying zombies”—further testimony to the enormous benefits brought by the NGOs, despite the huge obstacles.

My grimmest memory of Baidoa is of tiny naked children waiting to be fed outside the relief centers and defecating water, mucus, and blood. After defecating, many Somalis, large and small, wipe themselves with their fingers, then handle food. The ignorance of even basic sanitation compounds the debilitating effects of famine. Diseases, especially among malnourished children, are rampant, a condition that is common throughout much of Africa. Most of the children of Baidoa—one sees thousands of them in the streets, the orphanages, and the feeding centers—are afflicted with bowel parasites. Many of them, especially the malnourished, are anemic, suffering variously from hepatitis, pneumonia, meningitis, tetanus, malaria, hideous eye and skin infections, and in some cases from cancrum oris, which eats away their faces.

The municipal hospital cannot help them. “We treat only car crash victims and gunshot wounds here,” the director told me. At least the hospital was clean. The International Medical Corps, an organization based in Los Angeles, washed the floors, installed a pure water system, and trained the staff in sanitation. “They were throwing excrement out the window,” an IMC woman told me. Up the road, Médecins Sans Frontières of the Netherlands is building a field hospital of huge white tents to treat the diseases that the municipal hospital will not accept. Save the Children UK is reconstructing destroyed wells and installing water pumps in Baidoa and beyond it.

Across the road from the main hospital, the Irish Concern feeding center was so overcrowded that children in the final stages of starvation lay head to head in the corridors. “We feed their mothers with them,” said Geraldine, the young and beautiful head nurse, “but otherwise we can’t feed adults. The men and the old women are hungry, too, but we can’t help everybody.”

I asked her why she had come to Somalia. “I was working at a posh Dublin hospital,” she told me, “in the intensive care ward. I came here out of curiosity.” I admired her reserve, and the reserve of many other foreign relief workers of whom I had asked the same question. Some cited religious motives, others the obvious need; not one talked grandiosely of helping “humanity.”

I asked some of the young Somali gunmen in Baidoa to explain their feelings about the chaos and famine that the clan wars had brought to their country. Most of them laughed or shrugged, but Mustafa, my guard, seemed more thoughtful. He said, “I’m from the Rahanwein. All of our troubles come from [Siad Barre’s] Marehan [clan].” We were walking on the main road, surrounded by hungry children. I asked, “Suppose these children were Marehan. Would you feed them?” He only said: “Can you get me into the United States?”

From Baidoa I drove about ninety miles southwest to Qansadhere, the scene of some of the worst destruction by Siad Barre’s troops and only hours by road from Bardhere further south, where General Aideed’s troops were battling against forces still loyal to Siad Barre. Because of the fighting, three hundred people a day are dying from starvation in Bardhere.

The problems of Qansadhere were less severe than those of Bardhere, but they were bad enough. Months after Siad Barre’s fall from power in Mogadishu, troops of his Marehan clan came to the region of Qansadhere, and—until April 1992—robbed and pillaged again, torturing, destroying homes, crops, livestock, and wells. Now Siad Barre’s son-in-law and former minister of defense, Mohammed Said Hashi Gani, alias “General Morgan,” heads the army of the Somali National Front, the remnant of the forces loyal to the old dictator. He controls bases in the south and, I was told, hopes one day to march on Mogadishu to restore his father-in-law. Such plans obviously have been upset by the American intervention, but General Morgan and his supporters across the Kenyan border will likely still be there after the Americans leave.

Trucks full of General Aideed’s troops passed through Qansadhere—headed not south but north, away from the battlefield. The men in them shouted to us that they had not been paid or fed. Was Aideed losing the battle in the south? Would General Morgan march on Mogadishu? No one knew. Amid this confusion, trucks arrived from the Catholic Relief Services carrying sacks of US government sorghum for Qansadhere. Thousands of people, children and adults, some very old, lined the main road, quietly waiting for the food. Gunmen of the Rahanwein clan’s Somali Democratic Movement looked on, kept order, and did not shoot or loot. The distribution went well.

In Qansadhere I stayed in the crude compound of Médecins Sans Frontières, where small padlocked buildings for storing food and medicines stand near twig huts with thatched roofs. When it rained, sporadically but fiercely, the compound turned to a pudding of mud. The European staff were Bernard from Paris, Jean-Luc from Périgord, Severine from Paris, Rachel from Switzerland, all young nurses, and all of them tense from the constant danger. While we were having dinner under a thatched roof, Severine came in with a starving infant, Faduma, whom she attached to intravenous tubes in the next room. Severine said, “She won’t live till morning.” A delegation of elders from Ufuro, a village ten miles south, came to see Bernard, and I took the following notes.

Elders: We’re sorry about the shooting in Ufuro the other day.

Bernard: You should be. Three of our workers were killed.

Elders: It won’t happen again. We have a new chief of security. Our people need your food.

Bernard: We want to come, but we don’t want to be killed. All right, we’ll come on Friday.

Just then, gunfire was exchanged outside our hut.

Bernard (laughing): Are you sure this won’t happen—with your new chief of security?

Elders (laughing): If it does, we’ll shoot him.

I slept on the floor of a thatched hut. In the morning, the infant Faduma was still alive. “Her brain is dead,” Severine said. I walked with Bernard to another compound, where 2,000 skeletal children were waiting to be vaccinated by UNICEF against measles, but suddenly the male Somali nurses went on strike. “We want more money,” they demanded. “Je n’ai jamais vu un bordel pareil” (“I’ve never seen such a mess”), Bernard told Severine on his walkie-talkie. Finally a settlement was negotiated and the children were vaccinated. As I prepared to leave Qansadhere, Faduma was still breathing.

At Baidoa, I arranged to return to Mogadishu in an armed convoy of the ICRC, with only two companions, Paul Oberson, local director of the ICRC, and Rolf Keffer, a Red Cross engineer, both Swiss. We were supposed to leave at noon, but our guards staged a revolt, shouting of the danger on the roads and demanding $1,500 to protect our land cruiser—an unprecedented price, I was told. For hours, ICRC staff conferred by radio with headquarters in Mogadishu, until finally they were authorized to pay $1,500 in advance.

Sometime after three, we set out on the road to Mogadishu, with two vans mounted with machine guns behind us. Just outside town, we encountered a long convoy of trucks from Mogadishu headed in the opposite direction, carrying CARE food to Baidoa.

The road was so narrow that we soon became wedged between two trucks. Behind us and ahead of us, shooting broke out; first we heard the sound of automatic guns and then the bursts of bazookas and perhaps of grenades also. The CARE convoy was under attack. Men with assault rifles rushed past us. One of our own gunmen ran from the van behind us and jumped into the back seat beside Rolf and me: he was carrying a black Al Capone-era Tommy gun. Rolf shouted at him that he would attract gunfire, and pushed him out of our van.

Ahmed, our driver, zoomed into thorn bushes along the side of the road. The shooting continued, louder and closer. By now Rolf had his head so low it touched my knees. I bent down, reached into the bag at my feet, pulled out my late father’s rosary, and hung it around my neck. Ahmed drove wildly into a field of parched grass, zigzagging, until at last the sound of shooting faded and we sped toward Mogadishu on open road. Later, quoting CARE, Reuters reported that forty people were estimated to have been killed in the attack on the convoy. Eight trucks carrying food were hijacked. Relief workers speculated that the gunman may have been working for General Aideed.5


In early December, in Rome, I found the newspapers full of reports and proposals anticipating President Bush’s plan to send 28,000 troops to Somalia as part of a UN force. In The International Herald Tribune, Anthony Lewis was urging, “military force must be used to protect the relief effort from the gangs…. A few thousand wellarmed troops with a clear mission could make all the difference in Somalia. Their mission…would be to protect relief operations, not to settle the conflict among…Somalis.”

Inside the country, among hungry and unarmed Somalis, I had found some sympathy for such proposals. A few Somali intellectuals even favored imposing a UN protectorate to govern the whole country until order can be restored and free elections held. They argued that the UN, however ineffectively, was mounting operations of far greater scope in Cambodia and Bosnia than it was attempting in Somalia.

Before the US landings, the dozens of NGO relief workers I met inside Somalia were anxious for more protection, but they were mostly doubtful that major intervention by either UN or US troops would succeed. “It would start another war—even bloodier,” was the prediction that I most often heard. “Do you kill to make peace? The troops would have to kill a lot of the young gunmen, and that would mean carnage—a new morass.”

Now that the US military intervention is underway, one can only hope for the success of its declared mission of protecting the delivery of food and ending the Somali famine. (The 28,000 US troops will be supplemented by 7,000 soldiers from other nations.) Yet even as one applauds the good intentions, one wonders whether the mission can be limited, as Bush maintains, and whether its humanitarian purpose can be isolated from the violent complexities of Somali clan politics as easily as he seems to think.

About the military action alone, one can have some doubts. As I write, US forces have been able to secure the seaport and airport in Mogadishu and to move into Baidoa. But taking over docks, airports, and city streets is one thing; the long roads of Somalia and the isolated villages of the countryside are something else.

Already, anticipating the arrival of US forces, many of Mogadishu’s gunmen have fled west to the Baidoa region. Some of the gunmen there have retreated into the countryside, where there is plenty of bush to hide in—tall green grass and acacia trees and tropical shrubs, even fields of new sorghum and corn. The Pentagon is apparently confident that the hired gunmen will not turn into guerrillas and that they will not harass US forces on the roads or elude them as they loot new food-stocks in the villages. This confidence seems to me questionable. Will US forces have to be deployed in every large village as well? Will US troops accompany every relief convoy, stand guard at every Red Cross warehouse? The New York Times reported on December 17 that “many relief-agency officials…warned that the American mission would not be counted a success until the military disarmed the gunmen, whose fighting has held up relief in the past.” Yet the US has so far avoided a commitment to disarm the gunmen.

The political complications may be more daunting. Despite the Pentagon’s hope of concluding its mission in Somalia within a few weeks or months, it seems improbable that the United Nations will be able to replace the US forces as real peace keepers. If we know anything about the UN in Somalia, Bosnia, and Cambodia, we know that it has been ineffectual. The longer US forces stay in Somalia, the more likely it will become that the US will be drawn into a search for a political settlement and the more Somalia will resemble a US protectorate, with only a formal role for the United Nations.

Both of Mogadishu’s warlords, General Aideed and Ali Mahdi, have declared that they welcome the US intervention, but in the coming weeks or months if the US presence does not advance their political ambitions they may not sound so accommodating. On December 11, under US prodding, they signed a peace agreement and promised to demilitarize Mogadishu, but Aideed’s gunmen, particularly, could eventually reemerge in force, resisting the US presence, looting again wherever they can, and killing relief workers. Throughout Somalia, moreover, much resentment lingers for US support of Siad Barre.

The Somalia Salvation Front has announced that the northern part of the country will secede and form the “Republic of Somaliland.” General Aideed has sworn that he will not permit secession and will fight to keep Somalia one nation. Would US troops be drawn into a battle to separate the combatants? Where would such fighting end?

In Mogadishu I heard many rumors of money and ammunition flowing into Somalia from Islamic fundamentalists in the Sudan, Pakistan, Iran, and elsewhere, much of it to opposing factions, with the goal of establishing a fundamentalist state. In the south, the Kenyan government is believed to be supporting General Morgan and to favor the restoration of Siad Barre, because it considers Aideed a dangerous politician who wants to take some of Kenya’s territory. For their part, the Marehan of Siad Barre have proved themselves to be the most bellicose and bloodthirsty of all the clans and cannot be expected to behave peaceably. How deeply will the US be drawn into such complexities?

Once engaged, the United States will find it extremely difficult to withdraw, leaving the country to a UN replacement force that is likely to be weak while allowing Somalia to revert to clan warfare. More and more, Somalis may expect the United States not only to feed the country’s hungry people but to rebuild its ruined infrastructure and revive its economy. For such reasons the United States, perhaps much against its wish, may govern Somalia for an indefinite time as a de facto protectorate.

Nudging the country toward democracy and free elections would be the US’s hardest task. The basic solutions to Somalia’s problems should be left to the Somalis themselves, but the more peace-minded Somali leaders may not dare to act unless the US gives them protection, incentives, and encouragement. Already there is talk that clan elders and other leaders will meet under US and UN auspices. (A UN-sponsored meeting of Somali factions is scheduled to be held in Addis Ababa in early January.) The traditional influence of Somali elders might eventually be used to persuade the warring clans to form a loose federation of autonomous regions with Mogadishu as the nominal capital. But US sponsorship of such a solution would be long and intricate, and the process could sour at any moment.

In 1968, I visited Biafra, which was then afflicted by famine during its civil war with Nigeria. But terrible as that famine was, the Ibos of Biafra were able to maintain sanitation and public order, and—save for soldiers—none of them had guns. Somalia makes the tragedy of Biafra seem almost simple by comparison. As one casts one’s eye across the map of Africa—to the southern Sudan, to Angola and Mozambique, the sites of other famines—one wonders: Is Somalia a dress rehearsal for what the rest of tribal Africa might become? Will Somalia be the first US protectorate in Africa?

December 17, 1992


A Cruel Custom in Somalia April 8, 1993

Heidegger and Nazism: An Exchange April 8, 1993

  1. 1

    See I. M. Lewis, A Modern History of Somalia: Nation and State in the Horn of Africa (Westview Press, 1988), the standard history in English of modern Somalia.

  2. 2

    See David D. Laitin and Said S. Samatar, Somalia: Nation in Search of a State (Westview Press, 1987).

  3. 3

    See Africa Watch,Somalia: A Government at War Its Own People, Testimonies About the Killings and the Conflict in the North, January 1990.

  4. 4

    See Mohamoud M.Afrah, Target: Villa Somalia, An eyewitness account of Mogadishu’s fall to U.S.C. Guerrillas (Karachi: Naseem,1991).

  5. 5

    See The Standard, Nairobi, November 14, 1992. Andrew Hill, Reuters’s East Africa correspondent, wrote: “Up to 40 people may have been killed in a shootout between guards and gunmen over [the relief] convoy…. ‘Unconfirmed reports say up to 40 people from both sides may have been killed,’ said a spokeswoman for CARE…. If confirmed, it would be the most serious attack on an international operation to distribute relief for 4.5 million people caught in the world’s worst famine for decades….”