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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.