Somalia is a country located at the north-eastern tip of Africa. This region is known as the Horn of Africa, or sometimes as the Somali Peninsula. In any case, it is a hot, mostly flat and mostly arid place which protrudes like the nose of a rhinoceros into the Indian Ocean: just about as far east as an African can go without getting wet.
It is a country that persists more credibly in maps than it does in reality, where decades of civil war and fighting among rival warlords have reduced a large part of the population to an unknown number of wandering refugees clinging to a forlorn life of crushing poverty and the ever-present danger of sudden and violent death.
Not much has changed for the better since the United Nations declared its 1995 attempt to impose peace on Somalia a failure. Clansmen of the north now call their home Somaliland, while some Somalis refer to their land as Puntland. Warlords still battle for control of the erstwhile capital, Mogadishu. A provisional government still plans for a brighter tomorrow in the relative safety of neighbouring Kenya.
Life Imitates Art
As the 1990s began, civil war in Somalia effectively turned the African state into a nightmarish parody of the popular Mad Max films, starring Mel Gibson, in which gangs of heavily armed outlaws race around a desert landscape, blasting each other with exotic-looking automatic weapons for no apparent reason.
Somalia's 1991 street theatre production of Mad Max featured gangs of youths who were recruited by rival 'warlords' and sent careening about in modified four-wheel-drive vehicles called 'technicals'. The sort of vehicles that farmers use to fetch bags of feed for their livestock or families use to go camping in the woods in a sane world were armed with heavy machine guns and packed with angry young men. In Somalia, petty crooks became warlords, boys became soldiers and the props of ordinary life became deadly weapons platforms.
Life's imitation of art took a more tragic turn as drought, famine and fighting drove vast numbers of ordinary people from their homes and into sprawling refugee camps, where they sat on the parched earth, covered in flies, starving to death as television cameras rolled.
Even this disturbing spectacle might not have galvanised very much of the world's concern - the sight of Africans in desperate need became a staple of the television diet of most of us some time ago - had not humanitarian aid groups added to their usual pleas stories of being threatened themselves in a manner that was too disturbing to ignore.
United We Stand
In 1992, the United Nations brokered a ceasefire of sorts and a small contingent of lightly-armed Pakistani troops were sent to represent civilisation in a Somali version of post-apocalyptic mayhem. It was soon obvious, however, to anyone not quick enough with the TV remote to turn to something else, that the situation in Somalia was growing worse. And so, US President George Bush (Snr) began to airlift emergency supplies into the worst centres of pitiful hopelessness1. Then, as the situation in the refugee camps became even more desperately unmanageable, the UN decided to send in a large peacekeeping force led by thousands of well-equipped American troops, which arrived in December.
This sort of unwelcome military intervention into what were (like it or not) the affairs of a sovereign state, no matter how anarchic, was something new. When American troops splashed ashore with blackened faces they were met, rather farcically, by television crews and fascinated onlookers who had strolled down the beach, drinks in hand, to see what all the commotion was about. Nevertheless, the American-led troops soon found that Somalia and the capital city of Mogadishu fully justified their caution, though in ways perhaps few of them could have foreseen.
The Cavalry Arrives
Chapter six of the UN charter allows for peacekeepers to place themselves between warring parties that agree to follow a UN plan of reconciliation and not shoot at each other or the peacekeepers, while peace (or something like it) is gradually restored. Chapter seven of the UN charter provides the framework for a much more aggressive programme of peace enforcement, in which heavily-armed UN troops effectively step into a conflict to break up the fighting, whether the combatants want them to or not. The choice of chapter six was to have disastrous consequences and make what was by then a really bad situation much, much worse.
By the start of 1993 and the Presidency of Bill Clinton, it was felt that nothing short of a major armed intervention stood any chance of restoring order. When 24 Pakistani soldiers were ambushed and killed by followers of the 'warlord' Muhammad Farah Aideed2 in June 1993, enough was well and truly enough.
In October 1993, a failed attempt by American forces to arrest Aideed led to 18 of their soldiers being killed in an ambush and 75 more being wounded in a desperate attempt to withdraw from the maze in which they suddenly found themselves trapped. This event was later portrayed in the film Black Hawk Down. Soon afterwards, President Clinton, perhaps recognising a no-win situation when he saw one, withdrew American forces.
Into the Sunset
The Somali conflict can be seen as a failure of the international community to come to terms with the sort of chaos represented by what was essentially a monumental gang war. Modern, well-equipped troops went to Somalia with the best of intentions and failed to impose themselves in any constructive way on a ragtag mob of thugs and petty tyrants. This led to the rather ignominious withdrawal of the American troops and to the shame of other national contingents, whose troops also fell short on a mission for which they were ill-prepared. In a disgraceful scene which was to replay itself with American soldiers in Iraq, Canadian troops — hopelessly out of their intellectual and moral depth — committed crimes of hate and frustration on helpless Somali prisoners and brought shame on themselves and their country.
The tragic failure of the UN in Somalia would have grave consequences in the very near future. Perhaps the bitter lessons learned by the international community in the Somali intervention would increase the reluctance of the international community to commit troops to the peacekeeping mission in Rwanda, as it spiralled out of control, leading to the needless deaths of 800,000 at the hands of a ragtag militia of youths armed with machetes and Kalashnikovs.