Haunted by the ghost of a forgotten city

America's failure in Somalia is guiding its policy in the war against Serbia, writes Lucy Hannan in Mogadishu
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The Independent Online
"I EXPECT to get something by begging," said Amina Abdi, 31. "Sometimes I get nothing, sometimes I get a meal." Happy to make 4,000 Somali shillings a day, about 30p, Amina lives in a hut made of scavenged rubbish, in a forgotten city.

Welcome to Mogadishu, the last "non-permissive environment" into which the US sent ground forces. Somalia's coastal capital was once strikingly beautiful, with its white Italian-Muslim architecture, but the boulevards are now lined with discarded burnt-out vehicles.

Huge piles of rubbish block the pavements; the desert has crept from the outskirts into the very heart of the city, and houses, factories and offices have been blasted by mortars and bullets. Militiamen on pick- up trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns race by, allied to the many warlords who stake a claim in national leadership.

There is no government in this capital and its population is at the mercy of the warlords. Despite popular dissatisfaction, says a former student, Nasir Abdulahai, the chance for political expression is as remote as elections: "We have no outlet to complain. No parties, no institutions, no government departments - and demonstrations would be dealt with by anti-aircraft guns."

Despite a business community thriving in the no-holds-barred war economy, most people have no electricity, piped water, sanitation or telecommunications. Entertainment is scarce, other than watching satellite "street television", hooked up to a rare generator. A large group of people sitting on the pavement maintains a heavy silence during the blanket coverage of Kosovo. But the response to the misery of the Albanian refugees is: "We've been through all that." A faction leader, Ali Mahdi Mohamed, expressed typical bitterness. "The US came here without a real programme," he said, "and then abandoned us. Maybe they will do better with Kosovo because it is a European country, so they care."

If the US is reluctant to send ground forces into Kosovo, it is because of its experiences in Somalia, the first American armed intervention in the "new world order". "Humanitarian intervention" ended in shocking television pictures of a dead American pilot being dragged stripped and bloodied before jeering crowds in the streets of Mogadishu in October 1993. Ever since, US policy has been guided by fear of "crossing the Mogadishu line", an expression coined by the UN Protection Force in the former Yugoslavia.

When the US entered Somalia in 1992, the country was torn apart by warring factions and in the grip of one of the worst famines in recent history. The intention was to end the famine quickly, and disarm and neutralise the faction leaders, but the mission soon lost direction. The Americans became embroiled in fighting with the factions, and bombed a radio station to silence its propaganda.

The problems encountered in Somalia came to haunt the very notion of intervention: the fact that 18 Americans went home in body bags introduced an unspoken calculation, according to one UN humanitarian worker, "the importance of the conflict relative to the number of American deaths". In this case, the ratio was unacceptable. It meant that the US later refused to commit troops in Rwanda, Zaire or, so far, Kosovo.

The US failure profoundly affected the UN, its partner in Somalia. Not only was it hamstrung by US reluctance to get involved in other emergencies, it was more likely to be bypassed when Washington did decide to take action. But the worst victim has been Somalia itself. Having inspired one of the largest humanitarian efforts of recent times, it is now more abandoned than ever before.

The prospect of reaching any political solution seems more remote than before the multi-million dollar intervention. UN representative Gianfranco Rotigliamo says he is "more pessimistic" now than when the conflict erupted "because then there was a desire by the factions to sort it out, but now it's gone on for too long".

People are desperate for some sort of international presence in Mogadishu once more. According to the faction leader Hussein Aideed, the West is "shy of Somalia after the failure of the US and the UN". Even though his late father, General Mohamed Aideed, did more to drive the Americans out than any other Somali, his heir insists there is a "moral obligation to come back". But hostility over the failed intervention has bred aggression towards Westerners, all too frequently resulting in shooting or kidnapping. Since January, two aid workers have been shot dead. A ransom of hundreds of thousands of dollars was demanded for a third.

With no diplomatic presence other than in Sudan, Libya and Egypt, and with aid agencies operating "in absentia" from neighbouring Kenya, Somalia is proving uniquely vulnerable to terrorism and the international weapons trade. Political and religious extremism is growing. As a result, US funding has increasingly gone to helping neighbouring states cope with the fall- out.

Somalia has demonstrated to the US that there is a price to be paid for both intervention and abandonment. It is a lesson clearly being borne in mind as Washington ponders its next move in the Balkans.