Somalia: Ill met by moonlight in Mogadishu: Richard Dowden feels the full force of Operation Restore Hope, already attacked for media saturation and a disregard for basic planning
Thursday 10 December 1992
'Identify yourself,' screamed the soldier aiming at my left temple. 'I'm a British journalist,' I said. 'He says he's a British journalist,' screamed the man, clearly unconvinced.
Just before light, the marines, in full combat gear and with faces blackened, piled over the containers stacked at the end of the quay at Mogadishu port, firing and screaming as they came. Tracer bullets zipped over my head. 'Get down - get your fucking face in the dirt - Move] Move] Move]' the dark figures screamed. I fell over backwards and lay there till three marines sprinted up, ripped my bag away from me and thrust their guns at my head. A Cobra helicopter, hovering above the quay, seemed to aim at my stomach.
Any questions about what the US marines would do in Somalia if they saw someone with a gun were dramatically answered. The answer leaves no doubt that, unless they change their tactics quickly, they will kill Somalis in large numbers. The marines rapidly interrogated me about the group of people further up the quay. I explained they were also journalists and had guards who were armed, but friendly. I suggested that if they approached gently they would be warmly welcomed. They didn't.
More marines sprinted up the quayside, shouting and flinging themselves down to cover each other. At least they only fired starburst shells to illuminate them. They separated the journalists from the Somalis and searched all the Somalis. They found more in the warehouse and immediately tied their hands behind their backs and forced them to lie down. One old man shouted back at them: 'Is this a way to treat a human being?'
When things cooled down I asked my captor if they had anticipated a group of journalists on the quay. He said: 'No, we did not anticipate that at all.' I explained that General Frank Libutti, the US officer already in Somalia, had invited the journalists to the port to watch the landing. Had no word been sent? 'We were not told,' the marine said. 'But you had a helicopter circling over us half an hour ago - couldn't he see we're journalists?' No reply.
Sergeant Joseph Rossi, who led the assault, said later: 'I enjoy a bit of adrenalin early in the morning . . . I got to protect myself and my men - no, I don't think we were over the top.'
He said his men had been fired on as they came ashore on the breakwater but although journalists had heard shooting earlier, no Somalis with guns appeared to have been captured and there is the possibility that two groups of marines were involved in 'friendly fire'.
Asked what his orders were, Sgt Rossi said that if they see someone with a weapon 'we tell him to put it down. But if they raise that weapon . . . we regard that as an assault'. His orders were in marked contrast to the shots fired over my head without warning half an hour earlier.
If the assault on the port was dangerous farce, the assault on the airport was just farce. It started in the early hours of yesterday morning, when Navy Seals (frogmen) had come ashore on the beach by the airport where scores of journalists were camped out under a nearly full moon.
Caught in the glare of television lights and flashing cameras, the Seals first of all threatened to shoot the journalists if they didn't go away, then fled into the bushes behind the sand dunes to do whatever special forces are supposed to do when they land secretly in enemy territory.
The hack-pack followed them until the men pleaded with them to go away - like children discovered playing hide-and-seek by an adult. Such are the perils of a pre-announced seizure of an airport, which has been in the hands of United Nations troops for four months, as if it were heavily defended enemy territory.
Eventually the journalists tired of taunting them and went back to sit on the sand and enjoy the moonlight over the bay. A little later, cameramen with night-sights announced that they could see a large ship approaching and smaller vessels emerging from it. One of the earlier arrivals, a marine captain, came out of his non-hiding-place to ask the journalists to move, as amphibious landing craft would be coming ashore shortly.
The Amtracs would stop for nothing and it would 'not be a pretty sight', he said. Attempting to shade his eyes from the glare of television lights, camera- flashes and awkward questions, he said: 'We were not anticipating this.'
The journalists moved to the two ends of the beach, which was exactly where, shortly afterwards, the Amtracs emerged from the water.
Colonel Ted Peck, Public Affairs Officer of the 1st Marine Division, refused to accept that the marines had not been warned to anticipate journalists but he conceded: 'By arriving at 4am we thought we might catch you napping.'
'We are trying to come here with goodwill,' he said. 'We made an impressive show of force this morning and I'm not apologetic about that . . . we did it to make a play but we are not joking.'
Meanwhile, Dan Rather, one of America's best-known television broadcasters, was going live from the top of the control tower where, amidst satellite dishes, cameras, tons of electrical equipment and miles of wire, dozens of journalists were covering this event.
'Everything is going smoothly and according to plan,' he was telling America.
Everything may be going according to plan but the Americans have already failed to anticipate journalists, the most predictable people in the world. Can they anticipate the Somalis, one of the least predictable?
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