Richard Dowden: How mistakes of US's 1992 invasion are being repeated

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The Independent Online

Force and farce characterised the last US invasion of Somalia. In the early hours of 9 December 1992, Navy Seals slipped ashore at Mogadishu airport. What nobody seems to have told them was that the beach and airport were held by a Pakistani UN battalion.

Worse, they had forgotten to tell them that their own general had invited the 200-strong pack of journalists in Mogadishu to witness the arrival.

Wading through the surf, the Seals walked straight into flashing cameras and microphones. At first, they tried to shield their faces and slink away. One, caught in the bushes with his trousers down to change from wetsuit to chocolate-chip uniform, tried to ignore us. Eventually he turned and pleaded: "Please, leave me alone." Another shouted: "Go away, or we'll shoot." "Shoot away," someone shouted back: "We're rolling."

By now, the Pakistani force was getting interested and a jeepload hurtled across the runway, guns at the ready. Eventually, a major emerged from a patch of shrub and called the journalists over. "We were not expecting this," he said frankly. "Please leave us alone to get on with our work."

I drove to the port with my crew: translator, driver and two gunmen. My life depended on them. Cheerful, cynical and ever ready to expound on the complexities of Somali society, or to kill for me, they explained amid laughter that, in Somali, seal means vagina.

I wandered down the jetty on my own to watch two black-headed terns hovering and diving in the tranquil morning light. Suddenly two sparks flew past my head. Then the crack, crack of a rifle. I was being shot at. I fell over, feeling stupid. A couple of marines sprinted up, still screaming hysterically. "Stay down, you fucker. Don't fucking move," one shrieked. "Roll over. Put your hands out flat."

Boots stopped next to my face and I lifted my head. A gun barrel jabbed into my ear and my head cracked on to the Tarmac. Another gun was sticking in my back. "Identify yourself," screamed the soldier. "I'm a British journalist" I stuttered.

"He says he's a British journalist," the marine parroted back over his shoulder. Then, as if the meaning only sunk in when he said the words, he turned back. "You're a what?" he shouted. "I work for The Independent newspaper of London. What's your problem?"

Another marine pulled my bag away and searched it. I looked up. "Get your fucking face in the dirt," he screamed but then seemed to run out of conversation and waited for someone to tell him what to do.More soldiers ran up. They too seemed hysterical. Fear? Drugs? I tried to calm them. "Go easy. There's no trouble up there, they're all friendly." But my captor shrieked back: "Get your hands above your head and walk ahead up the jetty." Another of his comrades flung himself flat and fired a burst up the jetty.

"There's only journalists up there," I shouted but I realised my crew were there too: Somalis and armed. I had paid them and there was a deal. They would die - and kill - for me. As I approached the gaggle of journalists and their helpers, I saw my two gunmen and screamed: "Put the guns down. Don't shoot. Don't shoot." They looked confused, as if to say, "Why did you hire us then?" But they obeyed.

As we reached my colleagues, the Americans made their biggest mistake: "Whites over here. Somalis over there." The Somalis were ordered to lie down to be searched, while non-Somalis were searched standing up. "Treat us like human beings," shouted one Somali, "We are human beings." The Americans did not listen. From that moment I knew Somalia would defeat them. It is the only time I have ever been assaulted in Africa.

Almost a year later, I was back in Mogadishu after 18 US special forces were killed when they tried to capture General Aideed - the Blackhawk Down incident. More than 1,000 Somalis were killed that night. I went to the site of the helicopter and watched kids swinging and bouncing on the broken blades. A crowd gathered and my translator suggested we move. I asked why. "The crowd, they think you are American," came the reply. I said: "And what if I was American?" He smiled: "They would kill you."

Richard Dowden is director of the Royal African Society