Leading Article: The harsh realities of trying to save others

Click to follow
The Independent Online
COLONIALISM has always had its nostalgic appeal and not just among the colonists. For every elderly former district officer or Calcutta box-wallah tucked up in his Home Counties bungalow (Dunexploitin', Reigate) with his memories of tiffin, you will find many more old men and women, black and brown, spread across Asia and Africa who, when they remember foreign rule, do not always share 'the sentiments of frustration and hatred' which Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the Egyptian Secretary-General of the United Nations, evokes in his own mind. Some of these people, of course, benefited by favour and employment from their rulers (as, ironically, Mr Boutros-Ghali's ancestors did) and their evidence may be written off, often unfairly, as the self-interest of 'imperial lackeys'. Others, like old people everywhere, mistake the joys of their youth for a kinder society: everything was better when we were young. But most of these old voices, speaking in the violent twilight of Burma and Bihar, Sind and Somalia, are worth listening to. Ask them about the days of colonial rule and they are liable to place the debit and credit of colonialism in a thoughtful balance. On the credit side, three things are remembered. One, the administration tended to be efficient and sometimes even just. Two, corruption existed but on a smaller scale. Three, the level of violence was far lower; there was order and peace. They do not buy the mythologies of the Pax Britannica. They know that Europe went to conquer, to trade, and sometimes to aggravate divisions between tribes and religions. Rather, they are like the Biblical crowd to whom John Cleese puts the question in The Life of Brian: 'What did the Romans ever do for us?' A hesitant voice replies: 'Schools?' Another says: 'An irrigation system?'

Today there are other hesitant voices, some of them surprising themselves by asking similar questions. Were not the Balkans a better place under Tito? Should not the prosperous countries of the West resume their former bossy-boots role in poorer countries? Last week in the Guardian, the playwright Arnold Wesker found himself - 'against all my early instincts' - moving towards something he called 'the principle of an international benign force'. He argued that such a force, by which he meant troops and guns deployed under the auspices of the UN, should be sent to the former state of Yugoslavia. There they would not act in the name of Serbs, Croats or Muslims but 'to protect, defend and rescue human victims from a brand of human cruelty which has existed since time'. This was the voice of a compassionate civilian, not the sceptical view of a politician, a historian or a general, all of whom would point out that when foreign armies intervene in civil wars they generally do so for self-interested reasons.

Pro patria mori has yet to be replaced by pro homine mori as the great persuader. None the less, the swell of support in the West for armed intervention in Bosnia is growing, and even if the objectives are blurred - to protect convoys of humanitarian aid or to reclaim the territorial integrity of Bosnia? - many would agree with Mr Wesker when he says there is 'no more transparently obvious human disaster area' where armed intervention, benignly, could help.

Which brings us to the picture on the right. We would argue there is indeed a more obvious human disaster in the world, and one which armed intervention could more easily treat. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people in Somalia are in danger of imminent starvation. Drought is one cause, but war and chaos are mainly to blame. And yet, unlike the Balkans, the armed struggle in Somalia cannot be construed as anything but demonical self-destruction. No new nation is being forged, no dictatorship is being overthrown, no ethnic groupings are struggling to defend their territory. The Somalis are one ethnic group, they speak the same language, they have Islam as their common religion. The war is between gangs and clans, between ill-disciplined forces of General Mohamed Farah Aideed on the one hand and Ali Mahdi Mohamed on the other, each struggling for control of the capital, Mogadishu. On the fringe of this war are packs of bandits killing for fun and survival. They loot food supplies and in their wake comes mass starvation. Thousands are dying every week. Somalia is the world's worst human tragedy.

SOMALIA'S descent into chaos has been slow and well-signalled, but until recently the signals were ignored. As far as the West is concerned, the country could be said to have got its timing wrong. Its president, Siad Barre, was overthrown in January last year when the world's attention was on Kuwait. Northern Somalia, formerly the British part (France and Italy colonised the rest), declared UDI in May last year when Yugoslavia was disintegrating. The view of the international community was that until Somalia's North rejoined the South it could expect no assistance, and certainly not recognition.

The battle for Mogadishu began in earnest in November last year. Both sides simply shelled each other's parts of the city at random. The casualties, mostly women and children, were horrific. It was at its worst in January and mass starvation was predicted - several times by this newspaper. That is when the UN should have acted; but the UN had fled the country, sending all its staff, on extra pay, on holiday. All the Western embassies had been evacuated; the diplomats and their governments decided nothing could be done. The UN sent a whistle-stop delegation in January which achieved little. The work of bringing in medical supplies and food was left to the aid agencies.

This month, however, the UN has refocused its attention on Somalia. But if it or the West wants to 'save' the country and its people, we need to face some harsh realities. If troops are sent in to protect food supplies, these troops must be ready to kill and be killed. Many of those in the two main armies and in the armed gangs fight for the hell of it - with arms, it should be said, supplied by the United States and the former Soviet Union in the days of superpower rivalry in the Horn of Africa. They are unlikely to be daunted by the sight of blue berets. With a horrible irony, the presence of an outside force may unite them.

There is no authority in Somalia, nothing but boys with guns who kill at will. If a force goes in, the UN will also need to summon a peace conference to bring together Somali leaders and help them found a new Somalia. That may take years. In the meantime the country will have to be ruled by UN mandate. It will undoubtedly be a form of colonialism. But if several hundred thousands of people are to be saved from murder and starvation, a form of colonialism is what is required.

(Photograph omitted)