Somalia's tragedy is our blindness: The Third World is what we make it, argues Kenan Malik

Click to follow
CERTAIN images of war lodge permanently in the memory. The picture of a naked Vietnamese girl fleeing in terror, her back ablaze from napalm, is one of them; the charred skeleton in the driver's seat of a burnt-out truck on the road to Basra is another. An image from the current conflict in Somalia, which I saw in an exhibition of photographs that opened last Tuesday at The Edge gallery in London, is haunting in a similar way.

The picture had been taken by Luca Marinelli, a photographer travelling with Italian paratroopers enforcing what the United Nations calls a 'pacification programme' in the Aadan Yabaal region. A patrol had just brought in a couple of Somali 'bandits'. The photograph shows two soldiers, wearing rubber gloves to protect themselves, roping and blindfolding one of the terrified prisoners and trussing him up like an animal. It is an overwhelming image of power and degradation. 'This is a scene,' Mr Marinelli comments, 'that I would never have wished to see. And, more than anything, I would never wish to see such a scene again.'

The image is disturbing because it seems to come from another age - when European soldiers bestrode the Dark Continent and proudly showed off their native 'trophies'. It is disturbing, too, because it turns upside down our perceived image of Somalia. Here we have peacekeepers acting as you might expect warlords to act, a humanitarian mission behaving as an army of occupation.

This is not the way we like to think of Somalia, or of any part of the Third World, which provides us with the kind of moral certainties that are often lacking in the West. At home we may be unsure of what is right and wrong. On any number of issues, from immigration to crime, we may be uncertain of the way forward. But there are no such doubts about our relationship to the Third World. We see it in black and white terms, a straightforward world of goodies and baddies. We know - or think we know - who are the warlords and who are the peacekeepers.

We are all too ready to believe the worst about any African or Asian country. The vocabulary by which we understand the Third World is, without exception, negative - a world of famine, tribalism, bloodshed, dictators, terrorists. We know the Third World almost entirely through its victims and villains.

Equally, we like to see the West as a champion of peace and democracy, of hope and progress. The US/UN attacks on Mogadishu and the bloodshed they caused may have made many people uncomfortable, because they question such moral certainties. But they have done little to undermine people's faith that there exists an inviolable line between warlords and peacekeepers. Few would challenge the idea that the Somalis require Western intervention to protect them from the ravages of man and nature. However horrified people may have been about America's recent actions, most remain convinced that the Western peacekeepers are on the side of the angels while the warlords are with the Devil's XI.

Yet the truth is often more complex. Somalia is certainly a brutal, violent country. But the villains of the piece are not necessarily whom we might like them to be. Consider the following incidents. On 22 March this year, Abdel Ghani Hassan was driving through Mogadishu with three friends. Turning into the road that led to the port, they passed some boys burning tyres. Suddenly two vehicles, mounted with Browning machine guns, passed the car. Without warning, the gunmen opened fire. Several bullets hit the car and Abdel Ghani was shot in the back.

A few days later, 13-year-old Younis Abdi Mohammed was sitting in front of a building near Mogadishu's Bakaraha market. There was an exchange of fire between two groups of gunmen. One knelt, took aim, and deliberately shot at Younis, hitting him in the leg. His mother had to take him to hospital in a wheelbarrow.

Earlier, another group of soldiers had entered the offices of the Tawakai company in the market. They forced the employees to face the wall, hands up. They broke into the safe, stealing dollars 48,000 and 5 million Somali shillings.

In each of these cases, the gunmen were UN troops or United States Marines. These are not isolated incidents. It is estimated that nearly 600 Somalis have died at the hands of the peacekeeping force since the start of Operation Restore Hope. The silence of the Western press is not the result of censorship or a media conspiracy. Journalists, like most of us, filter the facts to fit their picture of what Somalis should be like.

Anything is possible, it seems, when it comes to Third World villains. The case of General Mohamed Farah Aideed, the Somali warlord, illustrates this well. In Western eyes, he has become the consummate Third World villain. The Americans want to put him on trial for 'crimes against humanity', including the murder of 350,000 people by starvation.

I have little doubt that Aideed is a nasty piece of work. But if he really is among the biggest mass murderers the world has known, then we might have expected to have had at least an inkling about his evil deeds before. Yet until six or seven weeks ago there was not a whisper of the charges now laid against him. Indeed, for most of the past decade, Aideed has been treated as a respectable (and respected) politician. For much of the 1980s he was a member of the American-backed regime of former Somali dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, and a man with whom Washington felt comfortable. When Barre was forced out of power in 1991, most observers expected Aideed to be the next president of Somalia - and the West treated him as such.

Even after the Marines landed on Mogadishu beach last year, and we became increasingly used to thinking of Aideed as a warlord (a word Washington had never used in describing him before), the Americans continued to negotiate with him and to treat him as a legitimate Somali leader. No one then suggested that we were dealing with a mass murderer.

Then, suddenly, Aideed was portrayed by the UN press machine as a depraved animal, a man capable of the basest of acts, incapable of behaving like a normal human being. I find it more than coincidental that this transformation took place the same weekend as America's first bombing raid on Mogadishu.

It is all too easy to demonise Aideed like this because we have already made a myth of the Third World with the consequence that the bloodshed we have seen in Mogadishu this past month becomes inevitable. After all, if Aideed is such a monster, then the loss of a few Somali lives in the attempt to capture him seems of little moment. Thus do we justify the most brutal acts in Mogadishu, Baghdad and elsewhere.

In discussing the Third World we are in danger of accepting facts not because they are true but because they fit into the picture we have of what the Third World should be like. We think of it as a place of violent dictators and helpless victims. We view the West as a latter-day Wyatt Earp with the job of cleaning up the Wild South. We have our gallery of villains, from Saddam Hussein to Aideed. We have our image of the straight-talking, fast-shooting lawmen whom we have empowered to keep the peace - from Stormin' Norman in the Gulf to Lt-Col Bob Stewart in Bosnia.

We need to become more sceptical, more questioning. The next time someone starts talking about 'warlords' and 'peacekeepers', perhaps we should ask them which one was wearing the blue beret.