UN: More harm than good?: Apathetic, ill-informed, too late; the African tragedy

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The Independent Online
WHEN the American marines landed in Mogadishu last December Abdi Mohammed painted his wagon. The sawn-off Toyota Landcruiser with a 50mm machine gun mounted on the back - known as a 'Technical' - was brown with yellow spots, the battle colours of the Murasad clan. Abdi removed the machine gun and hid it under his bed with the ammunition. His team of six fighters was sent home. He painted the vehicle grey and said something about using it as a taxi.

Asked how long would it take to turn it back into a 'Technical', Abdi scratched his thick black beard. 'About half an hour,' he said.

From November 1991 until March 1993 Mogadishu was a battleground. Men like Abdi fought street by street with tanks, heavy artillery, mortars and machine guns. Anti-aircraft guns and anti-tank guns, their barrels at a flat trajectory, were fired point-blank into homes, shops, mosques and offices. In the first seven weeks of the war an estimated 5,000 people died, most of them women and children slashed by shrapnel or blasted by shells whose target had been a mile away. All sides used artillery at random on each other's sectors. In the front line 'Technicals', with tyres screaming, shot backwards out of side streets, fired bursts and screamed back to cover again.

On some days the hospital casualty clearing rooms were ankle-deep in blood. The mad fury that convulsed the city was personified by a fighter whose brother had just been killed. He stormed into the Benadir Hospital, spraying bullets everywhere.

Mogadishu had already experienced a battle for the capital when General Mohamed Farah Aideed's forces had driven out President Siad Barre in January 1991. Bodies from that fighting still lay unburied in the rubble of the presidential palace.

During this war the UN compound in Mogadishu was deserted. Like all the other diplomats, the UN staff fled in January 1991 and did not return. The foreign aid community consisted of five aid agencies, who were vocal in criticising the UN's flight from the scene. Two Unicef staff members occasionally visited the UN residence near the airport, but, as one of them explained bitterly, whereas the aid agencies employed young idealistic people with no family commitments, he had a wife and children and a mortgage. He had not joined the UN out of idealism, but as a career. Anyway, the orders from New York were to keep out of Somalia. UN staff are paid an extra dollars 100 a day 'displacement fee' for being away from their station and many of those posted to Somalia but now withdrawn were relaxing on Kenyan beaches.

At the end of 1991 Javier Perez de Cuellar, then UN Secretary-General, was embarrassed into sending James Jonah, his Special Representative, to talk to both sides, but it was a hurried, half-hearted and ill-informed mission. Only after 3 March last year, when a ceasefire was agreed, did the UN begin to do something about Somalia, but by then war had led to famine. In the agricultural belt west of Mogadishu thousands were dying because they had been prevented from planting crops for two years.

Mohamed Sahnoun, an Algerian diplomat, was appointed UN Special Representative and impressed everyone with his sensitive and passionate understanding of Somalia. A few months later he admitted that the UN had failed Somalia in the past. For that he was summarily dismissed by Boutros Boutros-Ghali, even though he was referring to the period before Boutros-Ghali took over.

He was replaced by Ismat Kittani who, when he was in Mogadishu, rarely ventured out of his office or spoke to anyone other than his own staff. On the ground fewer than 100 lightly armed Pakistani troops arrived in August, but never left the airport area and had to be guarded by the local militia. Their mandate was to act only with the agreement of the local factions.

While they sat impotent, images of starvation began to appear on Western television screens. Although the shooting war was largely over, or at least stalemated, food aid was blocked at the ports gates or looted from lorries by gunmen, and children kept dying. Whatever the UN in New York said about a 100-day plan to save Somalia, the UN compound in Mogadishu was a sleepy, bureaucratic bunker where the only Somalis were drivers, translators and bottle-washers. Its extravagant claims were treated with contempt by aid workers and suspicion by most Somalis. Somalia's plight, however, provoked furious debate over whether the UN could shoot to feed.

On Thanksgiving Day last year the debate was resolved by a leaked announcement to CNN: President George Bush was planning to send in the marines. Was this a turning point at which the US would not allow people to starve because of war? Or was it an attempt by Mr Bush to leave office on a note of glory?

The US military men said the job of creating an environment safe enough for humanitarian aid to be disbursed was 'do-able'. The military planners were apparently referring to the flat landscape, which made guerrilla war difficult. The troops, Mr Bush said, would hopefully be home by 20 January. Neither he nor his military planners took into account Somali culture or the cataclysmic state of its politics.

The world could not have picked a more difficult place to try out peace enforcement and humanitarian intervention. Proud to the point of xenophobia, volatile and aggressive, Somalis are not a nation to be forced into peace, as anyone who has seen them fight will testify.

The marines arrived with such a display of firepower that the Somalis - like Abdi - sat back, hid their guns and waited. But the dynamic that had led to Somalia tearing itself to pieces was not changed one iota. After two months the Americans claimed they had ended the war and saved thousands from starvation. That dynamic was simply waiting to erupt again. General Aideed, the most powerful of the warlords, was unwilling to give up his military power. If the US and the UN failed to persuade him politically, a military clash with his forces was always the potential disaster.

(Photograph omitted)