Bitter tears as Sahnoun leaves Mogadishu: UN crisis deepens after dispute between Secretary-General and envoy to Somalia

Richard Dowden
Friday 30 October 1992 00:02

'IT WAS no wish of mine to leave Somalia and all the wonderful people who have given, and continue to give, at great risk to themselves, their time and energy to save the lives of the starving populations.' With these words Mohamed Sahnoun left Mogadishu yesterday after his offer to stay on temporarily to finalise vital food aid arrangements was turned down, writes Richard Dowden.

Despite appeals to Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the UN Secretary-General, from Britain - who described Mr Sahnoun as 'indispensable' - and other governments and relief agencies, there was a brief exchange of letters yesterday between Mr Sahnoun and Mr Boutros-Ghali and Mr Sahnoun left. Fighting back tears at Mogadishu airport, he spoke of 'bitter experiences with the UN' and his disappointment 'at the lack of support from the UN system as a whole'.

Aid workers blamed his resignation on the bureaucracy and the fact that he had dared to blame it for failing to save thousands of Somalis from starvation. 'Like millions of Somalis, Sahnoun has become a victim of the UN system,' said Mike McDonagh, head of Concern, the Irish aid agency. Mark Stirling, head of Unicef, said: 'With Ambassador Sahnoun there was a confidence in the UN's political leadership.' His departure puts in jeopardy the deployment of UN food-aid guards and a national reconciliation conference. Some 300,000 people have died already in one of the world's worst famines and another 250,000 could die by the end of the year.

Mr Sahnoun won the confidence of the warring factions in Somalia, even though when he arrived there in April the UN's standing was less than zero. After nearly a year's neglect of Somalia by the UN, last December James Jonah was appointed special representative by the retiring Secretary-General, Javier Perez de Cuellar. He made an ill- prepared visit in January in a vain attempt to bring about a ceasefire but was hampered by the lack of a UN presence. UN staff appointed to Somalia were withdrawn from the country after the capital became a battleground in November 1991.

All UN staff away from their appointed country are given an allowance of dollars 150 ( pounds 95) a day, so the UN staff were in effect paid to stay away from the country. The few who stayed on, mainly from Unicef, were unable to operate effectively because, unlike workers with the smaller aid agencies, they were not encouraged to take personal initiatives but had to refer back to the UN bureaucracy.

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