The struggle for peace in Somalia

By Mohamed Urdoh

Zakaria's big, bright eyes and alert mind promise that he could be something if he is given the chance. But that is what he hasn't been getting ever since he was born, three years ago. Pushed by curiosity and the hope of making friends, he approaches the window of my car.

Will you hit me with a bullet?" he asks in a timid, shrill voice; meaning in Somali "will you shoot at me?" Unable to catch his question, I simply say "yes." As a result, the poor child runs for dear life.

Taken aback by this reaction, I ask my friend Ibrahim Solob, "What the heck is wrong with the boy?"

Don't you remember what you told him? You said you are going to kill him," Solob responds.

The realization of my gross mistake provokes in me a mixed feeling of guilt and burning desire to learn more about the boy. So I ask the driver to call Zakaria to come back. This time, though, he makes sure to avoid me by going to Solob's window.

He is only three and you can bet your life he already knows a lot about guns," Solob, who is driving the car, comments.

Let us put him to the test," I propose. The driver picks up his gun from the floor of the car, showing it to the boy. Oh God! I find myself regretting that we ever had the crazy idea. The look on Zakaria's face, the popped eyes-everything about him suggests he is going to have a heart attack-right away.

This was the measure of things in Mogadishu when I went there last October for the CBS. Children like Zakaria were paying the price. In my friends' words, "This is a mad world."

The situation has improved since American President Bill Clinton announced his latest initiative on Somalia on Oct. 9 1993. To show goodwill, the White House took some tangible steps. The single most observable manifestation of Washington's sudden change of heart was the immediate significant reduction in the terrorizing presence of American helicopter gunships in Mogadishu's air. In response, Aideed kept his promise not to fire at United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM) troops.

Contrary to the new positive attitude of the U.S. and the Somali National Alliance (SNA), UNOSOM did not initially seem pleased and was dragging its feet. Hence it wasted a lot of valuable time on meaningless rhetoric during the first few weeks following the detente between the U.S. and Aideed's men.

In fairness, UNOSOM was not totally insensitive to the new changes. To begin with, its spokesperson stopped badmouthing Aideed during media briefings held at the heavily fortified U.N. compound. Despite these relatively positive developments, UNOSOM had to show for itself new policies tallying with the new political and diplomatic realities in place in the trouble-torn country.

In fact, on October 22, 1993 the atmosphere was too tense as Boutros Boutros-Ghali stopped at Mogadishu airport. The U.N. Secretary General had decided not to pass the fortified airport for fear of facing humiliation in the streets, which happened last year during a bungled visit to Mogadishu. The electricity in the air had been generated by the professed intentions of certain anti-Aideed Haweye personalities to initiate a "peace march" from north Mogadishu to the south.

The event had been decided at a UNOSOM-supported conference addressed by U.N. Assistant Secretary-General James Jona and attended by top UNOSOM policy makers. It is noteworthy that the conference was held as soon as Aideed had declared his ceasefire and promised to release the U.N. hostages in response to Clinton's initiative.

From the word go, it was obvious that the conference would not help the situation. But the participants in the event had not gone too far before revealing their plans to march from the northern part of the divided city to the southern part, which is primarily under Aideed's control.

Since all the participants in the conference were opposed to Aideed's group, the SNA, their move was automatically interpreted by their opponents as an open provocation. So, without mincing words, SNA said in an October 23 press release that they would open fire at the marchers if they crossed the green line.

This warning should have been taken seriously. After all, the Northerners and the Southerners were shooting at each other only yesterday, and up to now they still remain swordpoint enemies. The animosity between the two sides has deepened even more by Aideed's confrontation with UNOSOM.

We had three meetings with them (Ali Mahdi's followers) in 1992," Abdullahi Barre Jumalle, one of Aideed's staun chest supporters, says. "In each case, we took a pledge with them to keep the peace and forget the past. However, they betrayed us at every turn. We organized a similar march a year ago. They confronted us with heavy guns at the green line. How can we trust them today?"

An SNA press officer, Abdi Abshir Kaheye says, "Things reached a point of no return when they congratulated the Americans and UNOSOM for killing our people. That is when wesaid enough is enough."

The man whose father was one of more than 70 people killed by American helicopter gunships during an attack against a Mogadishu villa July 12, adds, "Even if SNA cadres don't open fire at them, there is no way we can control the people whose relatives were massacred by the Americans. These people will not spare them. They know pretty well what is going to happen. But they can't say no to their master-UNOSOM-which wants the violence to continue."

The organizers of the march, which eventually touched off a number of shoot-outs that claimed the lives of many people, denied these allegations. They said they were not getting their cues from anyone, nor did they have any connections with Ali Mahdi or UNOSOM.

We are all a group of independent elders, businessmen, former politicians and ex-diplomats. We are through with what is going on. We don't want wars and death. All we intend to do is reinstate peace in the country. I think no one should oppose that," says Mohamed Sheikh, one of the organizers of the march.

Despite the stand of the organizers, the SNA message was not entirely lost on them. Hence opinions among them were divided. The diversity of their positions was reflected by an informal debate between Sheikh and one of his colleagues.

Sheikh, a former minister for self-appointed president Ali Mahdi, says, "I don't believe that Aideed's group is going to shoot at the marchers. They just want to frighten us."

However, Daacad, the leader of a little known political party, the Somali Salvation Vanguard (SSV), says, "I think they will. They are going to shoot at the marchers. This really worries me. The civil war could be in the offing again."

Unfortunately, Daacad had won the day. When it came to the church, the shootout did take place. And the U.N. got the lion's share of the blame for the circumstances that led to the horrible situation.

John Drysdale, a veteran observer and writer of at least one book about the Somali situation in the past five decades, thinks UNOSOM hardly understands the environment in which it is operating.

They are fools. They don't have the slightest inkling about Somalia and the Somalis. And yet, they want to call the shots. How can they do that?" he says in fluent Somali during a conversation at a Mogadishu hotel.

Mr. Drysdale has recently resigned his post as an adviser to Admiral Jonathan Howe in protest against the way UNOSOM was going about things in that country.

Ahmed Hassan Nur, a Somali lawyer (the name is fictitious) says UNOSOM has always been engaged in pitting Somali clans against each other.

My clan is one of the chosen clans. UNOSOM has been paying my clansmen to harass and undermine Aideed's Haber Gieder clan," he says.

My own brother and my brother-in-law (who is from my clan) came to me at my house. They offered me a large amount of money, which they said was from UNOSOM. They told me the money was mine if I joined them to create hell for the Haber Gieders," he says.

I refused to accept the money. I told them this was immoral: be afraid of God. And, by the way, remember that the people you are trying to persecute are your brothers," he stresses.

Nur says that before Aideed fell from grace, almost all UNOSOM contracts used to go to Haber Gieder businessmen. Now they can't go near the UNOSOM compound.

They have all been replaced by men from clans hostile to Aideed. Take as an example oil supplies for the U.N. The contract is jointly held by a wealthy man from my clan and an Asian-Kenyan in Nairobi," he says.

Meanwhile Said Omer, an independent businessman who is opposed to all the faction leaders in Mogadishu, says UNOSOM has become as bad as any one of the people it is accusing of atrocities.

To prove his point he states, "A war has been going on in Qoriolay between Haber Gieder and another clan close to UNOSOM. We know that Admiral Howe and his men have been financing their allies to keep the war going on. They want to divide the Somali people. This is much like a colonial occupation."

Many more independent Somalis are upset with the UNOSOM approach towards the Somali situation. They are particularly revolted by the terms used to identify certain Somali groups. They say such a practice should cause more complications. It could create ethnic consciousness that would intensify the current crisis.

We are fed up with the divisive nature of the clan system. Now, UNOSOM calls some people Bantus. Perhaps, tomorrow they will further divide us into many other groups. The clan-based hostilities will pale in front of ethnic-based conflicts," Abdi H. Elmi, a former political scientist, underlines.

However, UNOSOM dismisses all these accusations as baseless. Answering the question about whether the foregoing allegations were true, UNOSOM's spokesperson Farooq Mawlawesays that their objective was "to build Somalia but not to destroy it." He says they have been accused many times of the most unthinkable malpractices. "But," he goes on, "not a single one of all those accusations has been substantiated."

We are used to this kind of baseless accusation," he adds. "On the contrary," he goes on, "Aideed's people have been fighting us and frustrating the efforts of the international community to bring peace and stability to Somalia."

But SNA leaders say they have never been fighting UNOSOM troops. They point out that they were being attacked by troops from only three countries-the U.S., Pakista, and Nigeria. These troops, they explain, were being used against them by boutros-Ghali and Howe.

Whatever the validity of the foregoing accusations and counter-accusations, none has expressed his emotions so strongly as a Captain from the United Arab Emirates forces in Mogadishu.

We are being morally prostituted by the Americans. They told us to shoot at the Iraqis. We did as long as they remained in Kuwait. But once they were thrown out of Kuwait we had no reason to go after them. But the Americans still wanted us to shoot at them. We didn't. Instead, we shot in the air," he says.

They want to humiliate us once again. Like the Gulf War, this is an American operation all the way down. I'm ashamed to be here. But I have no choice. Of course, I'm not going to argue with anybody. But I will not shoot anyone. These people are my brothers and sisters," he concludes.

Mohammed Urdoh is a Somali journalist living in Canada.

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1994

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1994, page 6. Some rights reserved.

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