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Toronto (Canada)

27, June 2003

M. M. Afrah

Did you ever come across the number of people who died in Somalia's civil war? It is the first question someone (perhaps a journalist or a researcher) might ask you.

Regrettably, several so-called "Somalia Watchers" in the West the answers are as diverse as the horrific ways these victims met their death during the last 12 years in Somalia's killing fields. Perhaps you've read different statistics by different people who have never set foot in Somalia during the mass slaughter.

But the truth is that the number of casualties is a figure that can never be completely determined. One of these institutions came up with its own estimate: 350,000 civilians killed in Hargeisa alone as a result of carpet bombing from the air by hired Rhodesian mercenary pilots after the Somali pilots mutinied against their commanding officers. An estimated 500.000 fled to neighbouring Ethiopia with only the clothes on their backs.

It beats me how this institution came up with that figure, because casualty figures are largely based on hospital records. But the main hospital in Hargeisa received a direct hit during the aerial bombardment and all the medical staff were either killed, injured or became refugees themselves.

The real number is certainly much higher than this figure, because in general Somali families, in Hargeisa or Mogadishu, would bury their dead without going to hospitals to get death certificates. In many cases bodies were destroyed by the bombs that killed them both in Mogadishu, Hargeisa and other cities and towns in the country. It was common sight to see bloated bodies strewn on the streets and in public gardens. In Somalia no one had time to bury the dead as everyone was diving for a cover to save his or her own life. Children, the elderly and the infirm were abandoned in the streets to fend for themselves and were eventually killed by stray bullets and mortars.

The firing between government forces and the insurgents was furious, indiscriminate and confusing all round with government forces using heavy artillery guns and the deadly Soviet-made Katyushas, popularly known as BM, on crowded residential areas of the cities and towns. In Mogadishu and Hargeisa it was especially strong. Thousands of civilians fled from one battle zone to another only to be shot by government snipers on rooftops.

Shells were bursting in neighbourhoods and whole families were wiped out. Nothing could have lived in them. At the Digfer General Hospital and the Keysenay Hospital in the north of the city hundreds of groaning men, women and children lay in the compound, under trees and the bare floor of the hospitals.

One estimated gave a 1993 tally as 1.5 million civilian casualties, probably a large portion associated with the clan wars following the overthrow of the military dictator when the warlords and their militia in Mogadishu turned their guns on each other for the control of the capital. Again, we have not been told how they arrived at this estimate.

One thing is, however certain, the government troops and the warlords have inflicted gargantuan horror upon the civilian population. This latest estimate included what it said indirect casualties--that is people who died as a result of the man-made famine and people who died because of landmines and unexploded munitions. Others were killed by looters and in score settling whilst a large segment of the population died of malnutrition and war-related diseases.

The methodology of counting the thousands of shallow graves around the country is almost futile calisthenics as most of them have been washed out by the monsoon rains or dug out by predators, such as wild dogs and hyenas.

The killing still continues in South Somalia, despite numerous unyielding ceasefire accords and polluted peace talks since 1992. The very fact that people are still alive today is in itself a miracle. But many people, especially children are traumatized and are turning to drugs and violence. Study says children who witnessed violence become violent themselves.

Congratulations to the people of Somaliland for healing the wounds of the civil war without outside assistance!

Now the thorny question is: after the Rwanda genocide, did the United Nations make any attempt to assess the number of civilians massacred in Somalia and Somaliland and document those who were responsible for the carnage?

Is Amnesty International planning to extend its survey of human rights abuses to assess the number of non-combatants killed? Yes, it is possible. One of the difficulties is, however, to get access to the war-torn country due to insecurity, and its much more difficult to come up with a clear number of people killed during and post-civil war environment.

One of these agencies, Centre for Research and Dialogue (CRD) whose Director of Programs, Mr. Jabril Ibrahim Abdulle, was recently in Canada to enlighten and edify the Somali Community in Toronto about the murky situation in Somalia and the role his organization plays in assisting local as well as international community in responding more effectively to the challenge of overcoming conflict, preventing its reoccurrence and building a lasting peace in Somalia. It was a well-received lecture with facts and figures accompanied by documentary snapshots never shown to the general public before. CRD is an affiliate of War-torn Societies Project (WSP) International, a UN agency.

It is true that the U.N. has a particularly woeful record when it comes to contributing to peace in Africa, especially in Somalia and Rwanda. It pulled out of Somalia prematurely and failed to avert the 1994 Rwanda genocide. And the mere mention of Congo brings back memories of an unsuccessful peacekeeping venture in the 1960s.

The present circumstances give the U.N. and its member nations another chance to try to redeem themselves. For a starter it would be helpful if the U.N. Security Council reinforces its 1992 arms embargo resolution against Somalia. It is also high time for the U.N. to get more fully involved to help re-establish security for beleaguered civilians and prevent the conflict from deepening and spreading, instead of using those fancy words like peaceful co-existence (where there is no semblance of peace), Road Map to peace, collateral damage, peace talks (where the adversaries are not seriously interested in peace), Rules of Engagement, etc.

Article 7 of the UN Security Council gives the United Nations peace-keeping forces the mandate to use force in order to maintain peace and security in war-torn countries like Somalia, Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Congo.

A war crimes tribunal, similar to the one in The Hague or Arusha should be set up to try those who committed crimes against humanity as a first step. This is where CRD and War-torn Society Project International could help the United Nations Security Council assess the situation on the ground accurately. It would also be a strong signal to wannabe warlords.

By M. M. Afrah©2003,

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