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Toronto (Canada)

05, July 2003

M. M. Afrah


In 1990/91 hundreds of thousands of Somalis began streaming into the potholed and bomb-scared streets of Mogadishu en mass, ducking bullets, mortars and artillery shells.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said more than 500,000 people left their burning homes to the looters, cram few personal belongings into rickety trucks, (Land Cruisers for the well-to-do and donkey carts for the underdogs,) and hit the road.

In Hargeisa, as in Mogadishu and other major cities and towns, the scenario was too familiar, death doom and destruction caused by people without a shred of human feeling.

In Mogadishu many are seen trudging on the Afgoi Road under sweltering sun, with everything they owned strapped to their backs. And like everything else, the expectant mothers, the infirm, the sick and mentally retarded people at Lazaretto Hospital were left behind to fend for themselves.

The Red Cross and the other few NGOs still in the city were caught up with their pants down; they had no time or resources to build temporary shelters for the river of people. The United Nations evacuated its personnel when the first short was fired during the popular uprising against General Barre’s military regime. The General himself fled his seat of power when the insurgency gathered momentum in Mogadishu.

Another refugee crisis in Africa! The BBC’s Focus on Africa said.

Thousands of militia gunmen changed their lean-to abodes to the luxury villas owned by the fleeing government officials and business people. As if that was not enough they looted everything that was not nailed down. And when that was done with the gunmen pulled down the national monuments to sell them as scrape metals to the new riches (the war profiteers), dug up water pipes, pulled down electrical and telephone wires. It was free for all with no holds barred.

Those brave souls who remained in the smoldering city had to face the anguish and the music of death, as the Somalis called the sound of the bullets.

The wrath and radiation of the warlords only made unwilling victims of the Somali population. The wailing babies, denied their milk by the gunmen and those crazed by the falling mortars and artillery shells have stories to tell.

As the people who got hurt are the poor, the old and families with children, signs of hardship are already evident. Food and drinking water become so scare that people are resorted to slaughter their last remaining livestock and reopened long sealed water wells.

Cholera became endemic throughout the city.

The Red Cross and the Somali Red Crescent Society set up makeshift emergency feeding centers, but the problem was far beyond their abilities, as the city resembled the frenzy of an anti-hill that has been kicked.

Tempers flared and shouting match, and sometimes fist fights, between the food distributors and the hungry thousands ensued.

To make matters worse, young gunmen disrupted the food distributions at gunpoint and commandeered the trucks as they were being unloaded. Some of the drivers who tried to protest were shot in cold blood.

Another irony is how the rest of the world ignored the inferno that was Somalia. In short, the world ignored everything unless sanctioned by the United States or unless it is an oil rich country. Even the BBC, which flaunts on negative coverage in the Third World, remained mum.

The ethnic killings and human suffering which the International Committee of the Red Cross in its report described the situation in Somalia as the world’s greatest human tragedy since World War Two, should have convinced any bureaucrat in the UN Headquarters that mass killings was underway in Somalia. The UN Chief of peacekeeping was Kofi Annan, the current Secretary-General. But for some unknown reason, Mr. Annan and members of the Security Council shied away from sending to Somalia robust UN peacekeepers with a mandate to use force, if necessary, as provided by Rules of Engagements under Article 7 of the United Nations.

The death toll leapt from thousands to tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands as the perpetrators moved from the denuded capital to Somalia’s breadbasket driving their ubiquitous Technicals (customized battle wagons) like roller coaster, massacring farmers and pastoralists with impunity.

This was genocide as spelled out in the Genocide Convention. Article 1 of the Convention could not be clearer: all signatories “express that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and punish.”

These are fine words, indeed.

But another world event more crucial to the Western oil interest was unfolding thousands of miles away which probably overshadowed the crisis in Somalia, the “Operation Desert Storm” against Iraq, the mightiest of the Arab nations in firepower invading oil-rich Kuwait next door and chasing both its Emirs and citizens away barefooted and bewildered.

Saddam Hussein told the world he has done nothing but took back a piece of land that always belonged to him. The rest is history.

At that very moment every Somali in a makeshift bomb shelter would have told you how it feels to be displaced and dispossessed, of how maddening and unfair it is to be caught in a cross fire, to be shot at, shelled, beaten and looted by fellow Somali, just because he happened to belong to the wrong clan and was at the wrong place; of how inadequate and impotent a whole nation feels when slighted or totally exposed to a news blackout; of how one sleeps to the chatter of machine guns overhead and awakens to a cold fire.

It all boils down that the international community under one excuse or another wrote off Somalia and its long tormented people.

In late October 1992, James Schofield, the first foreign TV Cameraman/Reporter joined me in what he called “Hell’s Gate” and he rolled and rolled and rolled his camera until he was blue in the face. James said many of his countrymen and women never heard names like Baidoa (The City of Death), Belet-weyne, Kismayu or even Mogadishu.

Now people in the West and the rest of the world watched on their TV screens emaciated and naked babies dying by the hundreds daily of malnutrition. They watched dogs and rats feed on decomposed bodies littered the streets of Mogadishu and Baidoa.

James deserved a Pulitzer Prize, but the world attention was focused on Iraq and Kuwait for obvious reason.

James Schofield wrote in his book Silent Over Africa: “I found congenial colleague in M. M. Afrah, Reuters long time correspondent in the city, who had survived both the destruction of his own home and the personal tragedy of his son’s death, and continues to file stories to his Bureau in London throughout the civil war. Mogadishu was a place of war. Foreign journalists who went there encountered dangers and witnessed horror and were glad to get away. It takes much longer to understand what suffering means. To a Somali journalist, like Afrah, this was their life, their people.”

Embarrassed by the gruesome images of Somalia on television throughout the world, the United Nations finally reacted to resolve the crisis. But it was too late and too little. By then the streets were strewn with bodies of those too weak to walk, who laid down to die, while clan gunmen hijacked whole food convoys on the open roads.

An estimated 2.5 million people joined the mass exodus, seeking refuge in neighbouring countries and for the lucky ones as far as Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States. Mass exodus means mass starvation and death. Many died of disease, exhaustion, thirsty and hunger during the long trek to refugee camps hastily put up by refugee officials in a No Man’s Land in the arid Northeastern Province of Kenya.  There was nothing there, but at least there was peace, rock-solid bread and brackish water.

“We know they’re gone. We know they’re dead. But we still don’t have any charge. You journalists must name names,” Omar Noor Elmi, the surviving father of a family of five, including a nine months old baby, hit by a mortar shell as they slept in their flimsy dwelling in 1993, lamented on camera.

Who was responsible for this unprecedented human tragedy in the Somali Peninsula?  

To be continued ...

By M. M. Afrah©2003,
Email: afrah95@hot

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