Magazine article New Internationalist

Flashlights over Mogadishu

Magazine article New Internationalist

Flashlights over Mogadishu

Article excerpt

My first appeal to Somalis was ironically from Nairobi, Kenya, because I knew that anyone with a small transistor radio tends to turn on at six o'clock to listen to the Somali Service of the BBC. 'I am here on behalf of the United Nations and the international community,' I said. 'I'll try to get as much assistance as I can to fight the famine but you have to find within yourself forces and people who can help rebuild Somalia, can stabilize the country and create peace.'

The reaction was extraordinary. People came from all over to see me, people who were starving or who came out of hiding especially to respond to my message. There were teachers and police officers, professors and community leaders. Many had tears in their eyes saying 'Mr Sahnoun, we want to help, we understand your message'. I was in contact with women's leaders who were ready to create an association. 'All we need,' they said, 'is some way to show we are useful. If you bring in the supplies and ask us to manage them then we can become a real alternative to the warlords.'

I reported this to the UN because it seemed to me to be of the utmost significance: it showed that the warlords were not the solution. I told the Secretary-General's office that while clearly we had to talk to the warlords we had a real alternative in these community leaders. There was a civil society out there just waiting to be empowered if only emergency relief had come in on a large scale and enabled them to start organizing themselves. There was the potential for a bottom-up approach that would provide a real challenge to the warlords.

But this message was not understood in New York by Boutros Boutros-Ghali and his assistants. What they always want is big fixes, spectacular solutions. This time it was no different-they wanted the warlords to meet in Nairobi and have them shake hands for the flashlights. And that is the road the UN chose to go down. By avoiding the grassroots approach it gave power and prestige to the warlords, built up the sense that they were the only people who could resolve the problem. As a result the potential community leaders became dispirited, realizing they had no alternative but to ally themselves with one warlord or another-instead of seeking within themselves for the solutions to Somalia's problems.

I was appointed as the UN's Special Representative in Somalia because I'd spent 10 years in the Horn of Africa as a Deputy Secretary-General of the Organization of African Unity (OAU). I knew the Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali then, while he was lecturing at a university in Cairo, and also later while I was Algerian ambassador to Germany, France, the US and the UN.

When I arrived in Somalia in March 1992 it was a shock. We could not even land at the airport in Mogadishu-we had to land on a small strip in the bush to the north. And driving in the landrover we passed many thousands of displaced people who had fled the capital and were now living in the worst conditions imaginable.

The capital itself was deserted-the only people to be seen were carrying guns and even they were starving. The only UN agency at work there was UNICEF, and they were limited to the capital. There were just a few voluntary agencies-notably the International Committee of the Red Cross and Save the Children-doing a fantastic job with virtually no means.

It was then I contacted community leaders and recommended to New York that we needed a massive humanitarian intervention on the scale of Ethiopia in the 1980s and Biafra in the 1960s. The only people, I argued, who were able to discuss or analyze things at the time were the warlords because they were the only ones with full stomachs.

Instead of this massive operation what did we get? A trickle of food. UN agencies remained reluctant even to send representatives to Mogadishu, arguing that the security situation was too bad. At that time, though, it wasn't-in the whole seven months I spent in Somalia not a single expatriate was killed. …

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