Dispatch December 2008

Somalia Revisited

As Somalia continues to devolve into chaos, it has become a breeding ground for terrorists and a human-rights nightmare. Journalist Eliza Griswold visited the country and spoke with Somali leaders and ordinary Somalis alike, seeking insight into the nation's problems and a possible way forward
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Slideshow: "Nowhere Else to Go"

In 2006, Ethiopian forces, with tacit U.S. backing, overthrew Somalia's Islamic government. Today, in the worst violence since Black Hawk Down, three quarters of the 1.2 million people who lived in Mogadishu have fled. Many of those left behind are taking refuge in the city's mental hospitals. A photo tour narrated by Eliza Griswold

Timeline: Somalia, 1991-2008
From troubled to dire.

Elsewhere on the Web:

War Crimes and the Devastation of Somalia
A 104-page report released by Human Rights Watch on December 8, 2008.

Slideshow: So Much to Fear
Accounts from Somali refugees in Kenya. Produced by Human Rights Watch.

When the mortars began to explode overhead, the mental patients scattered like crows. On this brilliant afternoon last April, they’d been lining up in the courtyard of Mogadishu’s only functioning mental hospital, waiting for their anti-psychotics. “Doctor” Habeb—a man with six weeks of volunteer training—reached into a wooden trunk and handed out blister packs and syringes marked Phenobarbital, Risperidone, Chlorpromazine. But by the thud in their guts, the patients could tell how close the shells were falling; the mortars’ high whine and crackle made the drugs suddenly seem secondary. “Everything will be alright!” they shouted to each other as they ran for a concrete overhang.

As the explosions drew nearer, the patients moaned and cowered in the compound’s corners. Dr. Habeb shouted their names over the din. (His real name is Abdu Rahman Ali Awaale, but he talks so much that everyone calls him Habeb, which means “hoarse.”) With his orange-hennaed goatee and manic gesticulations, he could easily be mistaken for one of his charges. The hospital’s 150 beds were full and the bald courtyard overflowed with people: the shell-shocked, former insurgents, failed suicides. Habeb’s was really a warehouse for suffering people. One of them was Nima Mohammad Hasan, 35, who pulled back a thin cloth covering her chest to reveal exposed bone. She’d tipped over a lantern to set herself on fire, burning third degree holes into her sternum. Until a few years ago, suicide in Somalia was taboo; now it is fairly common. A sign on the wall read Chain free. Four months earlier, the World Health Organization had given Dr. Habeb $8,000 and convinced him to unlock his patients’ leg irons. Before that, they had been chained to their beds.

That afternoon a few miles away, a young man dressed in fatigues had rammed his maroon Toyota pick-up truck laden with explosives into a base that housed African peacekeepers recently arrived from Burundi. In addition to killing several soldiers, this attack took the lives of two local women, and blew the leg off a third, Murto Abdi, a mother of four; the women had been collecting free water at the base. Later, under the green canvas tent of a field hospital, Abdi’s sister, Fahmo Mohamad, waited nervously for her to wake up. Of course it was risky for Abdi to go to the base to fetch water, Mohamad explained uncomfortably. They knew the peacekeepers might be targeted, but the drought had begun, and the family couldn’t survive without water. Water’s price—like everything else—was skyrocketing, thanks to warlords and profiteers.  “It’s like it was during the warlords, but at that time we knew who was killing us. It was Clan A or Clan B. Now we don’t know.” She kept her eyes on the stretcher. When her wounded sister awoke, Mohamad would explain as gently as possible that the leg was gone.

That afternoon’s apocalypse was another day in the world’s longest-running failed state. Although Somalia has had no functioning government for almost twenty years, the chaos unfolding right now is worse than it has been since the militia loyal to a fedora-wearing warlord, Mohamad Farah Aideed, shot down two Black Hawk helicopters and killed 18 U.S. soldiers in 1993. Two years ago this month, in December 2006, neighboring Ethiopia invaded Somalia, with the tacit backing of the U.S. Their aim was to overthrow a nascent Islamist government, which managed to bring peace to much of Somalia for a six-month stint in 2006. The Islamists also threatened Ethiopia’s Christian-led minority government, and, according to the U.S., was providing safe haven for at least three suspected members of al Qaeda. In the nearly two years since, at least 6,500 Somalis have died and 1,000,000 more have lost their homes in fighting that continues. Right now, three and a half million people—almost half of the population of south-central Somalia—is facing potential famine.  

The militant fighters known as al-Shabaab, or “the youth,” are gaining ground. In their increasingly lethal attacks, there is evidence to suggest more powerful terrorist ties.  In October, a series of coordinated suicide attacks exploded in the peaceful semi-autonomous north. In November, al-Shabaab stoned a 13-year-old girl to death in a sports stadium for the crime of being raped. In December, al-Shabaab beheaded six local aid workers whose organizations had contracts with the UN. The militants have moved within miles of Mogadishu. Recently, in unusually candid remarks, Michael Hayden, the head of the CIA, declared Somalia one of the world’s most fertile, and frightening, breeding grounds for terrorists. As a U.S. counterterrorism official explained, “It’s clear that al-Shabaab has become a growing concern.”

Since the Black Hawk debacle, U.S. policymakers have generally seen this sliver of sand along the extreme eastern edge of Africa, with its nine million inhabitants, less as a country than as a case study in anarchy and another failed front in the war on terror. “U.S. policy since the early nineties has been complete and total neglect,” U.S. Undersecretary for African Affairs, Jendayi Frazier said last week in the dwindling days of the Bush administration. But engagement has not worked either. Over the past two years, in the name of its ongoing war against al Qaeda, the United States has launched missile and gunship attacks that have killed civilians, “rendered” terrorist suspects from Somalia to Afghanistan, and supported Ethiopia’s brutal occupation. These tactics have succeeded mostly in giving Somalia’s hard-line Islamists greater credibility and fueled rabid anti-Americanism, since the U.S. is seen as intimately tied to the Ethiopians.

In fact, Washington’s “whack-a-mole” strategy, which aims at “plinking bad guys when they pop up,” is fueling the growing insurgency by enraging Somalis, according to Ken Menkhaus, a professor of political science at Davidson College. Somalis have no problem doing the math: for the one high-profile al Qaeda target that the U.S. claims to have killed or captured, more than 6,000 Somalis have been killed, and roughly 900,000 have been forced to flee the capital of Mogadishu: roughly three quarters of the city.

“We’ve helped create a self-fulfilling prophecy – now there is a new, home-grown terrorist threat in the form of the shabaab, that has the potential to become more dangerous to Somalis, the region, and the U.S. than the small number of East African Al Qaeda operatives ever were,” Menkhaus added. This policy, and its aftermath, has left the incoming Obama administration ill-prepared to engage on a nexus of questions with repercussions far beyond Somalia’s deadly coast: How do we handle a handful of terrorists hiding inside a famine? Do we need to mobilize behind an international peacekeeping force? Should we try to engage in a failed state politically, or should we walk away?

“Frankly, my greatest fear is that we are going to neglect Somalia,” Secretary Frazier said. This, she added, would not be the first time that the United States looked away from an internal political problem, only to regret that blindness later. Frazier said, “The United States turned its eyes away from Rwanda at a critical time.”

Last spring, I traveled to Somalia, Eritrea, and Kenya. Since my last visit to Mogadishu in June 2007, much had changed—and not for the better. Many of the people I’d met a year earlier and had hoped to see again were either gone or dead. Yet, as usual, most of the key players survived. In Mogadishu, Asmara, and Nairobi, I spent time with four of them: Hussein Farah Aideed, the U.S.-citizen son of arch-warlord Mohamad Farah Aideed; Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, spiritual leader of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) and proud holder of a spot on the U.S. Terrorist List; Ibrahim Addou, the foreign minister of the ICU; and Mohammad Dheere, then mayor of Mogadishu. From my conversations with them, and with dozens of other Somalis I met, I hoped to understand Somalia’s seemingly ceaseless cycle of violence, to see why the old order repeatedly collapses and what a political solution might look like. And I wanted, of course, to hear from Somalis about what they hoped the United States would do, both to repair their country’s shattered fortunes and to recalibrate the war on terror so that it didn’t look like it was targeting all nine million of them.

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