War Games



 

DISPATCH: In the dying days of his presidency, George Bush barnstormed into Somalia to boost the morale of US troops. His trip was the high point of a media circus which, in some cases, has seen networks spend more on television coverage than the cost of the food aid itself. MARK HUBAND reports from Mogadishu where hunger means money and profiteers grow rich on the starvation of their countrymen

 

The Guardian, 9 January 1993

 

HORROR MADE Somalia famous. When you’re there, you can’t believe it’s real, The hunger, the killing and the pain are too much to comprehend. I looked out of the window of the Hercules transport aircraft at an airstrip 50 kilometres from Mogadishu. It was early August and my first morning in Somalia. The aircraft was leased to the Save the Children Fund by Southern Air Transport, a front company for the CIA during the cold war. Now SAT flies mercy missions to the hungry victims of conflicts in the former client states of the cold war superpowers. Mercy missions at a price. To lease a plane costs $6,000. Mercy is lucrative. Hunger is money.

It was cold on the runway. The propellers continued to spin. The planes could take oil quickly if there was trouble. Porters unloaded sacks of food from the cargo hold and carried them to waiting lorries. The lorries, the porters, the armed guards to protect the food from other peoples’ armed guards, the massively inflated petrol price and the right to use the airport, all had to be agreed with those Somalis who perpetuate their country’s horror by insisting on their right to make money out of the devastation. These payments amounted to another $6.000 – per flight. The foreign relief agencies paid. No choice. Profiteers from the hunger in Somalia rank among the cruellest people in the world.

I stayed in a house owned by Somalia’s most successful drugs dealer, Osman Atto. He owns many of the large houses in Mogadishu, and rents them to the relief agencies. He has earned hundreds of thousands of pounds from the proceeds. He also controls the import of the narcotic drug “qat” from Kenya. The gunmen and criminals who run the country are usually high on “qat” when they slaughter the innocents and steal food from the hungry. The gunmen drive ¬†around in armoured “technicals”, mounted with recoilless rifles. Osman Alto owns these vehicles too.

Before the war he was the representative of the American oil company Conoco. Now Conoco’s office is being used by the American special envoy to Somalia, Robert Oakley. It was there on December 12 that two of Somalia’s rival leaders – General Mohamed Farah Aideed and President AU Mahdi Mohamed – met to arrange a hasty rapprochement when they realised they could use the US military presence to protect themselves from each other’s troops.

Osman Atto, General Aideed’s financier, organised the meeting on the Americans’ behalf. He also owns the building where it happened. It has a large, landscaped garden and a tennis court where US officials play before the sun gets too high in the pale blue Somali sky. It’s not known how much the American government is paying to rent it while the US embassy, looted and ransacked during the war by Osman Atto and General Aideed’s troops, is refurbished.

By the early afternoon Osman Atto’s speech is slurred. He invites his friends to his house, where they sit in an air conditioned room, chewing qat and deciding on the country’s future. By late afternoon it is useless visiting him because the effect of the qat makes rational thought impossible. Even so, he remains the richest man in the city, and one of the most powerful men in the splintered and shattered country. Somebody the United States is doing business with in pursuit of its international rescue mission for Somalia.

That mission was launched on December 8 and the media blitz began in earnest. In time for the arrival of the American marines, the American television network, NBC, brought in a staff of 79 reporters and technicians. ABC rented a mansion from one of Osman Alto’s rivals in the property business. The Save the Children Fund had wanted to rent the house to accommodate its staff, but ABC outbid them.

Matching the outlay of AUC, CBS promised dollars in its search for an adviser on Somalia who could compensate for their reporters’ ignorance. A journalist with experience of Somalia was paid $400 a day and allowed to spend up to $3,000 a day on logistical arrangements without having to justify his expenditure in advance. In less than three weeks, a CBS source said, the company spent $2.5 million on covering Somalia.

Not to be outdone, CNN brought in six camera crews to record the marines’ arrival. At a cost of $15,000 they rerouted a London-Nairobi Kenya Airways flight via Cyprus to pick up other members of their reporting team. A passenger aircraft was chartered to fly to Mogadishu carrying lorry-loads of recording equipment and satellite facilities to establish a live link with CNN Center in Atlanta, Georgia, which at points was kept open 24 hours a day.

In August the United States’ government committed 146,000 tonnes of food for the international airlift to Somalia. The food was due to arrive after October 1, to fit in with the start of the US fiscal year. To date, none of this food has arrived, according to the World Food Programme spokesman Paul Mitchell. American military aircraft airlifting food from neighbouring Kenya have meanwhile been flying half empty for safety reasons; or at least to minimise the risk of prosecution by crew members or the bereaved should one of the planes crash.

On December 9, as dawn broke over Mogadishu following the marines’ landing, the full scale of the military operation became clear. The marines had invaded an airfield which had been secured by United Nations forces from Pakistan six weeks beforehand. There was nobody to meet the marines except the 100 journalists assembled on the beach.

By midday the airport was deemed safe. No shots had been fired. There was no enemy. It was a farce, which was to cost the American taxpayer $400 million. The only violence took place when marines bound and beat some unarmed Somalis sleeping in a hangar. Meanwhile, the network reporters spoke to their viewers as if they were in a dangerous war zone. But there was no danger. Everybody – soldiers, marines. reporters, technicians, financiers – everybody was pretending.

At 3pm the first relief flight appeared over the newly-liberated airport. It was a UN World Food Programme flight: the first for weeks to arrive at Mogadishu international airport. It circled for over half an hour to give Mitchell, the WFP man on the ground, time to ensure that all the television cameras were trained on the aircraft’s WFP Insignia. It landed. It slowly edged its way along the tarmac. It taxied for 20 minutes. It usually takes five minutes to manoeuvre from the runway to the airport apron but the UN had to get its publicity just like everybody else. Mr Mitchell was heard saying with elation how he had’ secured more live television broadcasts for WFP than his “rival” UN agency, UNICEF.

That first night alter the fake invasion the black, star-speckled sky hummed and buzzed. Until then the streets had been where the noise was – guns, arguments, screaming. Now US Marine Cobra attack helicopters buzzed across the city, two hundred feet up. They were painted black, invisible against the night sky, just traced across the darkness by their deafening sound. Then a flare would be launched, suspended in the darkness, and the helicopters would hover menacingly over streets and buildings doused in light as red as fire. It was an image of the future as portrayed in science fiction. It was the land of Blade Runner, the city of Robocop. Imagine a city wracked with crime, where villains career through the streets on camouflaged battle wagons, high on drugs, free to roam at will, extort money, slaughter their enemies.

Then suddenly the forces of good discover a new weapon: night vision glasses to spot the bad guys. An old machine gun is fired by a desperado at the rotor blades, slashing the darkness. In return a missile is fired from the night sky. The crooks are blown to pieces. This is the reality of Mogadishu now, complete with cameras to record it all.

Media complicity in the shot-free invasion was an essential element for the mission to succeed. The marines had to be the invincible forces of good, free of personal interest or hidden agendas. The display of military power was the insurance against failure. On the ground the warlords and clan rivals have simply hidden their guns and are waiting for the white knights to leave on a new mission.

At Baledoglay, silence had descended on the once top secret air-base where the deposed Somali dictator Mohamed Siad Barre had housed his fleet of Russian-built Mig fighters. Barre, who fled in January 1991 when rebel forces besieged his palace, was armed by the former Soviet Union until 1980, when he changed sides and began receiving military aid from the US. The roof of the hangar and the glass panels of the massive doors have gone. Now the jet planes which once screamed across the sky in defence of the tyrannous Barre regime are crippled and silent. The ground is strewn with user manuals in Chinese and Russian, walls are ripped apart where cables were torn out by looters, the whistling of exotic birds echoes through the bare struts and beams. It is a museum commemorating the end of the cold war.

First Lieutenant Robert Van Hoesen of the US army drives past in his armoured car – called a “Humvie” – to see the sights. His stars and stripes gleam on the shoulder of his combat uniform. He is a conqueror driving across a silent airfield strewn with the debris of his enemy’s military hardware. He stares at the Russian Migs which, had things been different, might one day have set their gunsights on him. What did it feel like to be victorious?

“Right now I’m just a soldier in the United States army. I don’t get paid to think big thoughts like that. As a soldier it’s kind of a shame to see these planes buzzed. Until then the streets had been falling apart. It’s the first time I’ve seen a where the noise was – guns, arguments, Mig this close, and I can say that they’re screaming. Now US Marine Cobra attack not as good as anything we’ve got,” he helicopters buzzed across the city, two said. A few days later, he left for Baidoa. Against a dark sky streaked with early morning red and green and inky blue, US and French troops halted outside the town that has become a death camp. Donkey carts trundled past as the convoy prepared for another victorious entry into the horror. Two marines mounted an enormous stars and stripes on the leading armoured personnel carrier.

“What did you say this place was called?” said a marine as he filed off a helicopter at Baidoa airstrip later that day. French foreign legionnaires lounged smoking on their jeeps as the US troops leapt onto the tarmac, guns at the ready, looking for the enemy. They fanned out across the airfield and took up combat positions, while the French, the press and the US troops who had arrived unopposed on that morning’s convoy, watched the ritual.

TWO STAR General Wilhelm Charles, commander of the US Marine forces in Somalia, left the airfield bound for Baidoa’s Al-Amin orphanage (later to host a visit from President Bush). His convoy consisted of four Humvies and two armoured personnel carders. He strode into the orphanage in full battle dress, and a few sacks of rice were ritually handed over to the orphanage head, Abdu Nur Ali Hassan.

The soldiers interrupted the children who were chanting the Koran as the “gal”, or “infidels” as white people are called by Somalis, entered the muddy courtyard. Their chanting was replaced by a new song. Over and over again they repeated the line: “Welcome with open hands the American troops.”

A hundred journalists followed Gen Charles. They were staying at the Bikiin Motel on the edge of town. CNN spent $1,300 per day for armed protection, transport and the right to pitch its tents in the hotel garden when there were no more rooms. “Frankly we’d have paid twice that if we’d been asked,” said a CNN reporter.

The satellite telephone at the Care International office, within sight of the hotel, rang for the fifth time that morning. It was CNN calling from the hotel. A satellite phone call costs $20 per minute.

Relief workers and CNN reporters established that the CNN coverage cost more than the entire food relief operation mounted by Care International in Baidoa, the town worst-hit by the famine where 100 people a day are dying of starvation, Meanwhile marines, media, satellites and money have attempted to replace the Somali nightmare with a new array of fantasies to keep reality at bay.

 

© Guardian Newspapers Limited