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November 20, 2007

Somalia: What the Media
Failed to Report


by Ramzy Baroud

The people of Somalia are enduring yet another round of suffering as Ethiopian forces wreak havoc in the capital, Mogadishu. Apparently in response to an attack on one of its units and the dragging of a soldier's mutilated body through the city's streets, an Ethiopian mortar reportedly exploded in Mogadishu's Bakara market on Nov. 9, killing eight civilians. A number of Somalis were also found dead the following day, with some believed to have been rounded up by Ethiopian forces the night before.

Nearly 50 civilians have reportedly been killed and 100 wounded in the fighting spree between fighters loyal to the Union of Islamic Courts and government forces and their Ethiopian allies. A report, issued by Human Rights Watch, chastised both Ethiopian troops and "insurgents" for the bloodletting. Peter Takirambudde, the watchdog's Africa director, was quoted as saying, "The international community should condemn these attacks and hold combatants accountable for violations of humanitarian law – including mutilating captured combatants and executing detainees."

Of course, one cannot realistically expect the international community to take on constructive involvement in the conflict. Various members of this "community" have already played a most destructive role in Somalia's 16-year-old civil war, which fragmented a nation that had long struggled to achieve a sense of sovereignty and national cohesion.

To dismiss the war in Somalia as yet another protracted conflict between warlords and insurgents would indeed be unjust, because the country's history has consistently been marred by colonial greed and unwarranted foreign interventions. These gave rise to various proxy governments, militias, and local middlemen, working in the interests of those obsessed with the geopolitical importance of the Horn of Africa.

Colonial powers came to appreciate the strategic location of Somalia after the Berlin Conference, which initiated the "Scramble for Africa." The arrival of Britain, France, and Italy into Somali lands began in the late 19th century, and the area quickly disintegrated into British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland. Both countries sought to expand their control, enlisting locals to fight the very wars aimed at their own subjugation.

World War II brought immense devastation to the Somali people, who, out of desperation, coercion, or promises of postwar independence, fought on behalf of the warring European powers. Somalia was mandated by the UN as an Italian protectorate in 1949 and achieved independence a decade later in 1960. However, the colonial powers never fully conceded their interests in the country, and the Cold War actually invited new players to the scene, including the United States, the Soviet Union, and Cuba.

One residue of the colonial legacy involved the Ogaden province of Somalia, which the British empire had granted to the Ethiopian government. The region became the stage of two major wars between Ethiopia and Somalia between 1964 and 1977. Many Somalis still regard Ethiopia as an occupying power and view the policies of Addis Ababa as a continuation of the country's history of foreign intervention.

The civil war of 1991, largely a result of foreign intervention, clan and tribal loyalties, and a lack of internal cohesion, further disfigured Somalia. As stranded civilians became deprived of aid, Somalia was hit by a devastating famine that yielded a humanitarian disaster. The famine served as a pretext for foreign intervention, this time as part of international "humanitarian" missions, starting in December 1992, which also included U.S. troops. The endeavor came to a tragic end in October 1993, when more than 1,000 Somalis and 18 U.S. troops were killed in Mogadishu. Following a hurried U.S. withdrawal, the mainstream media rationalized that the West could not help those who refused to help themselves, another twisting of the fact that the interests of the Somali people were hardly ever a concern for these colonial philanthropists. Since then, the Somalia was deemed by the international news media as just another mindless conflict, with no rational context and no end in sight. The truth, however, is that colonial interest in the Horn of Africa has never waned.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, provided an impetus for U.S. involvement in the strategic region; only one month after the attacks, Paul Wolfowitz met with various power players in Ethiopia and Somalia, alleging that al-Qaeda terrorists might be using Ras Kamboni and other Somali territories as escape routes. A year later, the U.S. established the Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) to "monitor" developments and to train local militaries in "counterterrorism."

The U.S. contingent was hardly neutral in the ongoing conflict. Reportedly, U.S. troops were involved in aiding Ethiopian forces that entered Somalia in December 2006, citing efforts to track down al-Qaeda suspects. The Ethiopian occupation was justified as a response to a call by Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG), whose legitimacy is questioned. The TGF, seen largely as a pro-Ethiopian entity, had been rapidly losing its control over parts of Somalia to the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which came to prominence in January 2006, taking over the capital and eventually bringing long-sought stability to much of the country. Their attempts engage the U.S. and other Western powers in dialogue failed, however, as a U.S.-backed Ethiopia moved into Somalia in December 2006. On Jan. 7, 2007, the U.S. directly entered the conflict, launching air strikes using AC-130 gunship. Civilian causalities were reported, but the U.S. refused to accept responsibility for them.

The last intervention devastated the country's chances of unity. It now stands divided between the transitional government and Ethiopia (both backed by the UN, the U.S., and the African Union) and the Islamic courts (allegedly backed by Eritrea and some Arab Gulf governments). Recently, the UN ruled out any chances for an international peacekeeping force, and the few African countries who promised troops have yet to deliver (with the exception of Uganda).

This situation leaves Somalia once more under the mercy of foreign powers and self-serving internal forces, foreshadowing yet more bloodshed. Our informed support is essential now because the Somali people have suffered enough. Their plight is urgent, and it deserves a much deeper understanding.


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  • Ramzy Baroud is editor-in-chief of the Palestine Chronicle. His book The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People's Struggle is now out in paperback.

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