The New Yorker, 1995
The U.N. pulled out of Somalia leaving no one in charge. There is no government, no law, and no formal education -- just a rampant wild-frontier economy in which anything can be had for a price. Is this the future?
BY WILLIAM FINNEGAN
In the Hobbesian gangland of this ruined city, I find it dimly encouraging that Anogeel, a young Somali newspaper owner and editor, actively hates the burned-out battle tank parked outside his house in the back blocks of the Bar-Ubax neighborhood. The tank dates from what everybody here calls "Siad Barre times," by which they mean the twenty-one-year dictatorship of Mohamed Siad Barre. Anogeel, as it happened, interviewed the guerrilla who destroyed the tank (with a bazooka stolen from the Army) during the mass urban uprising that finally toppled Siad Barre, in January, 1991. And yet Anogeel refuses to see the tank as a heroic relic, a monument to the popular victory over the dictatorship, because "it is a weapon, and it is weapons that have destroyed our country." When he said this, he pulled in his chin and wrinkled his nose in a vivid, unself-conscious expression of pure disgust.
We were sitting in his newsroom, which is simply the front room of his house. It was a hot afternoon, and the street outside was quiet. Bar-Ubax has a sleepy, timeless, tumbledown quality: little pastel houses blending seamlessly into red sand roads under rows of short, thick-trunked shade trees. Through the window I could see a donkey cart, driven by a sinewy man in a dirty turban, trundling slowly past the burned-out tank.
Elsewhere in the city, there was plenty of tension, however. These were the final days of the once immense United Nations Operation in Somalia, and the multinational intervention forces had pulled back into a tiny, bleak redoubt on the seafront, from which they were now trying to withdraw by plane and ship, with the help of American and Italian troops. Crowds were gathering outside the razor wire, hoping to carry off anything left behind, and outraged at all the stuff being crated up and taken away. More ominously, the city's two largest militias were said to be preparing to fight for control of the port and the airport. The last time these two militias fought, they destroyed much of Mogadishu. As many as thirty thousand people are said to have died in a single three-month shelling duel between them. By the time the fight ended, in early 1992, whole neighborhoods, along with the entire downtown shopping-and-business district, had been levelled. Those parts of the city still look like postwar Dresden or Warsaw.
Anogeel and his family actually fled for their lives to Bar-Ubax during the early days of that battle, for the two feuding militias -- which were originally part of the alliance that overthrew Siad Barre -- are clan based, and Bar-Ubax is one of the strongholds of a clan called the Habar Gidir, to which Anogeel belongs by birth. That period was also the beginning of the great famine, which in 1992 devastated southern Somalia, killing an estimated three hundred thousand. Like everyone who was in Mogadishu then, Anogeel remembers the hungry mobs that thronged the city. "If you ate a banana and dropped the peel on the ground, it would not stay there one minute," he told me quietly. "Someone would pick it up and eat it. I myself saw two people who starved to death just here." He pointed toward the street.
Somalia has made a remarkable, if uneven, economic comeback since those desperate days. Harvests have been plentiful, hunger has been banished, and trade is brisk in the towns and cities. In Mogadishu, the old Bakara Market, a traditional bazaar near Anogeel's house, has effectively replaced the destroyed Italian-colonial downtown. The market has been growing wildly, in fact, swallowing entire neighborhoods with each passing month. Test-firing chatters incessantly from the market's weapons section. Its money changers take personal checks from anywhere in the world. Anything, people like to say, is now available at Bakara for a price, and Somali businessmen regularly fly off in small planes from dirt airstrips near Mogadishu carrying suitcases of cash to their bankers in Dubai and Djibouti. Some of the goods and much of the hard currency in circulation are here courtesy of the United Nations mission, but the economy clearly has a momentum of its own.
What Somalia is still missing is a government. It has now gone more than four years without one. Nobody quite believed until recently that the United Nations would really quit the country without leaving behind at least a nominal government. But it has. The major clan factions, which are now hopelessly splintered and are only half in control of their militias, have simply been unable to consolidate power since the fall of Siad Barre.
Having no government has not been all bad. It gave Anogeel a chance to start his newspaper, for instance -- something he could never have done under the dictatorship. He had lost his job in the Ministry of Finance when it, like every other ministry, ceased to exist. "So that was my chance to pursue my original interest," he said, smiling. He launched Xog-Ogaal -- the paper's name is Somali for "well informed but discreet" -- in June, 1991, and it has been going strong ever since.
Anogeel's real name is Mohamed Aden Guled, but hardly anyone in Mogadishu seems to know that. Anogeel is his nickname; it means "camel's milk." Many Somalis, including public figures, go by their nicknames, even in Mogadishu, a city of a million people; it's a rural custom carried over to town. Thus Osman Hassan Ali, one of the wealthiest, most powerful men in the country, is universally known as Ato, meaning "skinny," and at least half the men one meets seem to be called Dheere, which means "tall." Anogeel got his name from an uncle who came looking for him at a village school in the Mudug, the arid central rangelands, where he grew up. This uncle, who had been a nomad -- about half of the Somalis are nomads still, driving their camels, cattle, goats, and sheep on vast, intricate migrations -- had never met his nephew, and, when he first saw him, wonderingly compared the boy's fair hair to camel's milk. The simile stuck, though Anogeel's hair soon darkened.
Today, he is twenty-seven, black-skinned, wavy-haired, hook-nosed, with a mixture, common in Somalia but striking elsewhere, of African- and Arab-looking features. Wide-bottomed and long-armed, he seems already profoundly middle-aged. He has two young daughters and is a devout Muslim. He is well educated but deeply provincial, never having travelled beyond Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia. He is also priggish. When he disapproves of something, he makes a face of such sour righteousness that for a moment you think he must be joking. He isn't, though, and the effect is almost charming. His command of English is extensive yet seems to be entirely booklearned, for he comes up with some baffling pronunciations: "a load" for "allowed," "our tickles" for "articles."
Xog-Ogaal was part of a general blossoming of the local press. "Somalis are information junkies," I was told by Michael Maren, an American journalist who lived here in the nineteen-eighties. "Somali exiles are all over the Internet." The national fascination with news is often said to derive from the nomadic life, where a standard greeting on the trail is "What news?" The BBC's Somali-language radio service is a countrywide obsession. I have seen crowds gather at every tea-shop window in a small northern town at dusk, hushed to listen to the daily broadcast, which can usually fuel an evening's discussion. After the fall of the dictatorship, newspapers sprang up in major towns. Mogadishu today has at least half a dozen. Most are aligned with a political faction -- and each of the city's two radio stations is firmly controlled by one of the two main factions. Xog-Ogaal, however, is nonaligned. This independence -- particularly as it is expressed by the paper's staff cartoonist, Alif, who produces biting caricatures of all the major actors in the Somalian melodrama -- is obviously popular with the reading public. Anogeel reckons that his daily press run of between two and three thousand reaches as many as a hundred thousand readers, and from what I have seen of the paper's hand-to-hand circulation through the streets of Mogadishu I believe he may be right. One sees Alif cartoons taped to walls in shops throughout the city.
The physical obstacles to publishing a newspaper in a country without a phone system, without a post office, without public electricity, and with its few highways plagued by bandits are formidable. The Xog-Ogaal masthead carries a post-office box number, but that is merely a wishful gesture. Ad copy, letters from readers, and other correspondence arrive by hand. While Anogeel and I sat talking in his newsroom recently, he fielded a steady traffic of couriered items -- paid notices about the opening of a new pharmacy and a new satellite-communications center; the influential Ato's reply to a local imam's criticism of his earlier remarks about the place of religion in politics -- and filed them in his shirt pocket. To get in touch with his correspondents outside Mogadishu, he said, he rents time on a high-frequency radio at a hotel in Bar-Ubax -- "they give us discount." To get copies of Xog-Ogaal to readers outside the city, or outside the country, he relies on the "khat planes," which are the closest thing to scheduled flights in and out of Mogadishu. (Khat, a shrub whose stalks, when chewed, are a mild stimulant, is extremely popular throughout Somalia. Since it is grown mainly in Kenya and Ethiopia, and is potent only when fresh, it is normally transported by air, with some urgency.) Anogeel sends free copies by khat-mail every day to Nairobi for distribution among the Somali exiles there.
The newspaper is produced entirely in the grimy front room of Anogeel's house: eight stapled pages, mimeographed and bulk-copied nightly on rugged machines that look as if they might have fallen off a United Nations truck. Electricity is supplied by two small, gas-powered generators on the porch. News photographs of local and foreign leaders are taped to the walls: models for Alif. Ten reporters come and go, knocking out stories on a single, early-vintage Olivetti personal computer. Some of the opinion columnists don't sign their pieces, or else use pseudonyms, out of fear of the clan factions, but Anogeel has lost only one reporter to political violence -- a young woman killed in the street, apparently by a stray bullet, in 1992. She was the editor of the paper's education supplement, which still runs on Tuesdays.
Describing his operation, Anogeel seemed proudest, I thought, of the newsboys he employs -- a hundred and ninety of them. He personally delivers papers to them each day at dawn at six distribution points around the city. "That's a hundred and ninety boys with jobs," he said intensely. "One hundred and ninety boys not fighting."
His pride in keeping his newsboys out of combat is understandable. Unemployed young men in Somalia, and particularly in Mogadishu, tend to become mooryaan: gunmen. With some two million assault rifles in circulation in the city, it is simply the easiest way to eat. It is also, I imagine, one of the more satisfying positions to occupy in a society being nakedly ruled by the gun. Indeed, the king of the streets since Siad Barre's time has been the futuristic battlewagon known as a "technical" -- a Land Cruiser or a pickup with the cab sawed off and an anti-aircraft machine gun or a large-calibre recoilless rifle mounted on the back. I have watched the triggerman on a passing technical surveying his domain and found myself wondering what it must be like to travel the blasted city with a cannon between your knees.
Some unknown percentage of the gunmen are loyal to clan-faction leaders, or warlords: these gunmen constitute the bulk of the standing militias. The rest are mercenaries, willing to fight for money or khat. Thousands worked for United Nations agencies as "security," and are now presumably unemployed.
General Mohamed Farah Aidid commands the most aggressive and visible militia in Mogadishu -- probably in all of Somalia. He was a diplomat and soldier under Siad Barre, and is determined to become the next dictator. Aidid's main rival is a former businessman named Ali Mahdi Mohamed, whose Abgaal-clan militia controls the northern part of Mogadishu. It was Aidid and Ali Mahdi who reduced much of the city to rubble in 1991 and 1992.
General Aidid belongs, like Anogeel, to the Habar Gidir clan. But Anogeel's newspaper has regularly enraged the Aidid camp with its critical reporting. As a result, Anogeel has received many death threats, and in 1993 there was a serious attempt on his life. The would-be assassin was apprehended, and confessed, according to Anogeel, that he had been hired by a minor warlord named Qaylaweyne (Big Noise). Qaylaweyne is also a Habar Gidir, and he had apparently been working for a member of Aidid's inner circle.
So clan is clearly not much protection in these matters, and neither is "clan family," a larger patrilineal grouping: Aidid's Habar Gidir and Ali Mahdi's Abgaal are both from the Hawiye clan family. Subclan affiliation may be more help. At least, when I spoke to the leading elder of Anogeel's subclan, which is called the Sulaymaan and is known for its ferocity, he told me that the subclan was proud of Anogeel, and that Aidid, who comes from a different subclan, was now aware that anyone who harmed Anogeel would have to reckon with the Sulaymaan.
Anogeel himself is scathing on the subject of what he calls "tribalism." Among his reporters, he told me, are members of eight different clans, from four of the six main Somali clan families. Siad Barre, he says, cynically used tribalism to divide his opponents and shore up his power, and then his opponents "made the same mistake, but much worse." Anogeel had been living in an Abgaal neighborhood when he was forced to move his family to Bar-Ubax. But he seems otherwise undaunted by the threats he faces. "The warlords are the aids of Somalia," he told me. He repeated the remark, then checked my notebook to make sure I had it right.
I asked if the departure of the United Nations peacekeepers would make any difference to his safety.
Possibly, he said, although four Somali journalists who worked on a paper put out by the United Nations mission were executed in July, 1993, allegedly by Aidid loyalists, for having offended the Aidid faction. So United Nations protection, even at the height of the intervention, had never been worth much. The main effect of the pullout on Xog-Ogaal would probably be a rise in the price of paper once all the looted U.N. paper in the city ran out. And, if the port closed because of faction fighting, the paper would lose the shipping news, which was its most reliable paid space.
I asked if Xog-Ogaal had ever received funding from Islamic sources.
Anogeel frowned, and said, "No. Then we could not be neutral. I would rather use these old machines and be free."
I could not tell whether I had offended him.
Outside, a strangled-sounding muezzin began to wail. It was late afternoon; Anogeel would soon have to go and pray. Because this was the Ramadan holiday period, he had been fasting since daybreak. And yet thirst and hunger seemed to have remarkably little effect on his patience and good spirits. I had noticed the same thing about many Somalis who were fasting.
Anogeel did have a slightly abstracted air, but that, in my experience, he had at all times. I tended to ascribe it to the complex calculations that I imagined he must have to make constantly among the hopelessly diverse values he holds dear: those of Islam, whose truth flows from the Koran; those of the Somali clans, whose elders reinterpret the elaborate oral traditions of pastoralist nomads to settle modern-day feuds; and the human-rights liberalism of an independent journalist. His social attitudes are certainly rife with contradictions. For instance, he supports the Islamic shariah courts that are flourishing here, flogging and stoning people for blasphemy and adultery, and simultaneously fights for the idea of a Western-style uncensored press. Similarly, he promotes a women's-rights group that, like the press, has bloomed in the free-for-all of the interregnum, and yet he opposes gender equality. "In Somalia, our tradition says that if you kill a man you must pay his family compensation of a hundred camels, but if you kill a woman you must pay only fifty camels," he told me, his face prim and unreadable. "And I agree with that."
I left, so that he could pray.
Anogeel is right about what weapons have done to Somalia. The Siad Barre regime saw to it that arms poured into the country throughout the latter half of the Cold War, first from the Soviet Union, then from the United States. It was a virulent variation on the standard pattern: the superpowers saw Somalia, crouched on the Horn of Africa and overlooking the approach to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, as an important strategic asset, while Siad Barre relied increasingly on terror for his survival. The result was a country with an unusual ability to tear itself apart when the time was ripe. A revolt in the northwest in 1988 gave a preview of what was to come: Siad Barre responded with an aerial bombardment of two towns, including the provincial capital, Hargeysa, which was flattened. Fifty thousand died. The civil war that ultimately toppled the regime began the next year. By the time Siad Barre fell, two years later, much of the country was in ruins.
The alliance that overthrew Siad Barre had no dominant figure who survived, and the outside world, perhaps distracted by the Gulf War, did not try to broker a settlement. Indeed, the United Nations retained no presence whatever in Somalia for nearly a year after Siad Barre fell. And the United States had previously renounced its geostrategic stake in the region. After a few months, still heavily armed, the strongest clan militias began to fight.
Meanwhile, Siad Barre's forces, having regrouped along the border with Kenya, were attempting a comeback, and at one point battled their way to within twenty miles of Mogadishu. The famine of 1992 was the direct result of this fighting in the south. Unlike the rest of the country, southern Somalia is well watered, and for that reason it is inhabited predominantly by farmers, not nomads. The agriculturalist clans are no match militarily for their nomadic countrymen, who have always formed the bulk of the armies fighting the civil war and, hungry themselves, have systematically robbed the farming clans and driven them off their lands. Poor rainfall exacerbated the plight of the farmers: they began to starve en masse. Relief efforts were hampered by the fighting, and by increasingly brazen looting and blackmail by the armed parties, with General Aidid's forces controlling much of the famine zone. International press coverage of this impasse, and particularly the harrowing images of starving children, finally provoked, in December, 1992, the great multinational intervention, led by the United States, to open relief-supply routes. In truth, the famine was already receding by then -- death rates had been dropping for months -- but the intervention did hasten the region's recovery, saving, at least by the reckoning of its proponents, more than a hundred thousand lives.
The intervention also stopped the banditry in much of southern Somalia. To read reports from the early days of the intervention is horribly sad now, for they are full of the euphoria of war-weary Somalis at the return of a semblance of peace. The power of the warlords had been broken, many said. Plans to disarm the warring factions were initiated. They were never carried through, however, and most of the American soldiers, who constituted the backbone of the intervention -- twenty-five thousand troops in an international force of about thirty thousand -- left Somalia in April, 1993. Victor Gbeho, the last of several United Nations "special representatives" to Somalia, told me recently, "We should have had the courage to do the disarmament. The Somalis expected it, and it would have been possible." But Gbeho's own spokesman, George Bennett, disagrees. There were just too many weapons around, he says, and the warlords could always have bought new ones.
In any event, soon after the United Nations took command of the operation, in May, 1993, it began to go sour. General Aidid's forces attacked Pakistani troops in Mogadishu in June, and Admiral Jonathan Howe, then the U.N. envoy, ordered Aidid's arrest, putting a price of twenty-five thousand dollars on his head. Aidid defied the U.N., gaining public support by aligning himself with a history of Somalian resistance to Italian, British, and Ethiopian colonizers. The remaining American airborne units led the increasingly violent search for Aidid, bombing and strafing suspected hideouts, and killing more than a thousand civilians. One disastrous raid in October left eighteen U.S. Army Rangers dead and seventy-five wounded, and after that the Americans effectively withdrew from the fray. Aidid was never captured, and the United Nations military profile was steadily lowered.
On the political side, the United Nations tried to help rebuild government at the grass roots through district councils composed of local "leaders," but in most places it found itself lost among the endless subclans and eddies of local power. The United Nations' efforts to broker a peace agreement between the major clans were, of course, also unavailing. It seemed that neither Aidid nor Ali Mahdi would accept anything less than the Presidency. Having built up Aidid politically through its pursuit of him, the United Nations built him up further, after taking the price off his head, by dealing with him as though he controlled areas of the country which he did not in fact control. The U.N., which had earlier preferred Ali Mahdi, seemed to be hoping to create a strongman to hand Somalia over to. And yet the buildup of Aidid was not enough to shift the balance of power decisively in his favor, and by the end of its Somalia mission the United Nations was openly preferring Ali Mahdi again.
Where the U.N. continued to function, it tended to spawn large colonies of clients. Thus, by 1994 there were estimated to be in Mogadishu alone more than a thousand "local N.G.O.s" -- non-governmental organizations, set up by Somalis to channel foreign funds into worthy projects like orphanages and literacy training. What fraction of these projects might be legitimate was impossible to determine, but it was widely thought to be small. The direct U.N. payroll, meanwhile, was immense. By the end of its mission, the U.N. was easily the biggest employer in Somalia. Counting dependents, it was supporting, according to some estimates, a hundred thousand people in Mogadishu. And rumor had it that a significant tax was being collected from those wages by the warlords, who were grimly rearming.
Even the U.N.'s ostensible main purpose in Somalia -- to help the country form a government -- seemed at times quite out of synch with the facts on the ground. Many of the nicer houses still standing in south Mogadishu, for instance, are being inhabited by people who do not legally own them -- mooryaan from the countryside, mostly, enjoying their first sojourn in the city. What interest do these young fighters have in peace and reconciliation? A government might permit homeowners to return and evict them. A government might restore law and order, reducing the demand for their services as gunmen. They might even be forced to go back to the countryside, back to their camels and sheep. Then, there are all the businessmen who are doing very nicely in the current, low-tax climate. Some of them are indistinguishable from the warlords (whom they must accommodate, in any event). The U.N., sponsoring its endless, expensive peace conferences in Addis Ababa and Nairobi, often seemed entirely unaware of this kind of structural resistance to the solving of the Somalian conundrum.
Somalia turned into one of the biggest, most expensive projects in U.N. history. The final bill came to more than two billion dollars. The mission could have lasted longer than it did, but once it became clear that "institution building" was going nowhere and that democratic elections would never be held, Security Council support evaporated. The mission's failure was not only political and military but administrative: the Somalia operation became notoriously corrupt (U.N. contracts and equipment, including vehicles, were simply for sale, particularly after the Americans left, in early 1994) and astoundingly wasteful (the U.N. compound in Mogadishu was rebuilt at a cost of more than fifty million dollars and then, in early February, was abandoned to looters). The subsequent reluctance of U.N. members to contribute to new peacekeeping missions, such as the desperately undersubscribed project in Rwanda, can be substantially attributed to the Somalia fiasco. More broadly, the type of aggressive international intervention to stop civilian suffering and establish civil authority -- overriding traditional concerns about national sovereignty -- which was pioneered by the Somalia mission and was regularly touted by U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, has been badly discredited. The United States, for its part, felt far less enthusiasm for working with the United Nations -- and for international rescue missions in general -- by the time it left Somalia than it had felt when the troops arrived, in the heady days of 1992.
One of the Somali businessmen who are reputed to have done well in the radical instability of recent times is Osman Hassan Ali, the man widely known as Ato. Customarily described in the Western press as General Aidid's "chief financier," Ato lives in the sort of once wealthy Mogadishu neighborhood where wide streets are littered with smashed, rusting fuel tanks and truck chassis that can be quickly assembled into serious roadblocks. Today, the high compound walls in neighborhoods like Ato's can have almost anything behind them. Some enclose centers for displaced people: dense, unhealthy collections of dome-shaped, burlap-covered ochols. Others hide encampments of small militias: ragged fighters sleeping in the weeds around their precious technicals. A few, which are heavily guarded, still contain comfortable villas, wooden-shuttered and bougainvillea-lush. Ato lives in one of these, behind a high cream-colored wall.
Not long ago, I spent an evening at his place. Four or five of us, all men, sat on the living-room floor on Persian rugs, leaning against sofas and chairs, eating camel meat and goat with our fingers, drinking tea, chewing khat. Ato, who looks to be about fifty, is tall and powerfully built -- his "skinny" period must have been long ago. His left leg, which was injured last year in a land-mine explosion, was heavily bandaged and seemed to be causing him pain. He was a genial host nonetheless.
Ato's longtime ally General Aidid is uneasy around reporters, so Ato, who is relatively approachable (Michael Maren, who had introduced me to Ato, was also on hand that evening), has often served as the public voice of Aidid's faction. But Ato and Aidid have developed sharp political differences. As members of the same subclan, they are unlikely to become deadly foes, yet the loss of Ato's support could prove disastrous for Aidid, since Ato is, among other things, one of Somalia's biggest khat importers, and the loyalty of a warlord's troops is closely related to his ability to keep them supplied with khat. Ato is also said to own the largest fleet of technicals in the country -- another strategic high card.
There was some well-informed talk about American politics that evening. I was sitting beside Mohamed Hassan Awale, another estranged Aidid adviser, who had lived for many years in the United States and seemed to know more about the Republican Party than I do. He and Ato reminisced about their adventures together in New York City. Then Ato brought out albums of photographs documenting the destruction of a Mogadishu truck compound he owns. It had been bombed to bits by the Americans in 1993. The photographs showed none of the thousands of technicals that the Americans claimed were built in the compound. Ato said he was in the market for an American lawyer. He planned to sue for damages.
Ato and Awale also reminisced about the four months they had spent in U.N. captivity in 1993. "Never charged," Awale said. "No habeas corpus." They were held, they said, with one other prisoner, on an island off southern Somalia. "Our Robin Island," Awale said dryly.
A quiet older man who ate with us was introduced as Abide Qeybdiid, the owner of a house that was destroyed in a fierce American air raid in July, 1993. The Red Cross later said that fifty-four civilians were killed in that attack, many of them clan elders attending a meeting. The Americans had apparently thought that Aidid would be at the meeting. Four foreign journalists who went to the scene shortly after the attack were killed by an angry mob. (Aidid's radio station reported that the journalists were C.I.A. agents, and Anogeel told me that Xog-Ogaal came under pressure to make the same insane accusation. He refused, of course, and reported the story straight.)