The Mysterious Death of Ilaria Alpi
Dominico Vulpiani tears a sheet from his memo pad and sketches a map for me. He draws a road and two small rectangles to indicate vehicles. Then he draws little circles in the rectangles to show where everyone was sitting: Miran in the front seat with the driver, Ilaria in the back behind Miran, the bodyguard, Mahamoud standing in the back of the pickup. Vulpiani looks like a goofy Jack Webb. He's got the black buzz cut, a bit of girth that he carries well and slightly crooked teeth. He's the director of D.I.G.O.S. The Division of Investigations and Special Operations of the Questura Di Roma, the Italian police. He has been supervising the police investigations into Ilaria's death for two years. Though he's never been to Mogadishu, and none of his men have ever been to Mogadishu, they have interviewed witnesses who have. It's clear however that Vulpiani and his men have a big problem: Four years after the fact, with no forensic evidence, and no reliable witnesses they can never solve this case. At best, they can make it go away, which is what they seem intent on doing.
There are two ways to do an investigation, Vulpiani lectures. You can start off asking why she was killed and then try to figure out who killed her. Or you can just look at the evidence, just the facts, (he actually says, "just the facts") and determine who killed her and then try to figure out why. You can dismiss the parents, he says. They have taken the first approach. His office, he says, has chosen the second.
The police, he tells me, have a witness to the shooting. He's a young guy who goes by the name Jelle. Jelle turned up when the Italian government in 1977, under pressure to investigate the torture charges and solve the Ilaria case sent a special envoy, Ambassador Giuseppi Cassini, to Mogadishu. Cassini found Jelle during one of his investigative trips to Mogadishu. On the day Ilaria was killed, Jelle was apparently hanging around outside the Amana hotel looking for work with any journalist who might come by.
According to Jelle, once Ilaria's pickup had been cut off, and the two men jumped out of the car, Ilaria's bodyguard Mohamoud started firing while Ali put the car in reverse and eventually backed into a wall because he was keeping his head down and not seeing where he was going. Jelle said that the men in the blue Land Rover fired all of their shots from 20 to 30 meters away. Security guards from the Amana hotel, hearing the shooting, came out, and fired on the attackers driving them away. The attackers then fled. One of them was killed. Ilaria and Miran must have been shot with rounds from an AK 47 from a distance. It was a botched robbery or kidnapping, a case of microcriminality, Vulpiani says.
Vulpiani also tells me that he heard that Ilaria's body guard fired first, turning what might have been a simple robbery into a double murder. I had heard that as well on the night of the killing. According to the first information I had, Mahamoud, Ilaria's bodyguard panicked when the car was cut off and began to fire at the attackers. He only had seven rounds in his rifle and quickly ran out of ammunition. He then jumped out of the truck and fled on foot. Vulpiani seemed delighted to hear this. It fit nicely into the theory that it was a botched robbery. Mahamoud, I knew, was capable extreme panic. Nine months earlier I had been with him when he had panicked and fired first. Perhaps luckily for me, he had fired at American soldiers who were polite enough to aim over our heads when they fired back.
But, I continued, it would seem to me that if Mahamoud was firing at the attackers, they would fire back at Mahamoud, not at the unarmed passengers in the car. Vulpiani doesn't have an answer.
Ambassador Cassini joins us in Vulpiani's office while we're talking. He's been very helpful to me in Rome, and checks with me constantly to see how the story is coming. Cassini says that Jelle identified Hashi Omar Hassan, they guy who's now imprisoned in Rome, as someone who was in the Land Rover that ambushed Ilaria. According to Jelle, Hashi didn't fire. Jelle also said he later asked Hashi why he and his friends had attacked the journalists. Hashi is said to have replied that it was a robbery attempt.
And where is Jelle now?
Well, there was a slight problem with Jelle, Vulpiani said. On Christmas eve of 1997 before he was supposed to testify against Hashi, he disappeared. "We believe he's working as a mechanic in Germany." Hashi, on the other hand, was still in jail.
I paused after listening to their story. It made so little sense on so many levels. I've seen people hit in the head with a round from AK47 or M-16 assault rifle before. The high velocity bullet enters the skull and the body is snapped like a whip. The entrance wound is small, but the exit wound is another matter. The shell entering the skull flattens and turns and it carves a bulldozer path through the head. The exit wound explodes, spraying skull, hair and brain matter. That's not what Ilaria looked like.
It seems to me, I said, that determining what kind of bullet hit her would be the easiest part of this case, certainly more reliable than a witness like Jelle who just might have been looking for a ticket out of Somalia. Incredibly, no autopsy was done on Ilaria immediately after she was shot. Photos were taken of her body by a medical doctor aboard the Garibaldi. But those photos and the medical report, like so other things in this case, have disappeared. The medical officer who wrote the report, told Ilaria's parents that it appeared to him that Ilaria had been assassinated.
Ilaria's body was exhumed twice for autopsies. The first one was inconclusive. The most recent, in January of 1998 concluded that Ilaria was shot at close range, that when she was shot, she had curled up in the back seat of the truck and placed her hands over the back of her head, that the bullet took off the small finger of her right hand. The autopsy team consisted of six doctors, three chosen by Ilaria's parents, three by the police. The report is very clear. But the policemen in the room where I was sitting said simply that they didn't believe it, didn't believe the report because it contradicted their witnesses. Perhaps the bullet had slowed down because it went through the windshield, someone offered. That didn't make much sense, either. Though passing through glass and other material might slow a high velocity round it will also make it begin to wobble or tumble. If the bullet had passed through the windshield Ilaria would not have had a clean entry wound. The police would not accept what their own forensic report said. It was a clean shot to the head that didn't pass through anything.
As for the robbery or kidnapping theories, whoever was close enough to shoot Ilaria would have been close enough to accomplish any of those tasks, which they didn't. Nothing was taken from the car.
.In Mogadishu, everyone knows everyone, especially when cars are involved. I would drive around town with my crew and Osman, my driver, would know who owned every vehicle on the road. He could tell from 100 feet away when an approaching car was possible trouble. The guys I travelled with could eyeball almost anyone in the city and link him via three or four degrees of separation to someone else who could then be identified as friend or foe. In a city where everyone was armed and loyalties were divided along the lines of extended families, survival depended on that kind of information.
It is impossible that no one knew who owned the blue Land Rover, not a common vehicle in Mog. It's not likely that no one could identify any one of the seven gunmen. Ilaria's bodyguard and driver maintained for years that they had no idea who the killers were. Ali, Ilaria's driver, testified as much the first time he was brought to Rome. After Jelle disappeared, Ali was brought back, given asylum in Italy and he suddenly remembered that Hashi had indeed been in the car.
My first instinct upon hearing this, however, was that it proved that Hashi had in fact not been in the car. It was always my experience that whenever a crime was committed in Mogadishu, if the people in power wanted to find out who did it, all they had to do was spread the word. The criminals generally turned up. Obviously, no one wanted to solve this one. And since her killers were lolling about at a tea stand in plain view, in front of Ilaria's driver and bodyguard whom they made no effort to kill, driving a vehicle that would have been easily identified, they obviously thought there was no reason to protect themselves. It's very clear that the people who killed Ilaria and Miran had some very powerful connections, and nobody is about to turn them in.
The Italian laws governing "institutional secrets" prevented me from speaking with Omar Hashi, but I did speak to his lawyer, Douglas Duale. Duale's is a tall, thin, immaculately dressed ethnic Somali with a tight gray beard. From his office you can see the Basilica of St. Peter's. The walls are covered with reproductions of Italian Renaissance art. Duale emphasizes immediately that he is more Italian than Somali. In fact, he was born in Ethiopia and has spent most of his life in Italy and Europe. The first thing he does is open a bottle of champagne and he will keep my glass full and bubbling for the duration of our four-hour discussion.
I'm a bit wary at the beginning our meeting because of what I've been told about him. Both Cassini and Vulpiani described an insane man who made no sense, so I almost expect him to start blubbering madly. After I arrived in Rome I asked Cassini several times for Duale's contact number. But every time he dismissed me saying that I really didn't want to talk to him.
Duale, however, though slightly eccentric, seems about as crazy as F. Lee Bailey. His speech is measured and careful. Duale represents both Hashi and Boqor "King Kong" Musa. While Musa is in the port town of Bosasso, he has come under some scrutiny since he was the last person Ilaria interviewed.
According to Duale, Hashi was among a group of 19 Somalis detained by Italian soldiers at the old port in North Mogadishu. As Hashi tells it, he and 18 others had hoods placed on their heads, had their hands behind their backs and were thrown into the harbor. Hashi and one other were able to pull a Houdini act and wriggle free, but 17 of the prisoners died. Duale is convinced of the truthfulness of this story from his client.
When I respond with skepticism to Hashi's entire story, Duale becomes indignant. During the Operation Restore Hope he tells me, Somalis accused Canadian, Belgian, and Italian Soldiers of committing atrocities. The Canadian special forces tortured a young Somali boy to death. Nobody would have believed the Somalis' claims except that in each case the soldiers took photographs and wrote letters and diaries documenting the atrocities. If it wasn't for the evidence those soldiers provided against themselves, no one would have believed the Somali victims. He has a point - but he hasn't proven one.
The upshot of Hashi's version of events is this: In Mogadishu, Cassini, Jelle, and a few other Somalis working with Cassini approached him with a deal. If he went to Rome and testified that he had been abused by Italian soldiers he would be compensated with a lot of money. All he would have to do is then testify that as far as he knew, most of the other abuse complaints on file were false. He would also have to testify that he was in the blue Land Rover, that he didn't actually fire a gun himself, and the motive in attacking Ilaria's car was robbery.
We're at the end of the evening and at the end of the champagne. "The killing of Ilaria Alpi was entirely an Italian affair," Duale concludes. "It was a hit."
Next: What the Boqor said.