From The Village Voice, January 19,
How the Culture of Aid Gave Us the Tragedy of Somalia
by Michael Maren
The problem started with the camel guts spilling from the
abattoir north of Mogadishu. As the butchers shoveled loads of
entrails off the concrete slaughter blocks into the Indian Ocean,
sharks swarmed in for the feast. And when theyd eaten the food
they turned south along the coast to an area of Mog known as
the Lido where the UN beach club and the British-American club
attracted aid workers and legions of enterprising young Somalis
who hustled them on the beaches.
After the first Somali kid bled to death in the sand after
having his leg torn off the expats retreated from the beach to
their verandahs where they drank beer and whisky and tried to
spot shark fins in the water. After the second Somali kid was
eaten, someone put a sign on the bulletin board suggesting that
maybe it was time to build a swimming pool. None of the aid workers
took the pool suggestion seriously, though. Most of them wouldnt
be there very long three months, six months , a year tops. It
was easier and more fun to go looking for new beaches, virgin
beaches south of the problem. So they set off in convoys, blazing
trails across the sand in their red and green and blue Japanese-made
4-wheel drives emblazoned with the logos of CARE, UNICEF, World
Vision, and Save The Children. They motored over the dunes to
wide open stretches of beach getting the feeling at the top of
every new hill that no one had ever been there before. And when
they arrived at quiet little lagoons they spread their blankets,
unpacked their picnic lunches, tossed their Frisbees and jumped
into the water.
This was Somalia 1981, and the West was moving in: economic
advisors, consultants, diplomats, United Nations personnel, and
military advisors. But the largest contingent by far were the
relief workers, mostly young and inexperienced, assuming they
could help, and looking for African adventure. Somalia provided
opportunity for both. Thousands of refugees from the Ogaden,
ethnic Somalis, were pouring over the border from Ethiopia to
avoid fighting and famine. They arrived tired and hungry and
in need of medical care. The young volunteers gave it to them.
At the same time, Western diplomats were helping Somalia change
its affiliation from a Soviet client state to a U.S. client state.
They were prodding and advising the government of Somalias dictator,
Mohammed Siad Barre, on how to privatize the economy hed just
spent a decade socializing. And they were negotiating for the
rights to station U.S. forces at an abandoned Soviet military
base at Berbera on the Red Sea.
Most of the aid workers paid little attention to the geopolitical
maneuvering in the capital. They were there to care for the victims,
to feed the hungry, give them medicine.
After several months many of these carefree young people became
haunted with the notion that something else was going on. Some
began to say that the suffering of people was caused by the aid,
and they began to suspect that maybe things wouldve worked out
better for the refugees if the relief agencies had never shown
up in the first place.
It slowly became apparent there was no way to separate what
the uniformed men were doing in Mogadishu from the task of feeding
the crying children in the camps. Many of the young aid workers
finally left Somalia with the fear that the refugee relief effort
on 1981 had set the table for an even bigger disaster down the
road. They were right. The disaster came ten years later.
I arrived in Somalia early in 1981 as part of this migration
of aid workers. Many of us had come straight from college or
from Thailand, working with refugees from Cambodia. Id just spent
four years in Kenya, two as a Peace Corps teacher and two years
running food-for-work and famine-relief projects in Kenyas northern
deserts for Catholic Relief Services. My new employer was the
U.S. Agency for International Development the major leagues in
the relief business, a reward for a job well done.
I was not naive. I'd seen thousands of people starve to death
in Kenya, mostly members of the Turkana ethnic group, along with
Somalis. Id seen Kenyan officials exploit the starving by offering
to trade small amounts of donated relief food for the hides of
their animals, the last remaining things of value they owned.
And Id watched the government of Kenya try to cover up the entire
famine out of fear that bad publicity would hurt the tourist
Ultimately it dawned on me that the suit-wearing, tea-sipping,
europhile politicians in Nairobi didnt really give a shit about
the primitive nomadic, people in the north. The nomads were an
embarrassment. Anything primitive was an embarrassment and a
All of this experience prepared me well for Somalia, but not
for the scale of the deception I was about to encounter.
I was hired as a food monitor. My job was to make sure that
the food sent from the docks of Mogadishu reached the refugees
in my region and to find out why it wasnt reaching them. That
region was Hiran district, a large expanse of desert to the north
of Mogadishu. 19 refugee camps had been established along the
banks of the Shebele river, which wound through the district,
draining the Ethiopian highlands hundreds of miles away. I set
up operations in the town of Beledweyne (sounds like smell it
Duane) on the Ethiopian border.
The job didnt require a lot of detective work. On my first
few days in the region I saw military vehicles leaving refugee
camps loaded down with bags of food. I saw merchants warehouses
filled with bags bearing the USAID handshake logo and the words
Donated by the people of the United States of America, Not For
Sale. Over the next few days I saw military warehouses packed
to the ceilings with refugee food and convoys of military trucks
heading toward the Ethiopian border, also packed with food.
After checking ledgers at refugee camps I figured that most
of the relief food being sent to the region probably about two-thirds
was being stolen. Some disappeared from the docks in Mog. Some
disappeared from the trucks along the way to the camps. Sometimes
entire trucks would leave the port and vanish forever. Most if
it, it seemed, disappeared from the camps, sold by camp commanders,
who were usually Somali military men, or were just taken by the
soldiers, or by the guerrillas who were members of the Western
Somalia Liberation Front (WSLF). Along with the food, the WSLF
also raided the camps for able-bodied young men, unwilling conscripts
for a murky guerrilla war across the Ethiopian border in the
The Five-Pointed Star
The maps hanging on the walls of government offices told the
tale of Greater Somalia. There are no borders where were used
to seeing borders, just uninterrupted stretches of brown and
green reaching across through central Kenya, over into Djibouti
and across the Ogaden into the Ethiopian highlands, the area
that Somali officials called Western Somalia. These were the
lands inhabited by ethnic Somalis, one people divided by old
The Somalis who live in these three other countries are represented
by three of the points of the five-pointed star on the Somali
flag. The other two points represent the regions of the former
Italian Trust Territory of Somalia, that is, southern Somalia,
and the former British Somaliland Protectorate, the northern
region around Hargeisa.
The idea of uniting the five Somali groups has long been at
the root of Somali nationalism. The former British region became
independent on June 26, 1960. The Italian region achieved its
independence five days later, and the two joined to form one
In 1963, as Kenya verged on independence from Britain, Somali
Nationalists looked to the southwest to the part of Kenya known
as The Northern Frontier District (NFD). It was more than 60
percent Somali and predominantly Muslim. Its inhabitants where
overwhelmingly in favor of unification with the Somali state.
Their wishes were ignored in favor of those of Kenyan nationalists
who opposed an partition of the colony. When Kenya became independent
in December, 1963, Somalis in the NFD began a long quite futile
war against the new government. The Somalis called them freedom
fighters and the Kenyan called them shifta, a term applied to
bandits and cattle thieves.
To this day, Kenyas Northeastern Province is a dangerous place
to travel. Shifta still attack convoys and raid towns on occasion.
And both the Kenyans and the Somalis are right: the shifta are
usually bandits who call themselves freedom fighters, and occasionally
freedom fighters who behave like bandits. The net result is that
chaos in Somalia suits Kenya just fine.
The situation in the Ogaden, however, proved much more explosive.
For centuries Amharic Emperors had, through intimidation and
agreements, controlled the Muslim lowlands of the Ogaden.
As in Kenya, the freedom fight sputtered along while the Somali
military had little chance of any victory against the superior
American-trained Ethiopian army under Emperor Haile Selassie.
In 1967, the elected Somali government of Prime Minister Mohammed
Ibrahim Egal began a process of making peace with the nations
that stood in the way of the pan-Somali dream. Egal realized
that the dream was fruitless, that all of Africa confronted with
secessionist minorities had lined up against Somalia. Though
Egals peace efforts werent appreciated by Somalis, his coalition
won the fraud-laced 1969 election. In the process of assuring
his own power, Egal had angered the military, which overthrew
him in October 1969. The coup leader, Major General Mohammed
Siad Barre, ascended to the leadership of the country.
After the coup, Barre announced that his government, led by
the Supreme Revolutionary Council, would pursue the path of scientific
socialism. A loose military alliance with the Soviet Union became
more intense, and Barre began a massive military buildup with
armored units, MiG-21 fighter -bombers and Ilyushin bombers.
Thousands of military advisors began to train the 20,000-man
The Ethiopians and Kenyans, with reason to be scared turned
to their American allies.
All of this might have turned into a typical Third World Cold
War arms race had it not been for the 1974 coup in Ethiopia that
booted Haile Selassie from the imperial palace and installed
a socialist government. The Soviets, seeing that Ethiopia was
probably the most valuable piece of real estate in Africa did
a clean sweep on regional foreign policy. They stopped backing
Eritrean and Tigrean rebels fight against the Ethiopian government
and the began to arm the new military junta, the Dergue, in Ethiopia
while attempting to maintain their relationship with Somalia.
In 1977, however, the Soviets were forced to choose sides.
A bloody internal power struggle in Ethiopia had left the regime
vulnerable. Barre sensed his opening. The Soviet military build-up
in Ethiopia hadnt gotten very far, and his own army was at primed
and ready. In July, 1977, he invaded the Ogaden, rapidly capturing
the region and driving the Ethiopians back into the hills. Elated
Somalis decreed Barre the savior of the Somali nation. He was
at the peak of his popularity.
What followed in Ethiopia was Jimmy Carter's worst nightmare,
and changed the direction of U.S. military policy. Midway through
the war the Russians, who had signed an "eternal" friendship
treaty with Somalia in 1975, switched sides, airlifting 18,000
Cuban troops and $2 billion worth of arms to the Ethiopians.
Barre turned to the Americans. The Carter Administration promised
him weapons but then, at the height of the fighting, decided
to withhold them from both sides. By then it was too late for
Somalia. By March 1978 the Somalis were run out of the Ogaden.
Shocked by the lightening Soviet response to the military
and diplomatic crisis on the horn, U.S. military strategists
started feeling paranoid about our ability to wage a conventional
war, and the idea of a Rapid Deployment Force took hold. The
Americans convinced themselves that the abandoned Soviet naval
base at Berbera was like a prize worth having.
The Heritage Foundation, soon to gain influence in the Reagan
Administration spelled out the evolving mood concerning the Horn
"The Soviet Military intervention in the Horn of Africa
is the centerpiece of two new foreign policy initiatives: one
in the Middle East and the other in Africa. The intermediate-range
targets are Saudi Arabia, the worlds largest producer of petroleum,
and Kenya, the last pro-Western state from the Cape to the Horn.
And by the time U.S. hostages were seized in Iran and the
Soviets had invaded Afghanistan, the U.S. was scrambling to look
tough. In early 1981, the incoming Reagan Administration dispatched
Henry Kissinger to Mogadishu, where he assured Siad Barre that
America was behind him. "It is not tolerable that the Soviet
Union and its proxy forces engage in expansion all over Africa
and in the Middle East without opposition," Kissinger said
in Cairo after a day with Barre in Somalia.
From Washington, the barren wastes of Somalia suddenly looked
like downtown Berlin.
Watching the Marines roll through Somalia today its hard to
imagine what form of desperation might have caused the U.S. feel
that this place was once a key to its global defense strategy.
What Cold War delirium caused the U.S. to feel that it had to
appease Siad Barre and quietly abet his military fantasies?
By 1979, the gloss had worn off the Somali victory in the
Ogaden. Barre was becoming increasingly unpopular, and his secret
police, the National Security Service (NSS) was stepping up its
campaign of intimidation against his enemies. Previously, Somali
governments had tried to maintain a broad base of representation
from various clans. But as Barre began to feel less and less
secure he started close the circle, increasingly employing his
own clansmen and his own relatives in positions of power.
At the same time, the WSLF maintained a low level war against
the Ethiopians in the Ogaden. The attacks drew reprisals, and
increasingly the Somali nomads from the region found themselves
caught in the middle. Some of them sought safety over the border
in Somalia. Barre began to pressure his Western allies for refugee
relief, and they responded. There were bigger stakes here in
Somalia than a few million dollars in relief assistance. Barre
claimed a half a million refugees, then a million and soon a
million and a half. Journalists took pictures of the sick and
the hungry, and the relief agencies arrived on the scene with
the food. And the food was being stolen.
Despite all of the disappearing food in Somalia, no one was
starving to death in the refugee camps. To be sure, a lot of
people were dying. They were dying from malaria, measles, dysentery,
diphtheria and pneumonia . They were getting sick with river
blindness. But enough food was coming into the camps to keep
them fed. The obvious conclusion was that more food than necessary
was coming into the country.
Curious about this discrepancy I went into one of the smaller
camps in my region, a place called Amalow that was supposed to
have 18,500 refugees, a place that was allotted food for 18,500
refugees. I walked through the camp counting the little twig
huts that the refugees built, and then counting people as they
lined up for their food rations. My own unscientific survey told
me that there were more like 3-4,000 people there. Using friends
from the Red Cross and other groups we started counting refugees.
The numbers held across the board. There were about one-third
as many refugees in the region as the Somali government had claimed.
Across the country, the government had been claiming 1.5 million
refugees. If the figures were accurate, there was a lot more
food coming into the country than anyone needed.
I put all of this information into my reports.
Somalis are nomads who spend most of their time looking for
food. If you put a pile of food in the desert they will come
and get it. If you provide medical facilities they will come
and take advantage of them. The famine camps were set up and
And African leaders like to settle nomads. Nomads make it
hard to build a modern state, and even harder to build a socialist
state. Nomads cant be taxed, they cant be drafted, and they cant
be controlled. They also cant be used to attract foreign aid,
unless you can get them to stay in one place.
But the barren Somali ecology wont support a lot of people
in one place. Out in the desert, one family might have eight
or ten square miles of land for grazing at any given time. In
the camps they were packed into a few square yards. Sanitation,
which isnt much of an issue when youre alone in the desert, became
a source of disease and death. For many of the refugees, the
camps might as well have been concentration camps. Once they
were in, they were hooked. The desert was their barbed wire.
Lives once spend herding camels in the desert were now spent
navigating refugee camp bureaucracy. They spend their days waiting
in lines. Food lines and medical treatment lines. Lines to collect
water from the pumps.
While I was monitoring the situation in Hiran District, my
colleague and friend, Doug Grice, was doing the same job farther
south in Bardera and the region along the Kenya border. Once
a month, Id make the five hour drive to Mogadishu, and wed meet
in the house we shared on the Lido, across from the beach clubs.
We were given a week or so in Mog to prepare our reports, maybe
meet with the ambassador, get a hot shower, catch a movie or
a videotape at the American compound. From our roof deck wed
sit and cut into our rations of whiskey and beer from the diplomatic
shop. Wed chew khat and watch the ships in the harbor, or try
to spot sharks of the coast. And wed exchange stories about the
refugee camps. Separately wed arrived at the conclusion that
the relief program was probably killing as many people as it
was saving, and the net result was that Somali soldiers were
supplementing their income by selling food, and the WSLF was
fueling their attacks into Ethiopia.
Then we'd embark on what was starting to become a report-writing
ritual. Wed put all of this, all of these opinions and observations
into our reports along with the facts: the tonnage of food received,
and the tons missing; plate numbers of trucks seen driving off
with food, names of camp commanders who werent cooperating. Along
with this information wed also include our observations about
the state of the refugees, and our growing doubts about the wisdom
of the relief program.
Then our boss, the Food For Peace officer, Robert J. Luneburg,
would storm back with the reports and say, You guys know you
cant write this stuff. Stick to the facts as you observe them.
So wed retype the reports and head back to the bush.
Though we'd both been hired for our Africa expertise, no one
was really interested in what we had to say. They needed reports
because the rules said reports had to be written. Just in case
someone decided to read one of them, we were supposed to keep
them technical and boring.
Thus confined by the USAID report format, I sat down at my
typewriter in the dusty heat of the afternoon in Belet Uen and
wrote a personal memo to Luneburg and the head of the USAID mission
"At the risk of being labeled politically naive, I
submit the following. I cannot in good conscience leave Somalia
without expressing these opinions to the U.S. government in writing.
"My experience in Beledweyne during the last few months
has confirmed my growing suspicion that the Somali government
is deliberately taking part in the diversion of refugee food,
has deliberately inflated refugee figures in order to facilitate
these diversions , and is now simply humoring donors by submitting
itself to the impotent inspection and monitoring of the donors.
"Our involvement in the refugee relief operation is
participation in a political ploy to gain support for an unpopular
military government. I do not presume to influence the policy
of the American government in this regard, however I believe
that the situation should be recognized for what it is. Our continued
support for the refugees makes possible continued activity of
the WSLF in the Ogaden which in turn results in more refugees.
"I realize that you have much more information than
I do but the actual situation in the Ogaden, however I have made
a pint of speaking with refugees about the situation there until
I was warned by the NRC [National Refugee Commission] early in
July to desist. When I didnt, I was confined to my house for
four days and denied access to the records of food deliveries.
"I believe that the refugees have been coerced as
to the manner in which to answer questions pertaining to the
Ogaden. I know that there are individuals living in the camps
known as politicians who instruct the refugees in political rhetoric
and in how to answer these types of questions. I have been struck
by the consistent similarities of their answers to the basic
questions of why did you come here? and What was life like under
the Ethiopians? they all report that Cuban and Russian pilots
had bombed their cattle and killed their relatives.
"There is a festering resentment among the general
population toward the expatriates and the refugees. An old man
stopped me on the streets of Beledweyne and demanded to know
why he was not entitled to rations and health care just because
he had decided to settle in the town instead of in a refugee
"A man with four children working in Beledweyne for
800 shillings a month (an extraordinarily high salary) could
not supply his family with the amount of food the refugees receive
"Many of the town people have solved that problem
by keeping a residence or a part of their family in the camps.
Sigalow camp [near Belet Uen] is indistinguishable from the mud-house-back
streets of Belet Uen which have now reached the borders of the
camp and are joining it to the town.
"There are other issues that make our involvement
questionable. Such as the recruitment by the WSLF and Somali
Army in the camps. This activity takes place in all the camps
in Hiran. Some of the camp commaners are WSLF officers.
"PVOs are now submitting hundreds of proposals to
improve services to refugees. Expanded services to the refugees
will only aggravate the problem by encouraging them to stay,
and more refugees will arrive. It will spread more thinly the
resource base leaving the door open for a real emergency situation
in the future.
"The future for refugees in the camps holds only years
of relief. The efforts of the international community should
be aimed at solving the problem getting the refugees out of the
The "temporary" camps, set up allegedly to shelter
refugees from the Ogaden war are still there, more than ten years
after that war was over. As I and many of the other critics of
the 1981 relief effort predicted, the residents of those camps
are still dependent on relief food and still have no way to earn
a living on their own.
Several months after I sent this memo, Grice participated
in study of the Somali economy. They found that the relief industry
accounted for two-thirds of the countrys economy. There was no
way Siad Barre could afford to let the refugees go.
And the private relief agencies couldnt let them go, either.
The Big Business of Aid
The question that no one is asking in Somalia is why such
a large portion of the population starves when relief food is
cut off. Why were so many so totally dependent on bags of food
from America in the first place? The answer is not on the TV
newscasts. Its in the ads that are running between the news stories.
The invasion of Somalia has made this the most intensely watched
famine relief operation in history. And television viewers have
had their coverage punctuated with ads from Save The Children
something called Operation Phone Lift. The ad tells you that
its very simple to save lives. It tells you that the only thing
between life and death for the child on your TV screen is a little
food. Just pick up the phone and call. (Have your credit card
ready.) Hungry children turn into smiling children. Dial the
phone and a C-5 transport lands at Mogadishu airport. Other agencies
as well are rushing in to plant a flag on Somali soil, raising
money, competing with each other for a limited pool of aid dollars.
But anyone watching the news already knows that sending food
to Somalia hasnt really helped anyone. Between life and death
there are guns and governments and corruption and all sorts of
things that Save the Children hasnt a clue about. But that hasn't
deterred the aid agencies who are taking advantage of the famine
to do what they do best, to raise money.
Aid is a business. It is a business in which people make careers,
earn a good living, get to see interesting places and have great
stories to tell when they get stateside. Its a business that
has to earn money to pay its executives, pay for retreats and
for officials to attend conferences in Rome, buy 4-wheel drive
vehicles, pay for airfare, and buy advertising time on television.
Its a business that makes money by attracting clients, i.e. starving,
needy people. These agencies, called PVOs or private voluntary
agencies, raise a lot of money from the public, but get most
of from the U.S. government.
Essentially, they cook up projects and write project proposals
looking for funding. When the funding is approved, say for a
project to set up health clinics in a region of Sudan, they hire
people to run the project. Theyll need administrators in New
York or wherever theyre based, and project managers and a couple
more trucks and whatever. Every project means an expansion of
the agency. The bigger the agency the more power the people up
top have, the more people they can claim to be helping, and the
more money they can raise from the public.
All of the PVOs get food from the U.S. government, and with
each ton of food they get to distribute, they get money to move
it and administer it. Naturally, theyre always looking to get
more food and more money so they can say theyre saving more people
and, well, you get the picture.
Letting CARE tell the government how many starving people
need to be fed in Somalia is like letting Northrop tell the Air
Force how many B-1 bombers it needs.
And while photogenic famines are great for raising money,
most PVO projects are not in famine areas. They are in regions
of Africa, Asia, and Latin America where there is plenty of food.
Nonetheless, a lot of projects involve food, mostly because it
is a readily available resource, and one of the best ways to
get grant money from USAID.
And the reckless use of food aid causes famine. It depresses
local market prices and provides disincentive for farmers to
grow food crops. At the same time it increases incentive to grow
cash crops like coffee, tea and sugar. And as more farmers start
growing export crops, it depresses the prices of those crops,
the consumers of which are the very same Westerners who are dumping
their own surplus food supplies on the poor countries.
Though food aid is discussed as if it were charity, most of
it is supplied under Public Law 480, the Agricultural Trade Development
and Assistance Act of 1954, known as the Food for Peace Program
for public relations reasons. In 1954 Americas wheat surplus
tripled, and PL 480 was designed to get rid of it.
Its not so different from the Japanese flooding the American
market with subsidized microchips except no ones starving to
death because were not doing a very good job producing microchips
When its not making things worse, aid, from both governments
and PVOs, supports the status quo. PVOs operating in Somalia
did so with the approval of the Barre government, which only
allowed projects which supported its own agenda of hanging on
to power. The irony is obvious: while saying that theyre helping
people, PVOs are perpetuating the power of a government that
is killing them. But then again, oppressive governments dont
interfere with the PVOs primary goals of expansion and fund raising.
Chris Cassidy took my place when I left Somalia. He ended
up spending seven years in Somalia with USAID, Save the Children,
and with the UNs Food and Agriculture Organization. In his final
years there with the FAO, he worked on an agricultural project
that produced a surplus of food. One of the things that got Barre
and his henchmen really pissed off was when you wrote reports
saying that Somalia was self-sufficient in food, Cassidy said
when I called him at his home in Washington state. That was because
free food is what controls the place. The mentality is: Why should
we let people produce their own food and control their own lives
when we can keep them under our thumbs and under the gun? We
claim famine, flood and refugees and get the food shipped in
here for free. Now well tell you when to eat and when you cant
And stopping people from eating became the weapon of mass
control that Barre and his successors have used so successfully.
Bye Bye Barre
The terror in Mogadishu began not with the anarchy of drug-crazed
thugs in the employ of self--proclaimed warlords, but with police
and soldiers in the employ of the legit government, the one that
had been receiving $100 million a year in military and economic
aid from the Reagan and Bush administrations. That money made
Somalia the third-largest recipient of U.S. foreign assistance
behind Egypt and Israel. Look what it bought.
In May 1988 the Somali National Movement, comprised mostly
of members of the northern Isaaq clan, the most powerful source
of opposition to the Barre regime, seized several towns in the
north. Barres army responded with bombing, shelling, and poison
gas, killing as many as 50,000 people. It was the government
who began starving their enemies.
After two days of anti-government demonstrations and rioting
in Mogadishu in July 1989, which had left at least 450 dead,
the army began house-to-house searches. Hundreds of civilians
were dragged from their beds and taken to prisons and detention
centers. That same month, 46 men from the Isaaq clan were singled
out and taken by security forces to Jezira beach, south of the
capital. There, among the sand dunes, they were executed.
It was only then, when Barre's massacres of rival clans became
too obvious to ignore, that Washington cut off aid. A report
released in September, 1989 commissioned by the US State Department
documents the appalling atrocities committed by the Somali Armed
Forces who, it says, "appear to have engaged in a widespread,
systematic and extremely violent assault on the unarmed civilian
Isaaq population." The report also documents that many of
the people executed by the army had their throats cut were buried
in mass graves.
Meanwhile the army began its looting rampage. Chris Cassidy
tells of how first he was warned not to work with farmers. They
came into my office with guns and told me to stay out of the
fields. So I backed off. But that wasnt enough for them. Then
they went into the warehouses and emptied it of seeds and fertilizers
and farm implements. If Id resisted them theyd have killed me.
The withdrawal of external assistance and the relentless armed
opposition by clan-based liberation movements finally brought
Barre down two years ago. But the chaos of the revolution had
put power back in the hands of local military leaders, leaders
who had nothing in common but their hatred of Barre and his Marehan
clan. Its a familiar story.
When the Marines set off for Somalia, most of my friends called
to ask me how I felt about it. Initially I felt that it was a
viable short term solution to the immediate problem. To be sure,
the Marines will bring food to the hungry.
But as I watched the news coverage and saw who was being interviewed
on television, I began to change my mind. What the marines are
doing in Somalia is handing things back to the free food people,
back to the PVOs and there are more there than ever now who will
happily cooperate with any government that can insure their own
safety so they can keep giving away food.
The PVOs are setting the agenda. CAREs president, Phillip
Johnston, visits the White House and recommends that George Bush
visit the troops there. The heads of World Vision and Catholic
Relief Services are treated as expert guests on talk shows. There
is an assumption that these are humanitarian agencies whose only
goal is to help people. In fact, they are organizations who stand
to reap huge benefits in the form of lucrative contracts to deliver
These are the same organizations that have failed for the
past ten years in Somalia and all over Africa. (Hundreds of billions
of dollars of aid in Africa over the last 30 years have left
the continent more famine prone and dependent on outside relief
than ever.) They had thousands of refugees in camps in 1981 and
they failed to get them out of the camps. They didnt get them
their cattle back. They didnt teach them to grow food and to
be independent. They just delivered food and collected grants
for development projects.
The goal of the relief effort this time around must be to
stop the food. How ever much food is delivered this month, there
should be less next month. Farm implements should be brought
in, and people should be taught to grow things or they should
be sent back to the desert with a few camels. They should be
allowed to reclaim their dignity and their lives. And they need
to be given responsibility for their own lives.
Even though there is no chance of ridding the region of weapons
there are too many in East Africa, and they move freely throughout
the region food should be traded for guns and ammunition.
And then all of them the Marines and the relief agencies should
get out as soon as possible. The U.S. is not going to stop the
feuding in Somalia. Barres reign of terror kept the lid on clan
rivalries, forcing age old hatreds to a boil. And now the Marines
are keeping the lid on. Their presence will give the stronger
leaders time to regroup and rearm. The longer they stay, the
worse it will get.
In the fragile political and environment ecosystem of Somalia
it is much easier to screw things up that it is to set them straight.
Foreign powers, East and West through military, political and
economic intervention have had an impact that has been entirely
detrimental. The more we meddle the worse it gets.
The skies over Beledweyne were an endless expanse of clear
blue and, the ground was hot and dusty. But in the Ethiopian
hills more than 500 miles away it was raining, and the Shabele
river started to rise. Every morning, in the town and in the
refugee camps, people would gather along its the river and watch
the debris swept along by the rising flood. Every once in a while
an animal carcass would drift by.
And as the river got higher and faster and more and more junk
floated past, the aid agencies started preparing. They applied
for funds for flood relief. When the water flooded the refugee
camps, and people began an evacuation of the town, the PVOs called
a meeting with the military governor of Hiran district.
The governor was a colonel who wore Ray Ban aviators and didn't
say much. He liked to speak through an interpreter even though
his English was perfect. And he didn't have much patience for
all these young foreigners telling him what he ought to do.
A young American representative of one of the relief groups
frantically asked the colonel to order the evacuation of all
the refugee camps.
We have already rescued the refugees from Qoquane camp he
told the colonel.
What do you mean youve rescued them? the colonel asked through
Well, we got the out of the camp,
The Colonel remained still. After a minute he asked, How did
you do that ?
Well, we went down there and brought them out.
Did you carry them?
No, we just directed them.. the frustration rose in his voice.
Then the colonel spoke in English. Do you think the refugees
would have sat there and drowned if you hadnt come to them? These
people have lived here all their lives they can take care of
themselves. They dont need you to rescue them, and they dont
need me to order them out of their homes. When the water comes
they will go. the colonel said. They will be OK.