It all sounds gruesomely familiar. Searing images of Somali civilians, naked, bloodied and in obvious terror of the foreign soldiers holding them prisoner. Officials who react with disgust and promise that the perpetrators will be punished. A government that sets up an inquiry into wrongdoing by once-respected peacekeepers—while military officials staunchly defend their own. So goes the Italian version of the Somalia scandal, which
erupted last month with revelations and photographs provided by a former soldier—and which promises to rock the Italian military to its foundations. Like Canada’s scandal, and a similar one that exploded in Belgium in April, all of the allegations arise from the ill-fated UN relief mission that took the armies of 20 countries to strife-torn Somalia in 1992-1993. And also like Canada’s scandal, there are many who remain pessimistic about whether justice will ever be done. “I doubt whether they will get to the bottom of this,” predicted Falco Accame, a former Italian parliamentarian
who helps the families of soldiers who die in military service. “The main desire is to minimize.”
In Italy, the allegations have struck deeply at the country’s regard for its widely respected troops. For many years, Italians have prided themselves on their soldiers’ success in mediating between rival factions or bringing humanitarian assistance to the suffering. But that reputation has slid precipitously over the last month. In early June, the Italian newsmagazine Panorama published graphic shots of a Somali prisoner sprawled on the ground, naked except for pants pulled down around his ankles, with two paratroopers apparently preparing to apply electrodes to his testicles. Then, a few weeks later, more damning pictures were released, this time of a Somali woman being held against an armored car while apparently being raped with a signal flare. “The fact is you couldn’t remain in that environment without going wild,” said
the soldier, identified only as Stefano, who took the photographs. “You had to keep in with the group. It was the only way to be sure that you would make it home safe and sound.”
Taking pictures also appears to have been a sure way to be accepted, which may help to explain why such scenes were photographed by observers who failed to intervene to stop the brutality. In fact, Italian soldiers in Somalia were almost as attached to their cameras as their weapons, according to Michele Patruno, 26, who shot the pictures of the Somali being tortured with electrodes. A conscript who left the army soon after returning from Africa in 1993, Patruno now works as a travelling salesman. At the urging of a journalist who heard him talking in a bar about his experiences, and after much soul-searching, he finally decided to speak out in the Italian press and denounce the abuses he had witnessed.
Certainly, it appears that the crimes were grave. Another Italian magazine, L’Espresso, tracked down Ali Aden Abukar, 32, the Somali man who claims to have been tortured with electrodes by the prestigious Folgore (Lightning) Parachute Brigade. Abukar said that an Italian paratrooper, now identified as Sgt. Valerio Ercole, applied electric shocks to his testicles four times. “I yelled and yelled,” Abukar told the magazine. Asked how his life had changed since the incident, alleged to have taken place at the Italian military camp at Johar in 1993, Abukar replied: “My penis has been damaged. The doctor in Johar told me I have blood clots in my testicles.” And while a commission of inquiry has been set
up by the Italian government, observers like Accame expressed profound doubts about its usefulness. “The theory that it was all the fault of a few wild individuals, rather than of the institution, is the one that is likely to prevail,” he said.
The spate of allegations about human rights abuses by Italian troops was sparked by media coverage of similar atrocities attributed to Belgian peacekeepers. In early April, Belgian newspapers printed
pictures of soldiers holding a Somali child over a fire: as they did so, they threatened to “roast” the boy. Belgians were also outraged by accounts that a paratrooper allegedly forced a Muslim Somali boy to eat pork and drink salt water until he vomited. In another incident, soldiers are accused of killing a child by confining him in a small metal box for two days in 40° heat. But last week, a military court acquitted the two soldiers accused of holding the child over the fire, concluding that “it could not be established that physical violence had been inflicted.”
David Shearer, an Africa specialist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said he was amazed at the leniency granted to the Belgian paratroopers. Unlike Accame, Shearer said he will be surprised if a similar whitewash occurs in Italy. But he also had words of praise for both Canadian and Italian peacekeeping forces and said they are well worth maintaining. In fact, Canadians remain some of the best in the world, he said. “They’re professional and they straddle the French-English divide, which can be important in Africa.” To preserve the stature of generally competent forces like Canada’s and Italy’s, he added, it is vital to get to the root of the current allegations. “Peacekeeping is the stage on which modern armed forces are judged, while there are no wars,” Shearer observed. “It’s wise to address the problem properly.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.