The United States Marine Corps has done one thing better and longer than any other branch of the American military: inspire the makers of war movies. For decades, real marines have watched skeptically as a succession of Hollywood actors and thousands of extras tried to re-enact battlefield exploits—from John Wayne leading the charge in 1949’s Sands of Iwo Jima to Clint Eastwood in Heartbreak Ridge nearly 40 years later.
During the 19th-century scramble for colonies, Britain created a protectorate over northern Somalia in 1886 and Italy did the same in the south three years later. In 1950, the two countries agreed to grant independence to Somalia and, in 1960, the country became a sovereign, united state.
Both superpowers coveted the strategic, deep-water port of Berbera during the Cold War. The Soviets built the naval base in the 1970s, but it opened to the U.S. military after Moscow supported Ethiopia in a 1977 Ogaden desert border war with Somalia.
Led by Navy Seals and backed by Cobra gunship helicopters, 1,800 U.S. marines from three assault and support ships landed in Mogadishu, securing first the airport and then the harbor. They pushed inland, establishing a base at Baidoa and were preparing to land forces in the battlescarred city of Kismayu. The 900-member Canadian Airborne Regiment Battle Group, to be based at Baledogle, will protect aid shipments in the area.
Temperatures range between 25° and 40° C year-round. December marks the end of a rainy season, but this year’s rains unearthed hundreds of bodies which Somalis had buried in dry riverbeds.
The United States Marine Corps has done one thing better and longer than any other branch of the American military: inspire the makers of war movies. For decades, real marines have watched skeptically as a succession of Hollywood actors and thousands of extras tried to re-enact battlefield exploits—from John Wayne leading the charge in 1949’s Sands of Iwo Jima to Clint Eastwood in Heartbreak Ridge nearly 40 years later. Last week, on the Indian Ocean beaches of Somalia, the marines finally got to star in their own movie, a live prime-time TV spectacular produced by George Bush, directed by the Pentagon and starring several hundred unknowns from cities and farms across America. Reviews were mixed. The Somalis loved it but Defence Secretary Richard Cheney did not, accusing the networks of exposing the landing force to the risk of sniper fire by bathing the beach in the glare of camera lights. “Fortunately,” grumbled Cheney, “it didn’t create any problems and nobody was hurt.”
The televised amphibious landing was unprecedented, as was the objective of the U.S.-led, UN-sanctioned humanitarian invasion of the war-devastated East African nation. More than 35,000 troops from 17 nations, including 900 from Canada—which is closing down its 28-year peacekeeping unit on Cyprus—will eventually be deployed to protect operations for moving food from the capital of Mogadishu to outlying areas where an estimated 300,000 people have already died of starvation and disease. By week’s end, the vanguard of 2,000 heavily armed marines and French Foreign Legionnaires, using tanks, armored vehicles and helicopter gunships, had secured the capital’s harbor and airport. And a spokesman for two rival warlords, whose bitter feud had claimed additional thousands of lives since January, 1991, announced a ceasefire, and appealed for calm.
But the most bizarre images surrounding the UN’s first-ever peace enforcement mission, code-named Operation Restore Hope by the Americans and Operation Deliverance by the Canadians, were those captured by television cameras before dawn on Wednesday, Somali time. Between 30 and 40 U.S. navy commandos in black rubber dinghies materialized out of the darkness to establish a beachhead. There, they encountered blinding still-camera flashes and the glare of high-intensity TV lights. Their infrared night-vision goggles rendered useless, the commandos were momentarily trapped on the dunes by dozens of reporters and a handful of relieved Pakistani soldiers from an embattled UN peacekeeping unit who came to shake their hands. Meanwhile, CNN crews, using their own infrared cameras, tracked incoming ma-
rine amphibious vehicles and helicopters. Following Cheney’s criticism, CNN executive vicepresident Ed Turner claimed in Atlanta that the network did not receive a Pentagon request to stay away from the beach until after it had set up its cameras.
Safely ashore, the marines and the first detachment of French troops, who had been airlifted into Mogadishu the same day, took control of the battered capital with ease. Truck-riding gunmen, who had been terrorizing the city for weeks, began disappearing into the countryside. The French and the Americans set up machine-gun bunkers to guard warehouses filled with food, which relief agencies, intimidated by armed gangs of looters, had been unable to deliver. Marines used 50pound sacks of com and dried beans as makeshift sandbags to protect them from the very intermittent sniper fire in the capital. “That’ll stop a bullet,” said Lieut. Kenneth Bräunlich of Denver. Meanwhile, hundreds of Somalis crowded outside the closed airport gates and on hillsides and watched, some approvingly, as the soldiers dug in. “We need peace,” said Abduli Hassan, “and we want the Americans to make peace for us.” When soldiers began disarming civilians, stopping and searching vehicles at checkpoints last week, bystanders clapped and cheered each time a weapon was found and confiscated.
The operation was not entirely without civilian casualties. On Dec. 10, French legionnaires opened fire on a truck carrying nine Somalis when it did not stop at a checkpoint, killing two Somalis and injuring seven. Marine Maj. Steve Little defended the decision to fire, even though the soldiers found no guns in the truck. “The truck ran the roadblock and, under the rules of engagement, they acted appropriately,” Little said. Cheney, at a NATO meeting in Brussels, said that U.S. forces would have acted similarly. The UN earlier had authorized the use of whatever force ground commanders felt was necessary to complete the mission.
The prospect of further bloodshed diminished by the next day. Warlords Ali Mahdi Mohamed and Mohamed Farah Aidid, who had previously asked their followers not to obstruct the UN deployment, announced an immediate ceasefire in the war that they began waging 11 months after jointly overthrowing dictator Mohamed Siad Barre. American helicopter gunships, tanks and armored personnel carriers escorted Ali Mahdi, Somalia’s self-proclaimed president, to the meeting place. The two men, smiling and embracing at their first personal encounter in more than a year, said that they would also withdraw their ragtag armies from Mogadishu, dismantle the so-called Green Line
U.S. MARINES LAND IN SOMALIA: THE PROMISE OF PEACE AND HOPE FOR AN END TO HUNGER
that has divided the capital, and stop circulating hostile propaganda.
Whether the two generals could guarantee peace, however, remained uncertain. Loyalties to the various factions are often thin, and looting has become a way of life. Said Abdelrahman Hirsi, a former student in a country where there are now no schools: “The gunmen are like nomads. Nobody knows who they are or why they carry weapons.” And UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali made it clear that he was not prepared to leave the peace process in the hands of the combatants. A UN spokesman in New York City said that the warlords had been told by the UN special representative in Somalia, Ismat Kittani, that Boutros-Ghali wanted them to attend a national reconciliation conference in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa on Jan. 4. The leaders of other Somali political groups were to be invited as well.
Meanwhile, U.S. air force engineers and a marine detachment prepared an abandoned Soviet-built airbase at Baledogle, about 100 km northwest of Mogadishu, for the first Canadian troops, whose own departure from their base at Petawawa, Ont., was delayed by a snowstorm that blanketed the province.
The crumbling airfield, which has a three-kilometre runway, rusted hangars and cannibalized remnants of planes, is about halfway between Mogadishu and Baidoa, which Somalis had begun calling the City of Death because of widespread starvation, looting and violence. Late last week, U.S. jetfighters and attack helicopters patrolled the skies over Baledogle and marines kept watch from the windowless control tower while engineers bulldozed encroaching vegetation and checked the airstrip. In a nearby village, Somalis talked excitedly—and surrendered their weapons.
But while the guns fell largely silent in Mogadishu, violence continued in other, more remote parts of Somalia. Baidoa, where hundreds of people were dying every day, has come to symbolize the unparalleled suffering of Somalia’s six million people, and various relief agencies appealed for a swift military push on the city. Aid workers barricaded themselves in their compounds in the days after the UN invasion, fearing that gunmen would go on a last-gasp spree before the international force arrived. They said up to 80 people were killed in the town centre last week during fighting between followers of Ali Mahdi and Aidid. At the same time, the Belgian-based medical charity Doctors Without Borders said in Nairobi that at least 60 people had been killed and 40 wounded in four days of fighting in the southern
port of Kismayu. Several aid workers criticized the slow deployment of the UN force. But Ian Macleod, spokesman for the relief operation, said that Gen. Robert Johnston, the U.S. commander, had promised to speed up its activities. Said Macleod: “Johnston is acutely aware of the desperate need to get into the interior as soon as he has enough support on the ground.” As the United States and its allies mobilized for what may be history’s most massive relief effort, there was growing support for UNsponsored military intervention to stop the war in the former Yugoslavia, as well. In Paris, a group of French doctors who belong to Doctors of the World, a group active in disaster areas around the world, advocated that solution. Said Dr. Patrick Aeberhard: “It is true armed intervention will be more difficult in Bosnia than in
Somalia, but the crimes against humanity committed in one place are as real as those committed in the other.”
In Brussels, NATO Secretary General Manfred Wömer also supported intervention in the former Yugoslavia. But Wömer added: “That does not say that I think the military intervention should take place immediately, since you have to consider the winter situation, you have to consider the consequences of such a military intervention for the United Nations forces on the ground and you have of course to consider what would happen to humanitarian action.” Wömer also said that the NATO alliance would do “what is necessary” if the United Nations took action to end bloodshed in the Balkans or prevent it spreading.
Prime Minister Brian Mulroney proposed revising the UN’s role. In a speech at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government
he declared: “We must bolster the capacity of the United Nations to respond to humanitarian and political emergencies.” Mulroney specifically called for international intervention in Bosnia and Haiti. Citing the successful repulsion of Iraqi troops from Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf War, Mulroney proposed that “the United Nations take those actions, because it’s the only thing that works.”
But he also made it clear that any Canadian commitment to secure peace in troubled areas would no longer be open-ended. As evidence of this decision, he pointed to the announcement in Ottawa that Canada would begin pulling its 575 soldiers out of Cyprus in June, ending Canada’s peacekeeping presence on the Mediterranean island entirely by September. Canadian soldiers have been patrolling a 180-km
buffer zone that separates the Turkish north from the Greek south since 1964.
Ottawa has already said that Canadian troops will aim to restore peace in Somalia and return home within a year. But the marines, legionnaires and Canadian paratroopers may be the vanguard of a new police force able to restore order swiftly around the globe. Yet the problems of Somalia go far beyond simple security. For hungry Somalis, straggling into the capital last week in search of food but finding little to eat, the challenge was survival. As U.S. forces rolled through the capital in armored vehicles, thousands of skeletal men, women and children perched patiently on hillsides and behind airport gates, waiting for deliverance.
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