WORLD

UNDER SUSPICION

THE DEATHS OF TWO SOMALIS CASTA CLOUD OVER CANADA’S REPUTATION AS A PEACEKEEPER

GLEN ALLEN May 3 1993
WORLD

UNDER SUSPICION

THE DEATHS OF TWO SOMALIS CASTA CLOUD OVER CANADA’S REPUTATION AS A PEACEKEEPER

GLEN ALLEN May 3 1993

UNDER SUSPICION

WORLD

THE DEATHS OF TWO SOMALIS CASTA CLOUD OVER CANADA’S REPUTATION AS A PEACEKEEPER

In the public mind they are the Canadian equivalent of the American Green Berets or Britain’s fabled SAS commandos. The 4,200-member Special Service Force based at Petawawa, Ont., is an elite, combat-ready, air-mobile brigade whose motto is “Let Us Dare.” And dare they have: already this year they have served with distinction as peacekeepers in Bosnia and Cambodia, and have just returned from an exercise in marking the disputed boundary between Iraq and Kuwait. Since last December, about 1,000 of the nearly 1,400 Special Service Force personnel currently serving in trouble spots abroad have been in the East African nation of Somalia, part of a multination operation designed to aid in the distribution of food as well as make and keep peace among warring clans and factions. But their role in that strife-torn region has fallen under a cloud. Two teams of Canadian military investigators have recently flown to Somalia to examine two separate killings of Somali civilians by Canadian troops. Implicated in both cases are personnel of the Canadian Airborne Regiment, the crack paratroopers at the core of the Special Service Force.

Last week, defence officials revealed that they had dispatched a three-person investigative team to delve further into a March 4 incident in which a Somali was shot and killed, and another wounded near the Canadian compound at Belet Huen, 260 km north of the Somali capital of Mogadishu. Those investigators crossed paths with a two-person team that returned to Ottawa last week after probing the violent death on March 16 of Shidane Omar Aroni, who was in Canadian custody after trying to break into the compound. Both incidents have inspired opposition parties to charge the defence department, headed by Tory leadership aspirant Kim Campbell, with covering up. The first incident, claims NDP defence critic John Brewin, was a “deliberate homicide” of an unarmed man. He based that allegation on information from an anonymous witness among Canadian Forces in Somalia— a witness who also accused Canadians of deep-seated racism towards Somalis.

Details of Aroni’s death have been painfully slow in coming to light. Defence spokesmen

say that they informed the media by way of a press release posted at Mogadishu headquarters on March 18. But neither journalists on the scene in Belet Huen nor in Ottawa were informed until March 31.

Complicating investigators’ work in the apparent beating death is the fact that one of the five suspects—all members of the Airborne Regiment’s 2 Commando Unit—remains in critical condition in an Ottawa military hospital. Master Cpl. Clayton Matchee, 29, attempted to hang himself after being placed in detention in Belet Huen. Four other soldiers were later questioned in connection with the killing, and were returned to Petawawa. No charges have yet been laid and the suspects have declined to speak to the media. The major in charge of 2 Commando, Maj. Tony Seward, has also been relieved of his command. ‘There may be individuals who are not performing up to scratch,” Admiral John Anderson, chief of the defence staff, told Maclean’s. Aroni’s death, he added, “may well be symptomatic of a breakdown in our discipline and our leadership.”

The Canadian Forces will not say when the reports into the two deaths will be finished— and even then they will not likely be made public. Said Lt.-Col. Ken Watkin of the Judge Advocate General’s Office, the armed forces’ legal branch: “Generally they’re exempted under the Access to Information Act.” Watkin added that “whether there’ll be an accounting at some point as to what happened will have to be determined in a trial—if one is warranted.” Amid the controversy there are ample indications that the Somalia tour is exposing Canadian Forces to unaccustomed tests—and

stresses. The troops in Somalia, as well as those who have returned, insist that they are well-trained, well-fed and have adequate shelter and sleep. But they also speak of lengthy patrols in temperatures that rise above 50° C. Snakes, scorpions and dysentery are daily menaces. Canadians have been fired on by Somalis with regularity and five Canadian vehicles in the Belet Huen district have hit land mines. Soldiers also comment on a lack of compassion on the part of Somalis towards the injured and dying. “Conditions are extremely Spartan,” said Brig.-Gen. Ernest Beno, commander of the Special Service Force. “It’s terribly hot, sandy, dry and dusty. There is a lot of stress there.”

Sgt. Gregg Janes, a 33-year-old medical assistant with the Canadian Airborne Regiment in Somalia, was on a 12-day leave in Petawawa last week. Janes noted that breakins at the Canadian compound in Belet Huen have been a “regular occurrence.” Guards have frequently intercepted Somalis apparently seeking ammunition or aircraft parts. Janes adds that the soldiers’ “underlying feelings” about the beating death of the Somali “is that it is a tragedy.” But he stresses that in Somalia, Canadians have entered a theatre of war perhaps unlike any other they have seen. Most local men are armed, said Janes, “with anything from rocket launchers to muskets. Somalis kill each other on a daily basis. Death is very common.”

There is also a prevailing sense of resignation and frustration about the effectiveness of a mission that will not see the last Canadian leave until July 26, by which time control of their area will be under UN command. They point to the clan rivalry that has marked life in Somalia for centuries. Said Janes: “These rivalries are as old as time and they are not going to change in the short-term.” In an interview in Belet Huen, Royal Canadian Dragoons Trooper David Jacobs said, “I think as soon as these soldiers are gone it will be back to the same old thing.” Added Master Cpl. Dwayne

Atkinson of CFB Petawawa’s 2 Service Battalion: “I have this feeling this whole country is doomed no matter what we do.”

In Petawawa, Brig.-Gen. Beno offers a less pessimistic view. He points to Canadians’ role in safeguarding the distribution of food, helping build schools and setting up local police forces. “One chief told me that before the Canadians came, killing was as easy as drinking water,” said Beno, who toured Belet Huen in February. “I think we have helped show the people here a bit of hope—at least this has given them a bit of a breather.” But for the proud Airborne, and for the thousands of other Canadian peacekeepers carrying out duties as dangerous as the relief of besieged Muslims in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, the suspicious deaths may darken a noble record.

GLEN ALLEN in Petawawa with

JIM DAY

in Belet Huen