MotherJones MA93: Why we went

How the United Nations turned its back on Somalia and subverted the best chance for peace.

When the Bush administration sent the Marines to Somalia in December, the humanitarian organizations working there, most notably the International Committee of the Red Cross, were making progress in combating the famine--an extraordinary achievement given the size of the task and the considerable risks it entailed. To the extent, therefore, that it was necessary for the United States to dispatch combat troops, it was because of the failure of the United Nations. Saying this is not to engage in conventional UN-bashing. That is too easy, and it is not constructive. But unless the United States is prepared to become not only the world's policeman, but the world's missionary as well, unless the Clinton administration is braced to send troops on humanitarian missions to Ethiopia, Zaire, Sudan, Angola, Afghanistan, and, of course, Bosnia--and that only begins the list--we will have to address the UN's institutionalized failures in Somalia.

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After more than a year of neglecting Somalia, the UN began to address some of its shortcomings in April 1992, when it appointed Mohammed Sahnoun, an experienced African diplomat, as special envoy to the country. In the few months that he was on the job, Sahnoun managed to get the warlords talking, earn the respect of the humanitarian organizations, and perhaps most important, restore some credibility to the UN among Somalis. But instead of becoming a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, he was fired in October, further setting back UN and humanitarian efforts.

Somali distrust of the UN--which borders on contempt--dates from the overthrow of Mohammed Siad Barre in January 1991. Siad Barre had been the country's dictator since 1969, and as the two-year-old civil war to topple him approached the capital city of Mogadishu, the UN evacuated its personnel. Nearly all the foreign embassies and humanitarian organizations evacuated their staffs as well, but unlike some of these organizations, which came back quickly, the UN was largely absent from Somalia during one of the most critical years in its history.

Though Somalia is one of the most homogeneous countries in Africa-- Somalis speak the same language, are nearly all Sunni Muslims, and trace their heritage back to a common ancestor--it is riven by clan, sub-clan, and family loyalties and enmities. After the overthrow of Siad Barre, two sub-clans became the major contenders for power. One was headed by Ali Mahdi, a former hotelier who declared himself interim president. He was opposed by General Mohammed Farah Aidid, a professional soldier trained in the Soviet Union. There were a number of efforts to unite the two, but all failed. "It was time for a high- caliber UN official to intervene," says one UN official about the critical period following Siad Barre's ouster. "Instead, the UN was sitting on the fence."

In addition to requiring UN mediation, Somalia desperately needed UN agencies to begin rebuilding infrastructure destroyed by two years of civil war. UNICEF could have helped rebuild the health system, UNESCO education, FAO agriculture, and UNDP the water and electrical works, which still aren't operating.

It wasn't only that UN officials refused to take any initiative. Far worse, they even declined to act when asked. Their first opportunity came in July 1991, when the government of neighboring Djibouti, alarmed by the anarchy in Somalia, invited representatives from most of the major clans to discuss a political settlement of the fighting. Djibouti sent a representative to New York to ask the UN to participate in the conference. The UN declined.

A few months later, the UN had another opportunity and rejected it. In late October 1991, while the General Assembly was in session, Ali Mahdi's faction asked for a special session addressed to Somalia. James Jonah, the UN's undersecretary general for special political questions, sent the following message to the UN office in Nairobi "The consensus of views here is that it is most unlikely that the General Assembly could accept the convening of a special session." Not content to just say no, he went on: "We would suggest that you endeavor to discourage at the local level any idea for holding a special session on Somalia. We are following closely the evolution of political and military developments in Mogadishu, and at this time we cannot contemplate any meaningful action by the secretary general."

Why was the UN so loath to act, to play the mediating, peacemaking role for which it was established? The short answer is institutional, bureaucratic caution and personal ambition. The odds of achieving a political settlement in Somalia were formidable, so Jonah and other UN officials were reluctant to try for fear of being associated with failure. And 1991 was the year that a new secretary general was to be elected. No aspirant for that post, including Jonah, wanted to take time away from headquarters, where lobbying took place, to go to distant Djibouti on a mission that might fail. And yet, if the UN had given its full support to the Djibouti conference or had taken up the matter in the General Assembly, success, even if partial, might have been possible.

Whatever the reasons, the consequence of the UN's refusal to act was a human tragedy of epic dimensions. Within days of Jonah's discouraging message, civil war erupted between the Aidid and Ali Mahdi forces. It seemed that every Somali male in Mogadishu had an AK-47, M-16, or C-3. Men prowled the streets in souped-up jeeps with the tops shaved off and machine guns and anti-aircraft pieces mounted in the back-- "technicals," as the machines became known. But these were not trained, disciplined soldiers; they were teenagers, many not even as tall as the weapons they toted. Their victims were not combatants; they were women and children.

The fighters didn't fire their anti-aircraft guns at planes, but down the garbage-littered streets, at people. One man was sitting in the market, talking to friends, "when whoosh, there went his legs," recalled an American nurse. A woman standing outside a hospital was killed instantly when a random bullet struck her. Artillery shelling was indiscriminate, killing entire families.

"It was hell," sixty-two-year-old Ruben Osorio, a Mexican doctor working with the International Medical Corps (IMC), told me when I visited Mogadishu in early December 1991. "I've been a doctor for thirty-five years in Mexico; I've never seen anything like it. I lost twenty patients in two hours; they just died on the floor. The walls were caked with blood; it was spurting from the wounded; it was running like a faucet." Osorio said he thought three thousand people had died in the streets during one week of fighting. Then he said, "No so sabe"--we don't really know.

At Medina Hospital, a twenty-three-year-old woman in a print dress lay on a cot under a thorn tree in the sandy yard. Her right leg had been amputated at the knee. A thirteen-year-old boy writhing on a nearby blood-stained cushion had a bullet in his head; it was doubtful that he would survive the night. "The lucky ones die quickly," a nurse told me. Supported by friends, an old man shuffled toward the emergency room, a blood bag around his neck, a card with medical data in his mouth, a bullet in his chest. Propped against a wall was a five-year- old boy, Mohammed Abakavar. An artillery shell had exploded in his yard, killing his mother, father, brothers, and sisters. He lost his right leg above the knee.

Struggling to deal with the carnage were volunteer nurses and doctors with the International Red Cross, IMC, Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF), and Save the Children-U.K. They were numb, working long hours. They lacked medicines, blankets, bandages, everything. Over and over again, they had one question, one cry: "Where's the UN?"

The answer was that the UN considered the situation too dangerous. That was the determination the chief UN representative in Mogadishu, Osman Hashim, had made in January 1991, and it was still operative at the end of the year. Throughout 1991, Hashim, who handled the Somali situation from the comfort and safety of Nairobi, chaired meetings in which other humanitarian organizations pleaded for the UN to return. The most that Hashim would do was send in "technical teams" to evaluate the situation. They would go in for a day, two at the most, visit a hospital, lament about the tragedy, then conclude it was too dangerous for the UN. The United Nations had a plane in Nairobi and warehouses filled with food and supplies, but they said it was too dangerous for the plane to fly to Mogadishu. Humanitarian relief organizations had to charter planes, straining their already limited budgets.

Of course, the situation was dangerous. But it was no more dangerous than the situation in Yugoslavia or in Iraq during the Gulf War, both places to which UNICEF sent teams. And the danger in Somalia wasn't keeping the relief volunteers out. "We felt that it was our responsibility to be there and do something," says Geoffrey Loane of the International Committee of the Red Cross, explaining why his organization stayed. "On a personal level and on the institutional level, it was impossible not to be there."

In contrast, on one occasion when Jonah was questioned about the absence of UN personnel, he testily--and somewhat incredulously-- responded, "How do you cover them by insurance?"

Finally, in January 1992, on the orders of new UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Jonah made a reluctant trip to Somalia. It was a disaster. According to a February report by the human rights organization Africa Watch, "far from achieving progress towards a cease-fire," Jonah's visit "only made conditions in Mogadishu appreciably worse." Instead of dealing with the elders of neutral clans, Jonah allowed himself to be given a Potemkin tour by General Aidid. He also neglected to speak with leaders of neighboring Eritrea, who had gotten an agreement from Aidid and Ali Mahdi to permit an Eritrean peacekeeping force to come to Somalia. The plan was never implemented, although with international support it might have succeeded.

Slowly, as international attention began to focus on Somalia, UN agencies did begin to return. But still there was little progress by the United Nations until Boutros-Ghali appointed Mohammed Sahnoun as his special envoy in April 1992. Soft-spoken and urbane, Sahnoun had been Algerian ambassador to France, Germany, and the United States, and had also served as deputy secretary general of the Organization of African Unity. He was a brilliant choice.

Sahnoun worked hard to overcome the negative feelings that the Somali people had toward the UN. He began by listening. "He was trying to understand the situation before acting," said Hussein Mursan, a Somali doctor. "By talking to everybody--not only the man with the gun, but with the schoolboys, with the intellectuals, he was winning the confidence of the warring factions."

Just as important, Sahnoun won the admiration and cooperation of the international relief organizations. Unlike prior UN workers, he lived in Mogadishu, enduring the heat, mosquitoes, filth, lack of water, electricity, and basic comforts. "He was open, he was frank, and he was modest," Geoffrey Loane of the Red Cross told me. "And he worked like hell. He worked seven days a week, constantly. He inspired all of us."

UN officials weren't as pleased. "Basically, from the beginning, my attitude was unorthodox for them," Sahnoun said in an interview the day after he was dismissed. "I would say, 'Your directives or instructions cannot be carried out the way you are sending them. I have to formulate the policy with you, and you have to take into account my view.' They really very much resented that."

Sahnoun was constantly undercut by other UN agencies. In September 1992, the UN peacekeeping force tried to deploy units to the port town of Kismayu, where several ships loaded with food from the World Food Program (WFP) were in harbor. General Aidid, who controlled the town, refused to allow access to the security forces. Sahnoun delivered an ultimatum: Either allow deployment of the UN forces, or the ships will leave. Aidid was furious, but Sahnoun's attitude was, "Let him scream." Then a UN official told Aidid that the WFP didn't want to turn the ships around, regardless of what Sahnoun said. The food was ultimately unloaded and, of course, Aidid was the beneficiary.

Sahnoun wasn't very disturbed over the specific issue of whether or not the ships were unloaded. Far more serious to him was that the warlords realized that his authority was limited, and that when he got tough with them they could go around him.

Sahnoun wasn't even consulted when the UN announced, in August 1992, that a peacekeeping force would be sent to the region--he learned about it from the BBC. Worse, the governments of other African countries weren't consulted, and Somalia's neighbors--Kenya, Ethiopia, and Djibouti--were not pleased. Sahnoun took it upon himself to visit the leaders of the various countries and explain the policy to them. After speaking with Sahnoun, they were generally supportive. "For them it was a matter of not having been consulted, not having been involved from the beginning," Sahnoun said. For his efforts, Sahnoun was rebuked by UN officials, who accused him of spending too much time traveling outside Somalia.

That was the same criticism he heard from New York when he organized a conference of Somali intellectuals in October 1992. The Swedish government, which funded the conference, suggested the Seychelles, only two hours from Mogadishu by small plane. Twenty Somalis attended the conference, including several women and elders from various clans. They barely talked to one another the first day, their clan loyalties and animosities were so deeply embedded.

"I had to really shake them," Sahnoun recalled. "I said, 'Listen, you are like the brain--if the brain doesn't work, just forget it.' Gradually, the second day, they began talking to each other and created committees. The third day, they were taking pictures with each other."

The UN responded to the conference's success with a telling message: Why did you go to the Seychelles without clearance?

Sahnoun was succeeding where Jonah, Hashim, and others had failed. But what really concerned UN officials is that Sahnoun spoke publicly about the failures of the UN. Believing his criticism would make people aware of the UN's mistakes and save lives by preventing UN officials from making them again, Sahnoun did not flinch from expressing his views.

At a UN conference in Geneva on October 12, 1992, Sahnoun was direct: "A whole year slipped by whilst the UN and the international community, save for the International Red Cross and a few nongovernmental humanitarian organizations, watched Somalia descend into this hell. The damage will not be repaired." During this period "300,000 Somalis, mostly children, have succumbed, some of them in agony," he said.

Almost from the outset, Sahnoun got in trouble for acknowledging the UN's mistakes. In one of his first interviews, Sahnoun told the New York Times, "If a friend had $100,000 and wanted to give it to Somalia, I would advise $50,000 to the International Committee of the Red Cross, $25,000 to Save the Children, and $25,000 to UNICEF."

A few months later, on CBS's "60 Minutes," Sahnoun was asked by Ed Bradley whether "earlier intervention in Somalia by the United Nations could have saved lives." He replied, "Yes, definitely."

"No question about it?" Bradley followed up.

"Absolutely no question," Sahnoun said.

On October 18, 1992, thirty million people watched the "60 Minutes" interview. Two days later, when the heads of the UN specialized agencies met with Boutros-Ghali and Jonah at a regular meeting, much of the discussion focused on Sahnoun.

The next day, Boutros-Ghali sent Sahnoun a letter, ordering him to refrain from public criticism of the UN. Such comments were "deeply damaging to the organization's reputation." His tone was harsh. "I wouldn't have written a letter like that to my most junior staff," said Mike McDonagh, director of operations in Somalia for the humanitarian organization Irish Concern.

Upon receiving the letter, Sahnoun offered to resign. He wrote to Boutros-Ghali suggesting that he remain in Somalia as special envoy and work on the issues of security and political reconciliation, leaving the management of humanitarian relief to someone else. He never received a response.

Boutros-Ghali quickly appointed Ismat Kittani, a man experienced in UN "corridor politics" as well as international diplomacy, to replace Sahnoun. In his letter to the Security Council, the secretary general said, "After having been . . . in contact on several occasions with Ambassador Sahnoun, and taking into account several events, I have decided to accept his resignation."

In truth, the secretary general had not contacted Sahnoun at all. "If he had called, if he picked up the phone and said, 'OK, forget it, you have all my trust, go on,' I would have stayed. I gave him the opportunity," Sahnoun said. Unfortunately, Boutros-Ghali wasn't interested.

Sahnoun packed his bags and said good-bye to the people he cared about--the Somalis and the volunteers with the international relief organizations. Before leaving, he held a press conference and fought back tears to announce, "It was no wish of mine to leave Somalia and all the wonderful people who have given, and continue to give, at great risk to themselves, their time and energy to save the lives of the starving populations."

Although humanitarian organizations generally stay as far away from politics as they can, several of those working in Somalia were so angered and disturbed by Sahnoun's forced resignation that they took the highly unusual move of issuing a statement. "Ambassador Sahnoun gained the confidence of those he dealt with through his in-depth understanding of the sensitive and very complex situation in Somalia," read the statement, which was signed by MSF, Care, IMC, Concern, and Save the Children-U.K. "For the first time we felt that the UN had provided the informed leadership we demanded many months ago. We feel that his removal at this critical time jeopardizes relief efforts and could increase the security risk for aid workers. His outspoken criticism of the UN's response in Somalia has, we believe, resulted in him being sacrificed by the UN bureaucracy at the expense of the humanitarian relief effort."

Meanwhile, James Jonah and Osman Hashim, two individuals who bear particular responsibility for the failure of the UN in Somalia, have been promoted--Jonah to undersecretary general for political affairs and Hashim to the post of senior UN representative in Jordan.

At the October conference on Somalia, Sahnoun had said, "It should be the duty of the UN to look back and seriously investigate the reasons for our failure to act promptly. Because the important question is, how can we in the future avert similar tragedies?"

There is no shortage of suggestions for reforms at the United Nations: the United States must pay its arrears; a permanent peacekeeping force should be assembled; the permanent membership of the Security Council must be expanded to reflect the post-Cold War world. All these reforms are needed, but they will not be enough. If, in the future, the UN hopes to avoid failures like that in Somalia, it will need to change on a more fundamental level.

According to Sahnoun, the UN should learn from the nongovernmental humanitarian organizations. The volunteers who work for the International Red Cross, MSF, Save the Children, and Concern are generally young and dedicated. They work hard under uncomfortable conditions and come down with everything from diarrhea and flu to malaria, dengue fever, and worse--for low pay. When they "burn out," they move on.

Sahnoun noted that UN employees, in contrast, don't do anything without security, a bureaucracy, and comfortable accommodations--and, he might have added, a phalanx of public relations people. They are paid exceptionally well and receive numerous perks, such as not having to pay taxes. When they burn out, if they work long enough in the field for that to happen, they are promoted to still higher paying jobs.

"The UN should organize a corps of volunteers," Sahnoun suggested, "who are ready to take a few months off from their studies or from their work, to go and work because they are dedicated, because they are motivated." If the UN agencies continue to rely on civil servants, they will not be effective. "They might be able to raise funds, they might be able to provide logistical support," he said, "but the people who are really doing the work in the field are the nongovernmental humanitarian organizations and the International Red Cross."

Above all, if the UN is going to be effective, it must be accountable. "The UN is probably the least accountable government-based bureaucracy in the world--a main reason not only for the cataclysm in Somalia, but for the persistence of famine throughout Africa," said Alex de Waal, a British anthropologist who has studied the UN's response to famines. "Officials who are responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths must face the prospect of prosecution, not promotion." Although prosecuting bureaucrats may be a bit extreme, it is hardly too much to ask that they not be promoted.

The UN also needs some kind of oversight, some equivalent of congressional hearings for U.S. presidential appointees, if individuals with records such as those of Jonah and Hashim are to be prevented from flourishing.

There is also the need for a freedom of information act, so UN officials cannot hide from the public everything from their salaries to their mistakes to how much they're spending on public relations. And, finally, or perhaps first, there must be an independent watchdog organization with full power to investigate UN agencies. The General Assembly has the authority to establish a commission of inquiry to examine what went wrong in Somalia, but it has never examined its own performance. If the UN won't do it, then the United States Congress should hold hearings into what the UN did wrong in Somalia. Unless, that is, they'd prefer to send the Marines off again, and soon.

Ray Bonner is a former New York Times foreign correspondent and former New Yorker staff writer. He lived in Africa from 1988 until this January.