The famine had already killed tens of thousands. The Somali landscape was littered with ragged lumps of human scraps. Death by hunger had reduced once robust human beings to bare bones and flakes of flesh. Thousands more slipped silently into death's final embrace before dissolving into a dusty nothingness. For the first time in history, this wretched spectacle was televised live, shocking people in the comfort of their living rooms with never imagined scenes of the worst kind of human misery. The public outcry engendered by these horrific images insisted on swift action to rid the Earth of this nightmare. The world was weary of witnessing the heart-sickening scenes unfolding in Somalia.
On the other side of the world, Ray Read was enjoying his second cup of coffee and another glazed donut in the basement snack bar of the State Department. This middle-aged American was dressed in his favorite pin-striped suit and tie as he tried his best to fit into the glamorous world of U.S. diplomacy. Over his twenty-five years in the U.S. Foreign Service he had worked hard to blend in and learn to do the walk and talk of a high performing officer. He wanted to do all he could to obscure his humble Midwest beginnings on a hard-scrabble farm and cover up his introverted nature. Deep down, he knew himself as an introverted loner and a self-made man who had had the good fortune to transcend his natural grain so he could enjoy a successful career in the U.S. Foreign Service.
As he munched his donut, Ray paid no attention to the horrid TV images because he was focused on his own predicament. His U.S. Foreign Service career was in limbo. His assignment to Angola had been voided by the renewal of civil war following the 1992 Halloween Massacre. This unexpected turn of events rendered null his year of preparations, including an intensive course in Portuguese. On an interim basis, the bureaucracy tossed him into the curious bowels of the seventh floor of the State Department's main building in Washington, D.C. He was given a lead role in a task force managing the U.S. response to the "Drought of the Century' in Southern Africa. He was settling into his demanding job of sourcing food for nine countries in this hungry part of Africa when a lame duck U.S. President ordered marines into Somalia on December 9, 1992, to help save the starving. This dramatic event resulted in his re-assignment to another seventh floor task force that dealt with fast moving events in this long-suffering country.
He did not know anything about Somalia or the northeast part of Africa where it was located. He had never been to any country in what was referred to as the Horn of Africa. As he sat around the task force table with other colleagues to follow rapidly happening events in Somalia, he posed questions to those sitting on either side of him. He was surprised to find that they were as ignorant as he was about this war-torn country. When his six hours of task force duty came to an end, he headed to State's reference library to find maps and information on Somalia. He was intent on being a quick study, doing as much homework as he could before his next tour of task force duty began the following day.
Ray found little relevant information in the library, but he did obtain CIA maps of Somalia and the Horn of Africa that were helpful. He read the little that was available on Somalia, including what the Encyclopedia Britannica contained. He studied the maps from top to bottom, noting all key data in his steno pad. He underlined one entry about the importance of clans. He found this factor intriguing. He knew intuitively that he would need to delve more deeply into the matter of clan structures and alliances. This thought was reinforced by reading that the attractive capital city of Mogadishu was mostly destroyed in the early 1990s by small arms fire of opposing militias led by the heads of two sub-clans who were distant cousins, General Mohamed Aidid and Ali Madhi Mohammed. The former controlled southern Mogadishu and the latter the northern part of this city. Something called the "green line' separated the urban fiefdoms of these two venerable warlords. It was obvious that any attempts to cross this line by one side or the other resulted in fierce fighting.
In one of his readings, he found a reference to Richard Burton, one of the most famous of nineteenth century European explorers of Africa. He asked the librarian for Burton's 1856 book, "First Footsteps in East Africa," cited in the references. She did not have any reprints, but she did bring him a book that had a number of citations from this old book. He was able to read excerpts from the original book that were mainly about the three months Burton spent in 1854 and early 1855 in Berbera, in what he called Somali Country, and his travel over two hundred miles by camel to the forbidden city of Harar in the far northeast corner of present day Ethiopia.
Burton was among the first Europeans to venture into this part of Africa. His high proficiency in Arabic and his in-depth knowledge of Islamic practices made this trip possible. The fact that he had previously masqueraded as a Muslim and gone on the Hajj to Mecca held him in good stead in this land where infidels were often killed outright. At the time, Christians were not allowed into Harar because its people believed the entry of a Christian into this Muslim city would cause it to disintegrate.1 Therefore, Burton and his comrades took a high risk by pretending to be Muslims so they could be among the first Europeans to visit this fabled city.
Ray was fascinated by the exploits of Burton in such a hostile part of the world over one hundred sixty years ago. He thought that much of what Burton concluded about Somalis could still be valid today. He certainly could see that Burton's knowledge of languages, Islam, people and their cultures were still essential to understanding present day Somalia. In particular, his violent encounter on his return trek to Berbera with a group of raiding Somali warriors (waranle) made him pay special attention. These fearless warriors stole all their goods and tried to kill Burton and everyone in his party. He was able to escape but only after his cheeks had been pierced by a spear that entered one cheek and exited the other. His sidekick, John Speke, was wounded in eleven places but managed to reach Berbera. One of his European colleagues was killed along with many of their porters. This bloody clash re-confirmed his impressions of Somalis as being a "fierce and turbulent race."
Burton's description of Somalis caused later explorers to avoid the dangers of crossing through unfriendly Somali Country. The details he provided on the fighting spirit and fearless raiding skills of Somali warriors aroused fear among outsiders about daring to enter Somalia. Ray wondered how many of Burton's observations still rang true today. Some of Burton's comments reminded Ray of what the U.S.' ambassador to neighboring Kenya, Smith Hempstone, had said recently about America's planned intervention in Somalia.
Hempstone was not a career diplomat. This fact and his previous experience as a journalist made it easy for him to express his opinions. His frank words often got him into hot water with host country officials and his superiors at State. On one occasion, he said loudly and publicly: "if you loved what had happened in Beruit (referring to the 241 marines who were killed there in 1983), you would love Somalia…our involvement there would be like a tar baby we could never release." He also said that Somalia would be a "quagmire for the U.S., as the Somalis are natural born guerrillas. They will mine the roads. They will launch hit-and-run attacks. They will inflict and take casualties. Leave the Somalis alone to work out their own destiny, as brutal as it may be " Much later, in hindsight, Ray would conclude that Burton and Ambassador Hempstone were mostly correct about the innate fighting nature of the Somalis and their conflictual culture. In this regard, deep down, little had changed for many Somalis since Burton's memorable incursion over a century and a half ago.
Ray continued his "Somalia studies' and daily rounds of work on the Somalia Task Force. He attended an increasing number of multi-agency meetings on the fast escalation of U.S. involvement in Somalia. He tried to learn all he could about Somalia so he could make contributions to his country's efforts to tame Somalia and feed the hungry. In spite of the build-up of foreign military forces, he believed the U.S. was truly on a humanitarian mission. After all, Somalia did not have any attractive natural resources and it was low on the global scale in terms of U.S. strategic interests.
Among Ray's favorite meetings were those with representatives of Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) which already had humanitarian assistance activities ongoing in Somalia. He learned much about the realities of living and working in Somalia. He was delighted to meet people who had actually set foot in Somalia. He was impressed by how they persisted in their work despite all the dangers they faced daily. He was fascinated by the deals they cut with warlords so they could reach the people in need. He became confused when a few NGO reps informed him that the last harvest had been a good one, effectively bringing a halt to widespread famine. This made him wonder why the U.S. government continued to ship tens of thousands of tons of food grains to Somalia and assign thousands of troops to ensure that this grain reached those who they believed needed it.
The NGOs said the good rains in 1991 and 1992 had helped produce good harvests. These rains, and the fact that the Red Cross had already delivered substantial food to Somalia and the U.S. had airdropped 48,000 tons of food in the six months prior to the arrival of the U.S. Marines on Mogadishu's shores on December 9, 1992, meant that the back of the famine had already been broken. Consequently, there appeared to be no need for massive amounts of additional food aid. Ray was happy to hear this news and was thinking that the U.S. should declare victory and send its troops home. On the other hand, Ray was worried that not even this positive news could slow down growing U.S. mission creep.
Ray continued dutifully his work on the Somalia task force. He learned that it was frowned upon to report anything that ran counter to the wishes of the White House to show a large U.S. presence in Somalia and how much the U.S. cared for the Somali people. It was clear to him that the U.S. was bullying the United Nations (UN) to get its way. Much of this puzzled him, so he asked during a lull in work an older and more experienced colleague sitting next to him at the task force work table a simple question. "Ralph. Tell me. Why are we in Somalia?"
Ralph laughed in a wry manner before curtly saying, "We are doing all this because President Bush wants it done. He was getting too much flack because the U.S. was doing so much in the former Yugoslavia and nothing about those dying from starvation in Somalia. The Congressional Black Caucus was on his case about this and the pitiful images shown daily on TV by CNN had the American people concerned about Somalia. Furthermore, he had already lost the November election to Clinton and sought to leave office on a high moral ground."
Ralph's remarks were almost more than Ray could handle. He struggled to compute all the information Ralph had conveyed. Ralph's comments cast the U.S.' involvement in Somalia in a totally different light for him. He could see now that his country's involvement in Somalia was as much about U.S. politics and unprecedented TV images as feeding the hungry in Somalia. He speculated that if it had not been for these factors, the hard working and very able UN negotiator for Somalia, the Egyptian Mohamad Shamoun, would have continued making good progress in concluding a peace accord with Somali warlords. Comparatively, this approach was low cost in terms of lives and money and perhaps just as effective.
Ray was now more confused than ever about the U.S.' role in Somalia. He felt like an unwilling participant in a huge charade void of any true humor in view of the high toll of human lives and large amounts of money expended. Yet, everyone was eager to jump on the bandwagon and save Somalia. No overall intervention strategy had been carefully elaborated and no endgame plan was in place. All eyes were focused on how to move ahead. Nothing else seemed to matter except using much fanfare to show the world and the Somalis America's bountiful goodwill.
The weeks rolled into a few months. Ray was thinking that he should not do anything to rock the U.S.-Somalia policy boat and do the best he could to perform as requested. This thinking was largely based on the assumption that he was overdue for a new assignment and soon he would be far from the troubling obligation of dealing with Somalia. One day, in a routine task force meeting, he learned his thinking was dead wrong.
The man who had been selected to lead the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) mission in Somalia had decided he did not want this assignment. He was the perfect candidate to go to Somalia. He was single and had previously worked in some danger zones, otherwise known as "hotspots." There was a rumor passing around that purported he had decided not to accept the assignment after a two-week visit to Mogadishu. It was said that the determinant factor for him was that he would have to share a room and bathroom with other colleagues. People believed his decision to refuse this assignment would ruin the career of this highly ranked senior U.S. Foreign Service Officer. Yet, that rational belief did not prove to be the case.
The task force meeting of that day focused first on the Africa Bureau's contention that it had too much on its plate and the Somalia program would be better served if this country were placed in the Northern Africa and Near East Bureau. The Africa Bureau thought that religion, culture, history and geography made Somalia more connected to the Near East than the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa. In reality, the Africa Bureau was trying to be relieved from the heavy and controversial burden the growing Somalia program represented. Not surprisingly, its request to move Somalia to another bureau fell on deaf ears.
The second topic to be discussed was the selection of a new USAID Director. It was a short discussion. They looked around the table and all eyes targeted Ray. Finally, the task force head said, "Ray, you did not get to go to Angola as planned, so your reward is to go to Somalia." These words generated a good laugh from all those sitting around the table.
Ray was quite surprised and at a loss for words. He had mixed feelings about going to Somalia and deep down he really did not want to go to such a messed-up country. He thought he was the wrong fit for the job. He was married, had three children and he knew almost nothing about Somalia. But, duty called and he had been conditioned by years of service to always say "yes." On the other hand, his marriage was on the rocks and being away in Somalia might just give him and his wife the breathing room they needed to salvage their failing marriage. Ray meekly responded, "I am ready to do my duty." This is what those seated around the table wanted to hear. They needed an enthusiastic team player who followed instructions well.
"Good, that's the spirit!" said the task force head. "You should prepare to leave within the week so you can participate in an important meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia that begins on March 13. The UN, U.S. and Ethiopian governments are organizing a reconciliation conference with key Somali warlords to hammer out a peace agreement. This meeting will allow you to meet and engage with some of the principal actors and contribute to this uncommon effort to achieve peace."
The next point on the agenda was about which kind of vehicle to provide for the new USAID Director. For sure, all agreed the vehicle must be four-wheel drive and fully bullet proofed. A long discussion ensued about the kind of metal plating the vehicle should be equipped with, how much it would cost and how long it would take to manufacture. Concerns were also expressed about how the heaviness of the vehicle would cause it to sink into the Somali sand.
At the end of a lengthy discussion of this thorny vehicle issue, Ray was asked, "Since you are the one who will be using this $100,000 vehicle, what do you think?"
Ray, with a wry smile on his wrinkle-free face said, "If such a highly armored vehicle is needed to work in Somalia, should anyone really be working there?" Ray expected that his comment would entice a laugh from his colleagues but, instead, the room was engulfed in an afflictive silence.