Printer Friendly

Lawless land; Somalia is so broken-down that a regularly scheduled drug flight is the easiest way in. A reporter goes along and finds ruins, warlords, and a whole lot of guns. (International).

MOGADISHU, Somalia--One clear sign that a government has failed is that no one asks for your passport when you fly into the country. There will, however, be someone--the representative of whatever warlord controls the dirt landing strip--demanding a $25 or $50 "customs fee," also known as a bribe.

There are five such "airports" serving Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, not counting the real one, which has been closed for years. The easiest way into the country is on a drug flight. There are expensive flights in from Nairobi, Kenya, for United Nations aid workers. Then there are khat flights. On a Saturday afternoon, I called Bluebird Aviation, a charter agency that gave me the cellphone number of Abdulkadir Sofie, a khat exporter--in the United States, one might say smuggler or drug lord, but khat is legal in both Kenya and Somalia.

Khat (pronounced somewhere between "cat" and "chat") is chewed while green for a coca-leaf sort of high that speeds up your heart, clears your sinuses, and makes you jumpy and a little euphoric--but still able to drive or shoot as straight as is normally required in Somalia. Khat grows in the mountains of Kenya, and is picked at night and rushed to Nairobi to fly at dawn, before the leaves dry out.

For $600, Sofie agreed to forgo six bales of khat to make room for me and a photographer on his morning flight into Mogadishu. We got the only row of seats on the plane, braced by 70 grassy-smelling bales of khat.


We landed three hours later in a country so fractured that the so-called government controls less than half its capital city and some coastal strips. Two northern states have broken off into virtually independent nations. In the rest of the country, 30 clans with overlapping borders frequently war over land, cattle, and active family feuds.

The economy is in shambles. With no central bank to object, businessmen have privately printed billions in the national currency, the shilling, rendering it almost worthless. Meanwhile, Somalia's biggest exports, beef and camel meat, were banned 15 months ago for fear they might be contaminated with deadly Rift Valley fever. And in 12 years of civil war, warlords have shelled or looted everything.

Since Sept. 11, the United States has taken a new interest in Somalia, believing that it may become a hiding place for experienced terrorists--including Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden--and a breeding ground for new ones. U.S. warships patrol the coastline in an effort to prevent Al Qaeda refugees from sneaking in.


Somalia has been torn by civil war since 1991, when rebels overthrew the military government that had ruled since 1969. But the rebels soon began to fight among themselves, and the combination of civil war and a prolonged drought caused a widespread famine in which about 270,000 Somalis starved to death. The UN sent tons of food, but warlords stole it at the docks.

In late 1992, American troops landed in Mogadishu to protect UN food shipments. But the mission fell apart months later in a street battle in which 18 American soldiers and 1,000 Somalis died. That fight, in which the Somalis shot down two Amefican Blackhawk helicopters, inspired the Hollywood movie Black Hawk Down (See "Black Hawk Down Comes to Somalia," below).

The current government was formed in August 2000 after five months of negotiations in neighboring Djibouti. The regime has the backing of many Somalis living in America, many Mogadishu businesses, some Persian Gulf states, and the UN, which sees it as Somalia's last hope.

At the dirt landing strip where we arrived in Somalia, we were met by Faisal Ahmed Abdulle, a 32-year-old translator from the Shamo Hotel. He was, like many Somalis we saw, missing hall an arm. He lost it, he said, to an American bomb on Oct. 3, 1993, in the Black Hawk Down battle.

Behind us, a pickup truck with 12 young men toting AK-47 rifles followed us to the hotel. This is normal in Mogadishu; hotel taxis are routinely trailed by trucks of gunmen hired to protect guests from other gunmen seeking people to kidnap.

"They are good boys, all good boys," Abdulle reassured us, of our armed escort. One, named Galil, later told me he was a freelance journalist, but being a gunman paid better, at $4 a day. Far from being a conventional thug, he had a sweet smile, sometimes helped translate, and on a hot day offered to treat me to a watermelon slice from a street vendor.


Mogadishu looks like war-torn cities in Afghanistan, Angola, or Chechnya--nearly every big building has been shot to pieces or stripped of everything, sometimes even its roof. This used to be an Italian colony full of languid boulevards of palm trees. Now, those avenues are awash with garbage and sand. The cathedral in Mogadishu was shelled until only one part of one tower stands. Copper statues that once graced the streets have been sold for scrap. The American Embassy was demolished so its reinforcing steel bars could be sold. Blocks of houses stand stripped not just of furniture, but of tiles and toilets for resale.

With many stores gone, Somalis sell everything from plastic bags of detergent to unrefrigerated goat meat by the side of the road. Some sell khat, the drug we had flown in with. Mohammed Abdi Nouh, who sat guarding his basket of about $200 worth of khat, explained that, to get high, one would have to chew up at least two fistfuls, about $4 worth--which gives some idea of what an economic drain it is in a country where most people live on less than $1 a day. His clients, Nouh said, are doctors and teachers. He was a goldsmith and ashamed of selling khat to live, but Somalia is now too dangerous for women to wear gold jewelry in public.

Outside of Mogadishu, there are other signs of the country's paralysis. Take, for example, Jameao, a small town of grass huts, halfway between Mogadishu and Baidoa, on a road that is a major artery to the coast. Six days a week, the road is closed, because warlords who support the government control one end, while rival warlords control the other. But on Mondays, both sides dig up their land mines to let a food convoy pass--and charge it steep tolls.

Everywhere one goes in Somalia, there are armed posses. To keep from being kidnapped or robbed, journalists and aid workers have to hire their own crews of gunmen. "If you're staying at the Shamo, your gunmen are from Mr. Shamo's clan, or allies," explained Matt Bryden, Somalia coordinator for the War-Torn Societies Project research institute in Nairobi. "The other militias in Mogadishu know that if Mr. Shamo loses a guest, his hotel suffers, so his gunmen will come after them."

That almost happened three days later, when we were nearly cut off by a pickup equipped with an antiaircraft gun and carrying a gang rumored to have recently killed a money changer with $30,000 in his safe. Presumably, the gang was trying to kidnap us for ransom. Abdulle swung out car into a camp of the provisional government's fledgling army, talked 10 overexcited soldiers out of shooting us for racing past their checkpoint, and slipped us out a rear entrance near our hotel. No soldier or policeman would chase the gang, another translator told me, but the money changer's relatives might seek revenge.

We left soon after, on another khat flight.

RELATED ARTICLE: Black Hawk Down coes to Somalia.

BEFORE A SELLOUT CROWD OF 200 Somalis paying 10 cents each, the Hollywood movie Black Hawk Down made its Mogadishu premiere in the very neighborhood where the 1993 battle was fought.

"All the cinemas in town were in competition to get this film," said Khalif Ali Muhammad, the makeshift theater's deputy manager. As in many poor countries, the movie played on a disc pirated from recordings made illegally at American theater showings.

The film has been keenly awaited by average Somalis, who remember with horror how American soldiers, trying to protect United Nations aid shipments, scoured their neighborhoods for the warlord Muhammad Farah Aidid--and by Somali warlords, whose troops shot down the two Blackhawk helicopters on Oct. 3, 1993, and battled the Americans afterward.

Osman Ali Otto is a well-known warlord who had men in those battles. He had not seen the film himself, but said he had heard from a friend in London that he was portrayed unflatteringly.

"When I have seen it, my colleagues and I may sue the producers," he said. He was never interviewed for the film, he said, and never gave permission for it to portray him.

Eighteen U.S. Army Rangers were killed in the street battle, but 1,000 Somalis died, many of them civilians, as the Americans fought their way in to rescue Rangers trapped by the battle.

Some Somalis said they had heard in advance from relatives in America that the film makes Somalis seem brutish. The Somali Advocacy Center in St. Paul, Minn., has called for a boycott, contending the film makes Somalis look like "savage beasts shooting each other."

The closest thing Mogadishu has to a monument to the battle and subsequent manhunt for Aidid is a broken piece of the downed helicopter that lies at the heart of the movie. The helicopter part now rests against the south wall of the house of Achmed Weheliya. To keep anyone from stealing it, the family has wrapped it with razor wire and planted cactuses, which now virtually cover it.

The Weheliyas are upset that any film was made. "Seven people in our family died," said Sahara Abdi Karim Weheliya, 35. "Four grown ones and three children. Since then, no one has come and asked what happened to us."

Weheliya showed where she said the spinning Blackhawk sheared off a piece of their roof before smashing the outhouse of their dusty compound and breaking up in the sand-blown alley out side their wall.

"We are the place where this happened," said an elder relative, Marian Shire Kediye, 60. "But different people, who were not here, take the profit of this event."

--Donald G. McNeil Jr.

FOCUS: A Nation Where the Rule of Law Is Now the Whim of Warlords


To help students understand what life is like in Somalia--a nation the U.S. once tried to save with food aid that has now spun into a sea of violence, where the only law is that of warlords and their armed gangs.

Discussion Questions:

* In February, the shaky government of Somalia appealed to the UN for "urgent and adequate assistance from the international community" to promote peace, rebuild the government, and break up the militias. Should the U.S. help in this effort?

* If you answered yes, what, exactly, should the U.S. do?

* If you answered no, why do you believe the U.S. should stay away?


Critical Thinking: You might engage students in a discussion of why a country could spiral downward from a society of laws to a society of lawlessness. (A key factor is probably an erosion in people's respect for government and its institutions.)

Note that a dose of khat costs about $4, more than four times the daily income of most Somalis. What does this imply about the drain on people's income? What does the economics of khat imply about the local culture and laws? Is it reasonable to assume that khat has long been a staple of the culture? What would be the likely outcome if someone in authority decided to make the drug illegal? Is it likely that that could happen in today's Somalia?

Discussion: Remind students that the U.S. has identified Somalia as one of the countries where international terrorists may be hiding. Suppose the U.S. collects evidence that members of Al Qaeda or other terrorists are in Somalia. How could another mission to Somalia avoid the Black Hawk Down scenario?

Assessing Somalia/Writing: Ask students to assess life in Somalia today. Have them suggest terms that describe the country and its people. Then assign a homework or in-class task. Have students write brief reviews of "Lawless Land." What key points about Somalia would they address in a 50-word review?

Remind students that they are not to denigrate people's religion or ethnicity. Rather, they must address the calamity that bas befallen this country on the Horn of Africa.

DONALD G. MCNEIL JR. is a foreign correspondent, based in Paris, for The New York Times.
COPYRIGHT 2002 Scholastic, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2002, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:McNeil, Donald G., Jr.
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:6SOMA
Date:Mar 25, 2002
Previous Article:Charge it! Hoping to coax more teens into buying online, marketers offer teens their own brand of plastic. (National).
Next Article:Girls, villains, and x-ray vision; in the hit show Smallville, the teenage Clark Kent experiences a sort of superpuberty in his journey to not only...

Related Articles
ME AGAINST MY BROTHER: At War in Somalia, Sudan and Rwanda.
SOMALIA - March 10 - Warlords Block Policing.
Somalia. (Areas of Conflict).
SOMALIA - Jan. 5 - US Steps Up Military Activities.
Quiz 3.
Somali success story: does anarchy mean chaos?
War threatens Horn.
Forging order from chaos.
Somalia Closer To Collapse.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters