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from issue no. 04 - 2008

Somalia, a country in chaos

Somalia: a State which does not exist, a war without end, a nation that lives in the abyss of humanitarian catastrophe. The long search for peace

by Davide Malacaria



Humanitarian disaster. It is the most recurrent phrase in official documents, reports, statements on Somalia. But it only serves to give an idea of what is happening in this remote corner of the world. After the collapse of the Siad Barre regime (1991), the country plummeted into chaos. A fate that has been partly spared Somaliland, in the north-west (which declared its independence in 1992), and Puntland, to the north-east (which proclaimed its independence in 1998). In the rest of the country, the tragedy of gang warfare has been going on for thirteen years. During that period, the international community has made efforts to remedy the situation: thirteen attempts to create a peace process have failed. Then, at the end of 2004, came a turning point: international pressure managed to bring together the various warlords and establish a parliament, elect a president and set up a transitional government that pending the move to Mogadishu, was installed in the Somali town of Baidoa. Peace seemed within reach. But, as often happens in things African, everything has ground to a halt.

The chaos
In the early months of 2006 Mogadishu burst into flames again. Various warlords, supported by the United States which has long feared the danger of al Qaeda infiltration into the country, united in an unlikely cabal to combat terrorism and put down the Islamic Courts, institutions rooted in the culture and based on the Islamic religion. But, surprisingly, the Courts soon got the upper hand and took control of the city. So began a clash between the Courts and the transitional government. At Christmas in 2006, an unhappy overlapping of dates, Ethiopian troops crossed the border in support of the Baidoa leadership. The United States approved. Indeed, bombed in support. The Courts were put to rout. Or so it looked: the following two years featured bitter fighting between the Ethiopian army, supported by small forces of the transitional government and the guerrillas, an endless series of attacks, bombings, targeted killings and various other horrors.
“In reality,” says Nino Sergi, secretary general of Intersos, an Italian NGO that operates in conflict situations, that came to Somalia in 1992, “the United States has made very serious mistakes here. The attack took place when the Islamic Courts had begun to lose the popular support that had marked their rise. Furthermore, the fact that the transitional government is supported by Ethiopia discredits it (as it discredits the United States that joined the act), because that country is considered a historic enemy by the Somalis. But what is even more serious, the incursion of the Ethiopian troops took place shortly after a United Nations Security Council resolution to send in a multilateral African peacekeeping force. The unilateral intervention by the U.S. and Ethiopia is in flagrant contradiction with the UN decision.
But things have not gone as the American strategists imagined. The occupying troops found themselves in a guerrilla war with no visible way out. “After the victory of the Islamic Courts a Contact Group was created, which includes the United States, Norway, the European Union, Italy, England, Sweden, IGAD [a body grouping the countries of East Africa, ed.], the UN, that have been gradually joined by other countries. The aim was to monitor the situation and encourage the peace process”, recalls Mario Raffaelli, special envoy of the Italian government for Somalia. “But immediately afterwards two different views emerged: there were those who thought that armed intervention would solve everything and who, like us, thought a political compromise had to be found. Now, however, even the proponents of the first option have come closer to our position”. A change, continues Raffaelli, which coincided with the election of a new prime minister of Somalia: Nur Hassan Hussein, who for years was head of the Red Crescent, the Islamic Red Cross. “The new head of government, in his first speeches, said that the priorities for Somalia are not just about fighting terrorism but also about respect for human rights and the civil population and development in the sphere of employment. Not only that: he declared he wanted reconciliation with the opposition, not just that at home but that presently abroad, in Asmara.
The opposition in Asmara, the so-called Alliance for the “re-liberation” of Somalia, groups the Islamic Courts and some politician refugees from the Somali Parliament. The choice of location did not fall by chance on the capital of Eritrea, since the war being fought in Somalia is also a war for hegemony in the Horn of Africa between Ethiopia and Eritrea. “The real problem is that Courts do not control all the militias operating in Somalia,” says Monsignor Giorgio Bertin, Bishop of Djibouti and apostolic administrator ad nutum Sanctae Sedis of Mogadishu. “There are other groups on the ground, the so-called Shebab, a term meaning “young men”, which is an expression of Islamic fundamentalism. And to say that there has never been religious fundamentalism in Somalia... it’s rooted itself in recent years. The situation was desperate, and when the situation is desperate people cling to anything...”.
The infiltration of Islamic fundamentalism has complicated the picture. Raffaelli recalls that it was precisely these groups that caused upheaval, with bombs and murders, when the attempt was being made, unsuccessfully, to find a compromise between Courts and the transitional government. And, now as then, they are making it difficult to find the way to a new possible dialogue. “The messages of opening launched by the Prime Minister were to the opposition in Asmara, which accounts for 70-80% of his opponents,” says Raffaelli. “If a political compromise between the two parties were reached, the military confrontation would decrease drastically ...”.

The humanitarian catastrophe
The humanitarian situation is terrifying. “There are approximately two million Somalis who fled abroad after the fall of Siad Barre and the beginning of war,” says Sergi. “This figure is huge, if we consider that at the beginning of the nineties the country had seven-eight million inhabitants. InterSOS workers carry out various welfare activities in Somalia, but the most important is certainly the Jowhar hospital. Recently, in collaboration with the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), they have also begun to help displaced people around Afgoy, where, as you can read in a dramatic appeal launched by forty international NGOs at the end of March, there is “the highest concentration of displaced people in the world”. This is the final stretch of road linking Mogadishu to the village of Afgoy, where for about a year people fleeing the capital have been arriving daily. One of the indicators for assessing the vulnerability of those abandoning the epicentre of a conflict, says an InterSOS document, is the distance covered by those fleeing. In this case, the people have neither means nor money. The document concludes: “The displaced people of Afgoy have come only 20-40 kilometers to save their lives, they are the most vulnerable people on the face of the earth at this moment. They number 400,000, perhaps more, out of a total of about a million displaced people scattered throughout Somalia. But to the number of homeless Somalis must be added the hundreds of thousands of refugees in asylum in refugee camps abroad ...
According to UNICEF two million Somalis are “without drinking water, basic sanitation, medical care and protection”. And the infant mortality rate is one of the highest in the world.
Although lacking an ecclesiastical hierarchy and priests, the small flock in Somalia, truly very small, has striven to alleviate the sufferings of local people, paying a high price in blood. After the murder of Sister Leonella Sgorbati, even the nuns who worked in the Mogadishu hospital, the last public presence of the Church, have left the country. But the Church, says Davide Bernocchi, director of Caritas Somalia, continues to operate through the most disparate channels. Caritas Somalia’s most important operation is the dispensary in Baidoa, which every day treats a small crowd of sufferers. Over time close cooperation between Caritas and Islamic charities has been established, Bernocchi says, and adds: “The homeless emergency gave us a way of setting up cooperation with Islamic relief, which is a UK-based organization known for reliability. The organization collaborates, among other things, with CAFOD – the Caritas of England and Wales – and they have a reciprocity clause, as a guarantee of the good faith of both partners. Building this understanding constituted of acts that promote human dignity is, for me, very important, because it is a message in itself, both for an environment scarred by religious intolerance, and also for much of Western society, which so easily accuses religion of generating only divisions. All my Somali colleagues are Muslims and, like us in ours, find in their faith positive energy to help those in need”.

Life under the bombs
Last March-April Mogadishu was enflamed by new and crueller battles. A bloody conflict, house to house, which left thousands of dead on the ground. After the clashes there has been a reduced but relentless continuation of bomb attacks, assassinations, violence in Mogadishu.
Yet in this desolate city there is something that does match the desolation. Sergi tells us of it: “It can happen that going round the capital and looking beyond the wrecked buildings, you come across functioning hospitals, schools, local NGOs operating in the social sphere. A living reality that, despite everything, has created caring organizations or businesses that work even without the aid of international organizations. For example, I have come across an institute of higher education in which courses are given in management and business organization... a stunning enterprise. And then the associations of teachers, doctors... Entities we thought should be involved in the process of rebuilding the country”. Thus was born the Rome Conference, held in November, aimed at creating a forum for civilian society in Somalia. “The idea is to create a stable body that can back weak Somali institutions... In a country where everything lacks, it could provide the backing of intelligence, expertise, professionalism that Somali members of parliament don’t have.”
Somalia, continues Sergi, was a kind of laboratory. Here, in the nineties, UNOSOM, the UN mission that, under pressure from the US, was to highlight the new world order, went to work. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the United States presented themselves as the hegemonic power capable of managing things in the world thanks to their military power, in this case under the aegis of the United Nations. By a tragic irony, where the new world order was supposed to appear, unprecedented chaos occurred instead... “But we must get out of it,” continues Sergi, “the instability that Somalia has fallen into threatens to expand and involve a wider area, with incalculable consequences. We must restore peace. And that can’t be done unless the Ethiopian troops leave. It’s a necessary condition.

The fragile hope
The Ethiopian troops should have been replaced, following a UN resolution, by forces of the African Union. Unfortunately, of the eight thousand men who were to be stationed, only two thousand have arrived. But the political solution is necessary, says Monsignor Bertin, because without rebuilding the State there will be no peace.
There are three stumbling-blocks, according to Raffaelli, that must be got beyond. The first concerns security: the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops and the arrival of other forces is necessary; the idea of using African military having been dropped, more efficient forces, always under the aegis of the UN, must be dispatched. Alongside this an attempt is being made to reach an agreement for a ceasefire to allow the deployment of those forces without further hitches. The second problem concerns the institutional compromise. Here there are several options: the formation of a coalition government between the transitional government and the opposition or, more simply, getting the interested parties to recognize a political, and legitimate, role to the opposition. The third issue concerns the assurances necessary for the United Nations and the international community in general, to ensure that the compromise is credible and effective.
“Something is moving”, Raffaelli concludes, “The transitional government has not only sent conciliatory messages to the opposition, but has formalized the proposal for dialogue in a road map. Then in early April a delegation of the Alliance for the “re-liberation” of Somalia met in Nairobi with UN and European Union representatives. A meeting that has begun to bring the opposition into accepting the talks option. The next step will be the appointment of delegations, by the government and the opposition, to begin direct contact. It could be a turning-point...”.
A fragile hope that must survive the bombs, ambushes and the killers. “Hope can prevail over pessimism and resignation if it is accompanied by faith and nourished by prayer: this is the best contribution that the Church can continue to make together with other people and institutions of goodwill,” said Bishop Bertin in a recent interview. Sunny words.

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