8 October 2013

Kenya: Black Hawk Down 20 Years Later

Somalis last week remembered their loved ones who died during the Battle of Mogadishu, commonly referred to as Black Hawk Down, on October 3, 1993

Two decades ago, the United Nations authorised a mission to help Somalia get back on its feet in the midst of a civil war that caused devastating famine, a mission which for years became synonymous with war in Somalia - the Black Hawk Down.

Last week marked the 20th anniversary of the UN mission documented in Mark Bowden's popular book "Black Hawk Down," and later adapted into a film of the same name directed by Ridley Scott.

After the famine that saw more than half a million of Somalis die due to starvation, the United States deployed thousands of its troops to help bolster security for aid organisations distributing food to the needy population.

Operation Provide Relief, endorsed by United Nations through an initiative called Unified Task Force, secured and facilitated the delivery of humanitarian relief during the civil war in light of a severe food crisis initiated by factional fighting.

The original deployment of the US troops was to create a safe environment for the humanitarian organisations to do their work but the 1991 resurgence of clan violence led to the virtual destruction of Somali central government.

The peacekeeping mission soon resorted to bringing to justice the former President Farah Aidid and his militia. In June 1993, Farah Aidid ordered his militia to ambush UN peace keepers.

Troops were killed and others injured. After the attack on the peacekeepers, the US government embarked on a mission to bring him and his top command to justice.

In October 3, 1993, elite US military earlier earmarked to provide security for humanitarian organisations distributing food launched an assault against Aidid and his militia after getting intelligence through their Somali contacts that he was meeting his senior commanders at Olympia Hotel which still exists today under the same name.

The troops left their camp, which is now the bustling Mogadishu International Airport, for the operation meant to last 90 minutes but 17 hours later, the troops arrived back with many injuries and deaths and one of their helicopters, Black Hawk, being downed with the bodies of the soldiers inside drugged on the streets of Mogadishu.

The American rangers came back, re-organised themselves to head back to rescue some of its survivors in the field. This battle continued through the night, with more US rangers, militia and hundreds of innocent civilians killed.

After this battle, the US and the UN withdrew from Somalia completely and the country degenerated into total anarchy. The battle in Mogadishu turned out to be the lengthiest firefight for American troops since the Vietnam War and one of the darkest in the US history of military interventions. That battle ended the American engagement in Somalia since then.

With the country ungovernable, various warlords controlled different parts of the country. By 2006, the Union of Islamic Courts emerged into Somalia's strongest fighting force - forcing the warlords who had controlled Mogadishu for 15 years into retreat.

The US then backed Ethiopia to topple the Islamic Courts Union, an Islamist movement that had taken control of much of south and central Somalia after years of disastrous feuding between warlords.

The Ethiopian invasion of Somalia led to the birth of ICU's offshoot - al Shabaab. The group took the war to the Ethiopians, who wearied of the guerrilla conflict withdrew their troops.

As the Americans commemorate this dark past, Somalis in Mogadishu remember those days as the worst time for their country despite the two decades of civil war that the country has undergone.

"I was here during the Black Hawk Dawn incident and I have been through the 20 years of war that we have faced, there is no time that we have lost so many innocent people in one day as when the Americans were here," says Salah Abdi, a 45-year-old Somali elder who still lives in Bakara market, the same place as when the war broke out.

Salah Abdi lost his pregnant wife after General Aideed militia came looking for American troops who were hiding in the bullet-riddled building. "She just had one more month to go before we welcomed our baby and then the war started, I did everything to protect her but she was shot and she bled to death," Salah explains while showing his wounds from the war.

"We were hungry, I did not have enough to feed her because all the time we went for food distribution there were gunshots all over and those people who did not have guns to protect themselves did not get the rations," adds Salah.

The Black Hawk Down shootings started when he got home empty-handed after being in the queue for food from the Red Cross. "We locked ourselves in the house. We were hearing so many gunshots outside, the militia were going house to house killing people," he says, adding that he remembers the incident like it was yesterday. "Out of nowhere they shot my wife and myself and she bled to death."

Salah is now married to two wives and has seven children. He says despite surviving throughout the war, the 1993 incident was the worst he has seen and one that would be very hard to forget.

Two decades after the infamous Battle of Mogadishu, during the failed mission into Bakara Market by the US rangers, the wreckage of the Black Hawk Dawn is nowhere to be seen and the area is now showing signs of recovery with business thriving and new shops continue to be opened every day. The wreckage of the Black Hawk Dawn was recently taken back to the United States and is expected to be showcased in a museum soon.

Much has been achieved since the dark days of 'Black Hawk Down' and Mogadishu is a very different place from what it was then. The work started by that mission continues today, in collaboration with the African Union.

Though seriously weakened and pushed out of the major population centres, the al Qaida-affiliated terror group, al Shabaab, remains a dangerous force.

Its fighters continue to plan attacks with devastating consequences not only in Somalia but also regional countries as witnessed recently in the horrific attack on Nairobi's Westgate Mall. They have also promised to launch attacks in other countries including the US and other Western countries.

There are ongoing efforts to craft a viable political future for Somalia but the bottomline is that Somalis have to decide their own destiny. The new government led by Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has been actively involved in peace building across the country.

The 17,000-strong African Union Force remains essential to strengthen security against the continued predations of al-Shabaab. While paying his respects in Villa Somalia, President Hassan Sheikh said it is important to honour the victims of the fight on both sides.

Salah who is this week also honouring his wife and unborn child is among the many hundreds of Somalis who took a minute in Mogadishu stadium to remember their loved ones who died in the war.

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