The Struggle for Somali: Warlords, Islamists, US Global Militarism and Women
I will try to spare the readers from ‘famine stories,’ or the downing of American Blackhawk war planes or the killing and dismemberment of 18 American soldiers in that 1993 mission, or the American military killing of a thousand or so Somalis in retaliation of the killing of 18 American Marines.
I am saying this partly because the American people are being fed by one sided tragic saga about US involvement in Somalia. Hence, the 2001 Ridley Scott’s Hollywood’s film ‘Blackhawk Down’ based on Mark Bodwen’s Memoir of the same name had played up the Hollywood formula: ‘good guys’ — usually, white, heterosexual, viral and militaristic- fighting the ‘bad guys’ — weak, black, feminized, liars and cowards.
In the case of Canada, the shameful episode of the torture of Shidane Arone was quickly resolved by disbanding the airborne regiment whose members were found to be responsible the torture and killing of the Somali teenage boy in the city of Beletwn (Beletuen) . After a quick Royal Commission national prestige was affirmed and this sad episode quickly forgotten.
Three simple points: First, that Somalia, similar to Lebanon has been, and still is, a victim of its highly strategic geograp wrapped around the Horn of Africa, jutting out into the Indian ocean.
The French, The British and the Italians all received their slice of Somalia in order to use it to suite their global strategic needs. The history of Somalia’s struggle against colonial imposition is long and rich. It is worth mentioning that before the aerial bombing of cities, civilians and military installations in Iraq, Afghanistan and now in Lebanon, as part of new total war regime, at the turn of the last century, it was the British who used aerial bombing of northern Somalia, after suffering a humiliating defeat in the hands of poorly armed Somali guerrilla resistance against British occupation of Somalia, a central component to British colonial rule of Somalia.
The British, making of ample use of recent technological advices in modern warfare, mounted a swift and well-coordinated aerial, ground and naval assault on Dervish positions in the early morning of January 21, 1920, with 12 warplanes taking part in the attack, perhaps the first such weapons ever used against Africans.
The British also had their own ‘Islamist bad guys.’ In the case of Somalia, it was Sayyid Muhammed Abdulla Hassan –a master military strategist and the greatest poet Somalia had every produced. He was also enemy number one for the British who called him the ‘Mad Mullah. The British had no compunction in unleashing brute force against civilians who were suspected of supporting or sympathizing with anti-colonial guerilla fighters.
We can also speak about the use of ‘famine’ as a powerful instrument of humiliation. This was particularly evident in United State’s slow response to the 1991 collapse of central authority in Somalia and the ensuing civil war and mass starvation. When the US finally decided to get involved, rather than engaging in the difficult task of disarming the warlords and their armed gangs who were terrorizing the civilian population, Bush Sr ‘sadministration had chosen to sent the US Marines in ‘Operation Restore Hope’ to deliver food to the starving population of Somalia without offering them hope of long term peace or security. In this way, Operation Restore Hope was a cynical PR mission designed to promote US hyper-militarism as a new means to deliver humanitarian aid.
The PR nature of this mission was clear from the fact the US had refused to work under the United Nations peacekeeping forces who where already operating in Somalia. More importantly, Operation Restore Hope and its subsequent utter failure, also registers the history of US complicity in the ultimate destruction of Somalia by propping up, militarily and economically, the ruthless regime of Siyad Barre. This connection is important because Barre’s regime was responsible for much of the violence which led to the 1991 collapse of centralized authority in Somalia, the subsequent mass starvation and the deaths of more than a million Somalis and the mass displacement of millions more Somalis.
The second point I want to briefly touch on is the Cold War Connection to the current crisis in Somalia. From 1969 to 1977 Somalia was a part of the USSR bloc. This historic partnership had ended in 1977 after Somalia suddenly invaded Ethiopia and took over Ogaden- a disputed region occupied for centuries by Somali nomads. A year later, with a tacit support of Jimmy Carter administration, the Ethiopian army, backed by the forces of the USSR’s proxy states of northern Yemen, Libya, and Cuban forces- attacked the occupying Somali forces. The occupying Somali army was pushed back across the 1960 border between Somalia and Ethiopia, which had been drawn by European colonial powers.
This was a humiliating defeat for Somalia, chased out by armies with superior weapons with the loss of our best trained soldiers in that misguided war. This was really the beginning of the end for Somalia as a modern state. The years 1977-1980 saw a succession of middle and junior ranking officers trying and failing to overthrow Barre’s dictatorial regime; they were all betrayed by their colleagues and friends. Many of them were tried in sham courts and shot by firing squad in public displays of terror. Despite Barre’s reign of terror, successive United States administrations, starting with Jimmy Carter and then Ronald Reagan, supported Barre’s regime by supplying him with weapons, military training and with economic aid in exchange for giving the US an unrestricted access to Somalia’s strategic Indian Ocean and the Red Sea ports and military installations vacated by the USSR after the 1977 fall-out between Barre’s regime and the Soveit regime.
While it was believed at the time that, at first, the USSR must have given Barre’s regime the green light to invade Ethiopia, the USSR changed its mind after Ethiopia’s own military dictator declared Ethiopia a socialist state.
This change of ideological alignment had created a new political situation for the USSR. Fidel Castro was sent by the Soviets to sort out this ‘family feud.’ I do remember this very vividly. We wore our school and work uniforms and had been summoned to gather in a huge soccer Stadium in Mogadishu to welcome Fidel Castro –and perhaps to persuade him to convince the Soviet regime that we were their ‘client state’ first and that, as a result, we should not be ‘dissed ‘ in favor of the newcomer, Ethiopia. But after many years of trying to turn Somalia- a deeply religious Muslim society to a socialist society with very little success — the USSR was ready to try its luck with Ethiopia.
From 1978 to 1980, the period between when the Russians leaving and the Americans moving in to fill the former’s military installations and political spaces, we were subjected to daily aerial bombardments by Ethiopian war planes. It was a payback time. In 1980, after receiving a diploma as an assistant pharmacist, I was sent to work in a small village called Waajid in the province of Bakool. Waajid is roughly 400 km north of Baydhabo (Baidoba) and only less than 50 km away from the border between Somalia and Ethiopia. To make matters worse I was working in a hospital built by the USSR to treat victims of communicable disease such as tuberculosis but now converted to a trauma operation theatre to treat wounded soldiers coming from the frontline. . For the last 25 years I have been trying to forget what I saw with my own eyes during my one year’s work in that hospital
As the only assistant pharmacist in the hospital, I was responsible for the classification, proper storing and correct dispensing of medicine. I saw all sorts of wounds of war but h also unspeakable suffering of Somali nomads with curable diseases such tuberculosis crossing border from the Ethiopian side to Somalia for medical treatment. Somalis under Ethiopian rule were not often treated as citizens and there wee little infrastructure in the area of Ethiopia populated by Somali nomads. Since the hospital had been transformed to a war trauma centre, the regular patients were displaced to makeshift tents. After working in the hospital, in some cases, on 12 hour shifts, I used to work as a volunteer at a local government owned and operated pharmacy store to sell cheap drugs to the local population.
We waited for the Ethiopian aerial bombing and hoped we would survive somehow. Some of us did survive. Others were not so lucky. The western nations did not come to our aid. After many years of Barre’s famous propaganda rhetoric against the west we were being taught a lesson. But deep down, those of us who were born in the 1960s and grew up under Barre’s false revolutionary rhetoric looked to the west for inspiration. We listened to western music and most of all to the BBC radio in Short wave radio and read forbidden western books such as George Orwell’s 1984. We foolishly and naively thought that western powers did care about democracy, human rights and the freedom of thought and self-expression of all people. As Barre got increasingly weaker, isolated and vicious,; we thought that it was the right moment to get rid of Barre’ terror regime by supporting progressive Somali dissents living throughout Europe, America and elsewhere.
But the west did not care about us or human rights. They never did care about the human rights or any other rights of non-white peoples. As we evaluate the current US meddling in the internal affairs of Somalia, it is pertinent to remember the United States’s dubious support for the man who is responsible for the destruction of Somalia. It is equally important to bear in mind deeply held grievances and counter-grievances between Somalia and Ethiopia, as we also carefully evaluate the current Ethiopian meddling of the internal affairs of Somalia. Make no mistake. Ethiopia’s current involvement of the internal affairs of Somalia has both a territorial ambitions and desire to avenge the war of 1977-78 as its objectives. Bush junior and hisCIA operatives might have very little understanding of the history of US past involvement in the internal affairs of Somalia. But, before putting all their political and strategic cards into blood soaked baskets of basically drug-addicted- ‘Qad/chat’-chewing warlords, or playing on the rhetoric of Islamic fundamentalism against its political enemies, or using Ethiopia as a proxy to carry its dirty deeds for them — the Bush administration needs to engage broader spectrum of the Somali people. Of course this is not going to happen as a recent US sponsored conference on talks on peace amply demonstrated.
Instead, the administration quickly rehabilitated the term "warlord" by adding the term ‘secular’. Hence ‘secular warlords’ is used tagged to bunch of vicious thugs who were given cold hard cash to fight ‘Islamic terrorism.’ This is of course very stupid and will only dramatically increase support for the Sharia courts.
But the US playing of the terrorist card must be read in the context of its historic collusion with Barre’s regime of terror. In this way, the Bush administration’s support for the blood-thirsty warlords shows a clear continuation of the U.S.’s historic collusion with reactionary forces in Somalia.
Finally, I want speak briefly of the predicament of Somali women in the current struggle for control of Somalia between US -backed warlords and the Islamic courts. In short, neither group stands to protect the rights of women. In this Muslim society, Sharia is the moral foundation of Somali society, Sharia law cannot be imposed with the use of violence or the threat of violence on people if their conduct does not harm others. Hence, while stealing, raping and murder can be legitimately be punished under Sharia law, not wearing traditional Arab style veil cannot be cannot imposed on Somali women by using Sharia law. This moral belief cannot be imposed by violent means for its in the Holy Quran ‘there is compulsion in religion.’ We have our uniquely Somali way of dressing and imposition of currently prevalent black veil on the bodies of Somali women is disturbing, indeed.
Despite Siyad Barre’s reign of terror, at the cultural/societal level, the Somalia I grew up was progressive, modern and a tolerant Muslim society.
The tallest building in Mogadishu is a Catholic Church. The congregation is mainly Italian but other westerners have used it to worship. Contrary to the currently fashionable andvirulent Isamaphobic rhetoric, while Somalis have resisted Christian protelyzing schemes designed to convert Muslims to Christianity, Christians themselves were respected and their places of worship were protected by State and by Islamic laws before the 1991 collapse of central authority in Somalia. Similarly, the traditionally ‘Arab style’ dress code-which is currently very prevalent in Somalia, was imposed onto Somali women either by violent means or through threat of violence against women. Yes, the threat of violence has been used against women in order to force them to obey a dress code which is most clearly foreign to our culture.
However, it is pertinent to mention that ‘traditional Arab style Islamic dress code’ came to prominence after the 1991 collapse of central authority in Somalia.
In the ways, the new dress code attests to the symbolic deployment of Somali women’s bodies as a battlegrounds through which the war between the Islamists and morally corrupt, "chat" chewing warlords is conducted.
Since, at the moment, it does not look that there is a third, progressive viable option through which Somali women can demand political inclusion, pragmatically speaking, Somali women seem to be giving a qualified support to the Islamists. This does not mean that Somali women are not conscious of their rights nor does it mean that they are not conscious of their systemic oppression under patriarchal Islamic laws. I came to the clear understanding of the plight of women under the Sharia law when I was very small. My mother, who is a daughter of a deeply respected Sheikh in Somalia and a sister of eight, including Islamic scholars, had suffered most horrible injustice under Islamic Sharia law. After my mother gave birth to four children for my father, two boys and and two girls, and when she was still nursing the youngest, a boy, my father thought that it was a time to take his third wife.
My mother was devastated, not simply my father fancied a young woman but because the humiliating fashion in which she was cast aside. She knew if she asked for a divorce, my father would take away her children and leave with nothing. My mother had a total break-down. My father divorced her in front of her brothers and left her with nothing. Her brothers told her that he had the right to do this to her because ,according to the Islamic law, he has the power to divorce, or and marry women as along he kept the number of his wives to four to any given time. It is remarkable how early young girls are taught this patriarchal imperative. It is pertinent to mention that my mother’s name is Halima Sheikh Awesy. As a result, my mother happens to be a first aunt of the current spiritual leader of the Sharia court in Somalia, Sheikh Hassan Dahir, Haji/Sheikh Aweys. Do I believe that Somali women will fare better than my mother under the current Sharia courts? Certainly not.
But in the current state of political instability and violence, Somali women are giving the Islamists a try in the hope that they might be able to send their children to schools and live in relative security and wait till such time as when they mightbe able to acquire the political power to affect public policies and political decisions which affect their lives.
AMINA MIRE is a Lecturer in Contemporary Sociology, Critical Race Theory and Gender/Women Studies at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.
She can be contacted: Amina_mire@carleton.ca