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In Somalia, Political Instability Sustains Humanitarian Crisis

July 7, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Next tonight: an update from the troubled East African nation of Somalia, where children are being deployed in war.

Jeffrey Brown has that story.

JEFFREY BROWN: It is, according to “Foreign Policy” magazine, the number-one failed state in the world. For nearly two decades, Somalia has been plagued by civil wars, clashing militias, piracy off its shores, and a series of governments with little power, unable to stem the violence, which has left thousands of civilians dead in just the last few years.

Into that vacuum has stepped an Islamist rebel group called Al-Shabab that holds sway over large parts of the country and, with ties to al-Qaida, has helped turned Somalia into a haven for terrorists.

Last year, international hopes and a great deal of U.S. aid were pinned on a new leader, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, but his government continues to control very little of the capital, Mogadishu.

Few American reporters venture into Somalia. One who’s made numerous trips there is Jeffrey Gettleman, East Africa bureau chief for The New York Times. He recently returned from a trip to Mogadishu earlier this summer, and joins us now from Chicago.

Well, you know, we talk of a violent, uncontrolled place. What does Mogadishu look like and feel like when you’re there?

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN, East Africa Bureau Chief, The New York Times: Well, one of the first forms you have to fill out when you arrive is a immigration form at the airport that asks for your name, address, birth date, and caliber of weapon.

It’s still an incredibly lawless, dangerous experience to travel there, which is why there aren’t many foreign aid workers or diplomats or that many journalists that venture in there. That said, life continues in a place like Mogadishu.

When I was there just a few weeks ago, I was happy to see a duty-free shop in the airport for the first time. So, there is some normalcy returning, but it’s incredibly dangerous out on the streets. There’s fighting along — there’s fighting between several different groups, even troops within the government fighting each other.

And it’s — it’s like being in Baghdad or Afghanistan or a conflict zone, where you constantly hear shelling, gunfire, civilians are killed every day, needlessly. But, here, this has been going on for 20 years, and it really has not gotten much better since 1991, when the government collapsed.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, we said that there have been some hopes for this new leader, who is sometimes described as a moderate Islamist. And it sounds as though, according to your reports, there’s less hope now? What — what’s happened?

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Well, I did a big story last August on Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, who is the president of the transitional government of Somalia, and a lot of people were very excited when he came to power last year.

He was the first leader that wasn’t a warlord. He had stayed out of the civil conflict. He was a moderate Islamist scholar and had a lot of credibility on the streets. And he also got a lot of support from the outside. So, you had these two things going on with potential inside the country to rally behind and a lot of money and diplomatic attention coming from outside.

But he hasn’t been able to convert that into much of anything. The government is still holed up on top of this hill in central Mogadishu. They’re fighting for their survival in the neighborhoods down below. There’s no service delivery. There’s no real work of the ministries. They have ministries for education and health and children and all of the normal portfolio of government business, but nothing is happening.

JEFFREY BROWN: And one of your recent articles highlights another disturbing aspect to this, a new trend where the government is using children as soldiers. And you make the link to the fact that the U.S. aid is helping prop up this army.

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Well, we were surprised by this.

We knew the insurgents were drafting children, plucking them off soccer fields, throwing them out on the front lines, even turning young children into suicide bombers. But it was surprising to us that the transitional government, which gets a lot of money from the U.N. and U.S., was doing the same thing.

And when I was there a few weeks ago, we saw young kids, you know, maybe 12 or 13 years old, carrying automatic assault rifles, working on the front lines, running checkpoints. And it showed to me the level of desperation, that this government is reaching out to anybody it can get, including children, to fight for it.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the rebel group we mentioned, Al-Shabab, it sounds as though they have not achieved any sort of popularity with the populace, but can you tell how strong they are at this point?

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Well, this is exactly it.

There’s a huge opportunity here, because about half of Somalia is controlled by these radical Islamic groups that chop off hands and stone people to death. They banned music. They have told women they’re not allowed to wear bras. They have tried to impose a harsh and alien form of Islam that’s wildly unpopular in Somalia.

But they are militarily powerful. And their fighters are very fired up. And they have succeeded in drawing people from around the world to come and wage jihad in Somalia. So, while they’re not popular, they’re still powerful. And the government has really struggled to dislodge them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, that money that’s been flowing in from the U.S., the U.N., and the international community, you write about a rethinking within the international community about whether that’s a good idea, how effective all that has been, and perhaps things might change going forward. What are you hearing? What’s going on?

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Well, we’re at an interesting point.

For the past year or so, there was a lot of support for the transitional government, because people said, we cannot allow the Shabab to rule Somalia, the whole country. If they do that, then it could become this magnet for terrorists around the world, even more so than it is today, and it could become a sanctuary where people could plan attacks around Africa or maybe around the world from Somalia, just like what happened in Afghanistan before September 11, 2001.

However, things are shifting a little bit. There had been a lot of support for the government because they were seen as the only alternative. And, recently, there’s been talk of this new theory called constructive disengagement, which is basically advising the international community to back away from Somalia, from — to advise them to stop trying to shape events in Somalia, because it just hasn’t been working.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, before I let you go, I mean, just to come back to where we started, the — the — you talk about the signs of life, even at the airport with the duty-free shop.

I remember the last time I looked into this and read and talked to people, there was — there were Somalis coming back from around the world to come and join the government or to come back and try to create a civil society and a business life there. What’s the state of all of that at this point?

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Well, that’s a really good question.

When the president came in last year, he brought with him a lot of people from outside Somalia who really believed in him and felt this duty to return to their country, brave these — brave these enormous risks, put their lives on the line, and try to build something, try to build a state in a place that has resisted it for so long.

But, in the last few weeks and past few months, we have seen a lot of these educated technocratic Somalis begin to leave the country. And, to me, that’s one of the most discouraging signs, because it really looks like people are beginning to lose hope that this government is any different from all the other transitional governments that failed to bring back a state.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Jeffrey Gettleman of The New York Times on the state of things in Somalia, thanks very much.

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Thank you.