Return to the Horn
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MICHAEL GORDON: Djibouti is a tiny country, really. It has 600,000 or 700,000 population. It’s not known for sure because there’s not been a census. Djibouti has no resources, no oil. It doesn’t have any real natural resources of any value. It can’t grow its own food because the climate is so parched and arid. Basically what it has is location, location, location, because it’s on the Horn of Africa, near the key strait where the red sea meets the Gulf of Aden, across from Yemen, where al-Qaida operatives are believed to be hiding.
COL. RICHARD P. MILLS, Commanding Officer, 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit: It has now become a strategically important to the United States, and they put an emphasis on it. It’s all part of the international war on terrorism and part of the coalition effort to go to the areas where they need to go to and do the things that have to be done.
MICHAEL GORDON: Right now there’s a kind of a – it’s a polyglot military deployment which involves not just American forces, but European forces and French forces. I mean, essentially in the northern part of the country, there are more than 1,500 Marines have been running around doing a major military live-fire exercise. There’s about eight hundred to a thousand Special Forces and other U.S. troops. The CIA is also here, and then there are other nations’ militaries. The Germans and the Spanish are here as part of a task force; it’s called task Force 150. And it’s really part of Enduring Freedom. It’s an extension of the operation in Afghanistan. And the mission is to search and apprehend al-Qaida operatives on the high sea.
SPOKESMAN: So we’re checking the crew and the crew lists, the manifests, and we’re looking of course for weapons, and we’re looking for al-Qaida terrorists not to leave the subcontinent.
MICHAEL GORDON: Djibouti has been rediscovered by western militaries. Nobody paid it much attention, and now suddenly it’s a key location for military planners. But it’s a country that is so sort of off the map in a sense that the U.S. Government maintains just a tiny embassy, ten- person embassy here, doesn’t even have a USAID office to disburse foreign aid. There’s a bit of a disconnect between U.S. military planning and U.S. civilian planning. We asked to see a senior official from the Djibouti government, and were granted an audience with the president.
MICHAEL GORDON: Michael Gordon, New York Times.
PRESIDENT ISMAIL OMAR GELLEH, Djibouti (Translated): We are always a peaceful people, a poor country, but a peaceful and calm one. We are always friends with the United States of America, with whom we share an affinity.
MICHAEL GORDON: I gather that the way he conducted himself with us is pretty much the posture that Djiboutians have taken in private with the American government, which is that their position is they’re happy to have the Americans back, as they put it. The Americans were here during their intervention in Somalia. They are not explicitly demanding anything in return, but they’ve made it clear that in return for this hospitality, they’re very much hoping that there will be a payoff in terms of development assistance and foreign aid, because it is a desperately poor country.
PRESIDENT ISMAIL OMAR GELLEH (Translated): We would like to appear among the countries that will be accompanied in the progression towards development, in terms of investment and support to our development program. But it has not yet been decided. But don’t they say, “hope allows us to live”?
MICHAEL GORDON: You’re talking about a country that is very, very important, but one of the poorest countries in Africa. If there was a misery index in Africa, Djibouti would be very high on the list. The towns that we’ve seen are bleak. I mean, they’re clearly… you’re talking about ramshackle huts, livestock in the street, even in the capital city, you know– on the roads, goats and camels. There’s A… unfortunately, a bit of a stench about a lot of the streets in Djibouti. Basically about half of the population lives in real poverty. So you’re talking about a country which has a huge number of people who are just having trouble having the wherewithal to get through the day in terms of food, sanitation, daily living. You know, infant mortality is a very significant problem here, and it’s worse than a country like Rwanda.
GRACE VANDERVORT, Aid Worker, Red Sea International: I don’t know very much about her except we just weighed her a few days ago, and she’s already lost 300 grams more. So she’s probably got something, she’s got like a diarrhea or something that is making her lose quickly. She’s about 60% of what she should weigh, I think, so she’s not very good.
MICHAEL GORDON: The problems of women who die after childbirth is also a very significant problem– again one of the worst in Africa. Another very serious problem is unemployment, because about half or maybe more than half of the country has no work at all. And this is very significant particularly for the young people who see no possibility here. Some people are concerned that this could make Djibouti a little bit of a hotbed for some more fanatical activity, which it has avoided so far, unless this is addressed in some way.
JORGE MEJIA, Djibouti Director, UNICEF: I will follow what people say on the streets. They say we have seen so many military people coming from different countries, and that’s fine. Djibouti is very active in the fight against terrorism. But people say, “What about us?”
MICHAEL GORDON: One of the ironies is that while Djibouti doesn’t have much, and while it’s not getting a whole lot from the outside world, it does seem possible to make a difference here simply because of the scale. I mean, you’re talking about a country of 600,000-700,000 people.
FATMA SAMOURA, Djibouti Director, World Food Program: We spend less than 30 cents of a dollar to feed one child per day, so it’s nothing. But that nothing needs support. If we receive, like, $900,000 for the year, we will be able to feed 12,000 people during nine months with three full, balanced meals a day.
MICHAEL GORDON: The trick is to not really alleviate their suffering and hunger directly, which is important in its own right, but also to create some possibilities so that there’s something here, some real economy, some sort of activity that people here can do for themselves in the long run.
FATMA SAMOURA: We have seen in Djibouti that the literacy rate is very low. Djibouti does not produce anything. Agriculture accounts for less than 3% of the gross national product. So the only thing on which we can invest is the human beings.
MICHAEL GORDON: The U.S. foreign assistance this year is on the order of $8.7 million. And even of this $8.7 million, the majority of this money is for fixing up the airport and improving air traffic control, security, border control– things that benefit U.S. military operations here. There’s little aid this year to directly benefit the people. This is a government that is making its facilities available. It’s clearly hoping that in return for this, there’s going to be a pay-off.