interviews: mrs abshir

She is a Somali woman of the Majeeteen, a sub-clan of the Daroob, a tribe from the middle of Somalia. She fled Somalia in 1990 due to the increasing violence. She currently is president of the Somali Community Information Center in Britain.

What was day-to-day life like before the UN intervention?

There was total anarchy. There was mass looting, mass destruction and mass killing. The situation was utterly horrendous ... there was raping, there were people with guns running all over the place. There were people trapped in their homes who couldn't get out. People that starved to death because they couldn't get out. It was a hideous situation. It was indescribable what was happening.

Why were they trapped?

Because anyone could have been killed ... what happened is that with the collapse of the Somali government, the armed groups overran Mogadishu ... the gates of the prisons were opened and all the common criminals with arms were going into houses and killing everybody. It was an utter misery for the Somali people before the intervention. The Somali people either were fleeing or being killed, the women were being raped and some people were starving in their homes. There was deliberate killing of certain clans by other clans. So there was a multiplicity of horrific things happening. Innocent civilians were being indiscriminately killed ... I had a family friend, the husband was killed in front of her. For five days the body laid in the house, she could not bury him in the garden. That is how bad it was because of the shelling.

Describe in your own words the famine.

My younger sister was trapped in Mogadishu at the time. She told me that for days and days they would be trapped in their house. At the end, when they could not stand [it] any more they would go out. She said they were walking over dead bodies just to get food. That is how desperate the situation was.

How did people feel when the UN decided to intervene?

The UN was welcomed. Operation Restore Hope was widely welcomed and expected. The Somali people, even those who participated in the killing, were fed up with the anarchy and were willing to have a neutral outside force save their situation and restore law and order ... we thought ... they were going to invite the Somali clans and factions to sit down and sort out the problem.

How did people feel particularly about the Americans, intervening?

We actually welcomed it. We felt relieved that they were coming. Some people were actually very, very happy. The majority of the Somali people thought they were going to be our saviors. If you ask me personally, I felt they were going to save what was left of Somalia. That is my personal [view] and of course, I couldn't have been anything other than happy.

Why did it begin to go wrong?

I think it went wrong, firstly, because it was sabotaged by different forces who didn't want Somalia to become stabilized. And secondly because the operation did not [get] proper advice before they came in and [did not] consult a cross section of the Somali clan groups -- wise men, intellectuals, women groups. The third reason is there were other forces within the coalition who did not want the Americans to bring about law and order and to restore the situation to normality.

Tell me about Aidid's relationship with the Italians.

I do not know what their relationship was, but from what we hear, the Italians wanted to be agents for southern Somalia. They had interests in southern Somalia. They owned large farms in southern Somalia. They knew there would be reconstruction. They thought that Aidid was a strong man and obviously from our own people we know that they were close to him.

Were the Italians in any way aiding or assisting Aidid?

From what we know, yes.

What were they doing? What have you heard?

Well, I don't really want to go into details. But it's common knowledge that the Italians were close to Aidid's group.

You're saying that it was common knowledge in Somalia that the Italians and Aidid were close. That the Italians were in some way helping and supporting Aidid.

Not only Aidid. They were close to different groups within the Aidid camp and every Somali seemed to know that.

You said, at first, Aidid himself may have welcomed the American/UN intervention. Did Aidid start to change in his attitude towards the Americans and if so, why?

I do not know why, but from what we understand he thought that they may have undermined his power. He did want to control Mogadishu. He did want to conquer Somalia. He did have dreams of being the absolute power in Somalia and that is according to the view of the Somali people. That's why anyone would be a threat to him. Especially when he was being encouraged by other western forces.

Meaning the Italians.

I do not wish to name anyone.

At first, the people of Mogadishu welcomed the UN intervention. Did that situation begin to change?

Yes, it did.

What happened?

First of all, they did not disarm the militias, which would have really saved the situation. By failing to disarm the militias very quickly, it gave a chance for the situation to drag on. And for those who were opposing, for their own reasons, the mission, [it] gave them time to see that it would not work to their interest ... therefore the mission became unclear because it was not decisive ... people thought they were going to disarm -- they did not disarm anybody. It lost vision, lost its objective.

We thought they were going to bring back law and order, and disarm the killers. And they didn't do that because they were ambivalent about what they want to do. People were surprised that they didn't disarm the killers. All that was necessary was to disarm the killers and carry out a dialogue with the factions. That did not happen.

Did ordinary UN or U.S. troops do things to turn the local people against them?

Well, the situation deteriorated. Anyone could have been targeted. When a situation fails, it's easy. That's what happened. The situation dragged on. There were no concrete results for those who were hoping that there would be a disarmament of the gunmen . We called them the gunmen . As the situation did not improve and other forces were at work. There was a motley conglomeration of aid agencies also meddling in the UN mission, who did not seem to help the situation. All kinds of things happened and as the time passed, the more it was likely that it would fail.

Would that change the atmosphere in Mogadishu? Would that turn people against the UN troops?

Well, that could have been also used by those who were opposing the mission. I mean, the groups who did not want the UN to succeed ... they did not have the interest of the civilian people in their heart, ... they could have said the UN had killed innocent civilians. Innocent civilians were being massacred before the UN came anyway. Obviously there had been killing. There had been casualties. Because as I said the situation dragged on and the UN obviously was provoked quite often. But those who were watching their relatives being killed and their houses looted and their property destroyed saw that it was part of a hideous process taking place [every]where.

So what you're saying is that some civilians were killed by UN troops, and the warlords, Aidid in particular, could exploit this.

Not only him. I think other forces didn't lift a finger when the civilian people were being massacred. Didn't lift a finger. Didn't even speak out. Aid agencies and other European countries used this for their own advantage.

You say that the U.S., without meaning to, in fact, built Aidid up. They made him more important than he was. What happened?

Yes. This is another common concept among Somali people. That the western media exaggerated Aidid's powers.

But it wasn't the western media who put a $25,000 reward on his head. That was the U.S.

Well, afterwards, I think it was the media and I would say the Americans were part of it. They clearly misjudged or misread the realities of Somali politics -- who is really powerful and who isn't. Because often enough, it is not the ones that are visible, that are powerful in Somalia. Often it's someone that's not in the media or not even pretending to be powerful. So, first what happened was that the American embassy in Somalia, must have failed to advise the American government as to who was really important, and who could represent the stability of Somalia, and who could also be consulted to restore law and order. So there was the failure of their own embassy, especially the American ambassador, who had become very close to a particular group and took sides, and then misread the Somali situation. And obviously, that reflected on the American attitude towards Somalia, because they did not have a proper and clear neutral assessment. The American ambassador was duped by particular groups, who misinformed him and exaggerated the tales that they told him.

Was it right or wrong for the Rangers to attempt to arrest Aidid?

Well, that has to be tracked against international law.

Was it wise or unwise?

I would not wish to go into that.

Do you think that the attention paid to Aidid in effect made him feel more important than he was?

Definitely. Because ... he saw his image enhanced hugely by all this attention, media attention, and as far as we can tell, it was a general belief that the Americans were helping him. That's what Aidid portrayed -- that he had support of the Americans.

What was Aidid like?

I think he was charismatic. I think he was intelligent. What he didn't know was what he felt was an understanding of how the international world community functions. What was expected of him in Somali terms. He was nationalist in his own strange way, but he lacked the basic understanding that the world community cannot accept certain things -- that's what he lacked. He was trained in Italy, but that was a long time ago. He was an army officer, and therefore did not have any civilian life as such, and the Somali people really could not accept the idea of militarism for so long any more. He didn't understand that another military take over was not acceptable to the Somali people.

Why did he ambush the Pakistani troops?

I don't really quite know why he did that, but as far as we can establish he was using the national Somali radio for his own use and obviously the UN wanted to take over that, and he didn't want that to happen.

Do you think the U.S. relied too much on weapons to solve the situation in Somalia?

I think it was necessary ... without the weapons I don't think another gunman is going to stop shooting ... I think that a show of force is always necessary in such cases. But it has to go along with proper advice and assessment, and proper realistic overall view of the situation. And it has to be done through a cross section of all the groups -- the groups elders, wise men, intellectuals, and also people who have a model integrity in Somalia, people who have a standing in Somalia society. I don't think that happened. But ... you can only stop a killing force with another force. Anything else is really not being realistic.

In the civil war did you yourself lose family members?

My house was occupied by gunmen ... everyone in my family was trapped in Mogadishu. My older sister, she witnessed two of our people being shot, gunned down in front of her. My sister-in-law had a baby 40 days old. The baby was actually snatched from her and swung across the floor and stripped. We have lost every single thing. We have lost our homes, we have lost our relatives, we have lost our belongings, our memories, records, family albums. We have lost every single thing we loved and treasured and we have lost even our culture. I am still totally traumatized by the situation. My older sister and younger sister, both of them were trapped in the war. I still have nightmares. Every single one in my family is having nightmares. Often we feel as though we're not really living, but half dead. Because of what happened and the world really doesn't know that. The world is talking about guns and who won and who lost. But the human misery, the amount of trauma this has cost, you cannot imagine ... to this very moment, my house is occupied by gunmen. For eight years I have this happening to me. I had a very beautiful house, right in the middle of town next to the presidential palace. My husband bought it in 1960 before I even knew him. And that house is vandalized and used by gunmen. My husband went back to Mogadishu a few years ago to look at our houses. And he saw other people living in them. We have no memories, no records, no nothing.

And that's still going on.

Yes. Fortunately our people fled to the countryside, which is more peaceful.

There are millions of other people like you.

Yes, because I was working I had to [leave] just as the war started, but everyone of my family was trapped -- some for two years, some for six months. Different times, each one got out at one time. And my older sister had the blood of one of the victims, who was shot in front of her, spill all over her. To this very day, she can't get over it. But she got out at the end.

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