interviews: Khalil Dale

He worked for the Red Cross from 1991-1993 in Somalia and set up a Red Cross program in Bardera, Somalia after it had been taken over by Aidid. At the time, there were about 350 people dying per day, out of a population of 17,000. He worked in field hospitals and distributed food aid.

You had first-hand experience of the famine in Somali. What did you see?

At the beginning of the intervention I went to a town in a region ... where there was a population of about 17, 000 people.... I was the first one to get in. And I was overwhelmed, I'd never seen anything like it. There were bodies -- people who had died of starvation, there were people with gun shot wounds, there were young children, women, just lying, waiting to die, really emaciated and there weren't any nurses, doctors, there was nothing. The whole infrastructure collapsed and they were just people who had given up hope and it was horrific. One of the first jobs I had to do was start a food for work program. I got 98 people as grave diggers just to collect dead bodies, and allocated four sites and I used to drive past them and there would be mounds of dead bodies waiting to be buried.

Any particular memory that stays with you?

Yeah, there was a woman in one of the huts, that had been dead for about two days and her two children sat there just weeping and nobody to look after them, and there were a few things like that -- that for some reason, more than anything, has stayed in my memory.

What happened to those children?

The honest answer is, I don't know, because there were thousands more like it...

How did you feel about the fact that the UN and the US people were now intervening?

I think it certainly turned the tide in that crisis. We were trying to saturate the country with food aid as much as possible, knowing that a lot of it would be looted, but also being aware that if we put in enough food, that eventually the food would saturate and get through to the people. Which it did, but logistically it was very expensive way of doing it. So when the UN came in we were then given a better security situation and so the food was taken more or less directly to the people.

What about getting food to the people out in the country? Describe that state of affairs.

The situation was incredibly difficult. Sometimes when people asked me about it I've often compared it to a Mad Max film. You've got people driving around in technical cars with machine guns. There's no government infrastructure, no law and order and we were trying to help the vulnerable people who nobody else seemed to care for, and these people were trying to loot food because they could use the food to buy weapons, and also some of the faction leaders could use the food to pay their fighters and so food literally was power.

Almost everyday food convoys were being looted, attacked. Our warehouse was attacked at one point almost every night, or it would be when the airplanes, Hercules, were coming in, we knew more or less that after a delivery the warehouse would be looted.

Any other scenes you can describe of food convoys being attacked or looted?

Yeah, there were many. I lost a colleague who was on his first mission with the Red Cross and he was 28 years old and they'd come to steal money and food, and they got nervous, they thought he -- someone was going to go and tell the Americans, and they pulled a trigger and blew his head off. To me it was a completely unacceptable death.

What do the non-governmental organizations do? I mean you are unarmed. You're trying to get food to the country -- did you have to get some kind of protection?

Usually the Red Cross never ever deals with people with guns. We never carry guns in our vehicles. But in Somalia we had to employ guards and escorts to see us through the dangerous areas and to cross frontlines. I think Somalia was the first for many things, not just for UN armed intervention -- peace keepers they call them -- but obviously for the Red Cross. Times are changing and the Red Cross isn't protected as it used to be.

What was your first impression of the American troops when you saw them on the ground?

My first impression was the land mine explosion before they'd officially arrived. There were some Americans I think doing this survey in advance and they drove over a land mine and one was killed and three were badly injured. The medical corps for the marines flew in the helicopters from Mogadishu, and we'd done first aid and splinted them and given them pain killers, and I remember the Marines arrived on the helicopters and my first impression was that these people had never seen anything like it before. They were green, literally some were vomiting, and they didn't have adequate medical equipment. They were completely lost, and I sort of had to take control of them because I thought they were going to set some more mines off, and it just seemed to me that they were very badly prepared.

Later on, you were struck by the kind of aggression that you encountered from American forces...

Our compound was a kilometer or so away from the feeding centers and the displaced camp and we used to travel backwards and forwards two or three times a day and once the UN forces had arrived they'd set up road blocks. And I remember the first day being very upset with their attitude. They stopped us, pointed their guns at us, and I remember one of them shouting to me, 'Hey, mother fucker, get your arse over here' -- very aggressive, rude, and I was just amazed, I thought well surely they can tell the difference between a European Red Cross worker and a local Somali militia, but obviously it wasn't so.

These are U.S. troops?


Can you describe your first impression of the American forces at this road block?

My first impression of the American forces at the road block were of this typical Cowboy and Indian American -- where they're very macho and verbally very aggressive. They pointed their guns at us. They used obscene language, told us to get over there, they'd search us, search the vehicle, and they seemed quite incapable of understanding that we were international aid workers. We were not indigenous Somalis. I mean, we didn't have any guns, we didn't have weapons, and there's no way we could have been perceived as a threat. I found them to be very aggressive and it was fairly obvious to me and my colleagues that they hadn't been briefed and they certainly had no cultural briefing.

The other UN contingents -- what was their conduct like towards the local people?

I only had first-hand experience with the Belgian forces, when I later moved to a different part of Somalia. On the whole I found the Belgian forces had built a good rapport with the local people. And I think they had learnt a great deal and they wanted to try and help alleviate the suffering of the people so they opened some schools ... But I think even there, some of their senior officers were prone to make mistakes because I felt they didn't really have a deep enough cultural understanding of the situation...

In general terms did you sense the atmosphere among the local people turning against the UN troops?

I found it more so in this place where the Belgian forces were, as time progressed. One, because they seemed to be getting more involved with the politics, and for example, arresting the militia leader, this warlord. And they resented this intervention. The local people perceived [it] to be an intervention in their political activities and that it wasn't just a humanitarian operation.

Looking at the U.S. force -- half of the UN contingent -- do you feel that the Americans allowed themselves to be sucked into the fighting, to the extent where they became another contestant?

In a way, this is how they were perceived by the Somali people -- the people in the areas I was working in. They felt that the UN was taking sides, that for example, they were out to get Aidid, and I don't personally know if it was on purpose but they attacked a hospital, and these things were catastrophic. They were then perceived to be political, taking sides. It's not the sort of thing the Red Cross would do. We never take sides, we try and help on both sides of the conflict, and the perception then, amongst the Somali people, was that the UN was trying to get rid of Aidid. They'd arrested this local warlord in the area I was working in, and the humanitarian intervention became a political activity to many people.

What actually happened at the hospital you referred to?

Well, I wasn't there, but they thought Aidid was hiding in a hospital and some forces under the UN flag attacked this hospital and as far as I know people were injured.

You talk about helicopters being intimidating and another interviewee, another person we talked to, said that the helicopters became kind of demonized... how did local people view the helicopters, what did they think of those?

I can only speak for Bartdarin, Bartderins certainly felt very intimidated by them, especially in the first few days when it was apparent, not only to the local people, but to me, to that these people hadn't been very well briefed, they didn't seem to understand the reality of the situation, who were the good guys, who were the bad guys, the politics of the situation and the cultural context of what was going on and they seemed very insensitive, that did improve as time went on, but certainly the first few days were very bad and I must admit I felt very hostile to some of the forces, their aggressive behavior.

When you say insensitive, what kind of insensitivity, for example?

It was the way they spoke to people that I objected to. The way they spoke to me and my colleagues as well as the local people. They seemed unable to differentiate between aggressive people in the technical cars with machine guns and just ordinary people on the street, or indeed international aid workers.

The Red Cross actually train people before they send them into a situation, or a sensitivity training. Do you believe that UN troops, peace keeping forces should have some similar training?

Yeah, when I came back from Somalia I saw advertising for the British army, and instead of showing these high tech tanks and automated warfare things they were showing starving people in Africa holding out empty bowls and it said, 'join the army and save lives.' Well, until then I'd always perceived the army to be formed of trained killers, all right, not humanitarians. So, my feeling is that if things are changing in this way and the armies are going to be the new humanitarians, then they must be appropriately trained, as far as I'm concerned. These people are trained killers, they are not trained humanitarians and in the Red Cross and most NGOs -- people who go to work in these situations -- have rather extensive training ... I mean to be suddenly sent into a place like Somalia, without any sort of cultural awareness or briefing or adequate training is asking for problems.

You've been to several other parts of the world in crisis. How does Somalia stack up?

I've been to Afghanistan, two or three times. I've been to Sudan, I've been to a lot of war zones and famine camps and cholera camps. But I've never ever seen anything like Somalia was at that time. And it was certainly the most frightening place for me, it was the most insecure, unpredictable. You just didn't know what was going to happen next.

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