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Ambush in Mogadishu

About the Program

About "Ambush in Mogadishu"



By 1992, years of war and anarchy had created uncontrolled famine in Somalia. At its worst, three hundred Somalis were dying every day from starvation and disease in one town alone. So when American forces landed on the Somali beaches in December of that year, they were greeted by the Somali people as heroes. "Ambush in Mogadishu" explores the well-intentioned, aborted, and ultimately tragic American effort to bring about stability and stop starvation. October 3, 1998 marks the fifth anniversary of the battle of Mogadishu, the bloodiest firefight involving U.S. troops since Vietnam, which forever changed the lives of the survivors and America's responses to the world's humanitarian crises.

In "Ambush in Mogadishu," airing Tuesday, September 29, at 9 P.M., on PBS (check local listings), FRONTLINE takes viewers inside a peacekeeping mission gone wrong and the nightmare ambush which still haunts the U.S. military and American foreign policy. The story is told primarily through the eyes of the young American soldiers who survived the ordeal and top military commanders, speaking on-camera for the first time about Somalia.

The rangers' mission that day was to capture the elusive and dangerous Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid. Intelligence indicated that he and his advisors were meeting at the Olympic Hotel in the capital of Mogadishu. Helicopters from the air and ground troops expected minimal resistance, but almost immediately after arresting prisoners, who did not include Aidid and his top aides, one of the Black Hawk helicopters was downed, supposedly by a rocket-propelled grenade. Seventeen hours later, eighteen American soldiers were dead, seventy-five lay wounded, and the U.S. response to the world's humanitarian crises would never be the same. Less than a year after having been welcomed by the Somali people as heroes, American soldiers were ambushed by Somali men, women, and children.

Observers usually point to Somalia as the turning point--when Pollyannaish notions about intervening militarily to guarantee access by aid workers to civilian victims of violence were replaced by realistic assessments of the limits of such actions. As such, the apparent failures of agonizing American and UN efforts in this hapless country have led to the "Somalia syndrome." Multilateral interventions to thwart starvation, the forced movement of peoples, massive violations of fundamental rights, or even genocide are no longer thought to be either politically or operationally feasible.

Policy makers, pundits, and the public typically have little or no historical perspectives. But their recollections of humanitarian intervention appear particularly short-sighted and confused. Three brief years separated the vigorous military intervention that overrode Iraqi sovereignty and supported humane values in defense of some 1.5 million Kurds in April 1991 from the total passivity in responding to the Rwandan bloodbath during which perhaps a million people were murdered in April 1994. In between, there was Somalia.

This FRONTLINE program and educational guide examines the issues surrounding intervention by external armed forces in states racked by ethnic turmoil. It also explores a range of human reactions to misery and death, from those observing tragedies from afar as well as from soldiers and civilians working on the real front lines of war zones.

Previewing Activities

Although the name of "Somalia" may be somewhat familiar to viewers because of the American military involvement in the first part of this decade, its geography and historical backgrounds probably are not. As a pre-viewing activity, it would be useful for students to engage in a mapping exercise of the geography and profile of Somalia as well as the Horn of Africa. A useful resource in this regard is the United Nations web site which contains a wealth of information about Somalia and other countries.

Moreover, most viewers of the video will share at least one thing with the soldiers in the American raid: their knowledge of war-torn Somalia and its people in 1992 is minimal. The video does not provide the complex cultural and historical backgrounds that are necessary to situate the eruption of violence. Figuring prominently in such a background is the 19th-century division of a people into 5 separate and often hostile colonies and protectorates, the emergence of elites and despots, and the role of a pawn in the Cold War confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. Interested teachers and students (perhaps for extra credit) might wish to consult "Tragedy Strikes the Horn of Africa" (National Geographic, August 1993) available along with other materials at the National Geographic web site


This guide was created by educational consultant Simone Bloom Nathan, Ed.M. and Jim Bracciale, Rick Byrne, and Emily Gallagher of FRONTLINE's communications staff. The writer is Thomas G. Weiss, Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the Graduate School and University Center of the City University of New York, with input from the outreach advisory board: Professor Dick Ford at Clark University, Pat Miller, Vice President of Programming, Production & Education at KNPB/Reno, and high school educators Patricia Grimmer and Larry Verria.

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