Somalia has a population of close to twelve million people. Its last famine, which lasted from 2010 to 2012, killed about 260,000 people, according to the United Nations, about the same population as all of Plano, Texas. Now, famine and the diseases associated with severe drought are marching through the horn of Africa again, endangering the survival of 360,000 malnourished children, according to the World Health Organization. The safety of Somalia is further threatened by the terrorist group Al Shabaab, which imperils a fragile, newly-formed government.
These are conditions similar to 1992, when President George H.W. Bush dispatched 5,000 American troops to help distribute food there at the urging of the United Nations. Food was being sent to Somalia, only to be hijacked by warlords who ruled the country in the absence of a stable government. It often seems nothing changes in this troubled country.
News photographer Cliff Williams, reporter Gary Reaves, editor Brad Kaplan and I accompanied the troops on their first days in country in 1992. The photos and notes are mine.
Sunday December 13, 1992.
This day dawns hot and bright, with the gray silhouettes of American warships undulating like mirages offshore in the morning heat. Hovercraft, shrouded in salt spray as they glide over the sea, shuttle troops and supplies onto the beach from supply ships. Huge Marine heavy lift helicopters clack in the air.
We go to the military Joint Information Bureau (JIB), at what used to be the Mogadishu International Airport, a place bustling with so many military aircraft I call it Mog Main. It looks like there’s something besides a military landing going on here. Several huge Marine choppers are loaded with troops and warming up. They labor into the sky and join several more from the U.S.S. Tripoli, an amphibious assault ship, which is parked offshore. The word is they are headed for the town of Baledogle, seventy miles away. We may have stumbled onto some news.
We proceed to the ABC News compound in a vintage land rover with a driver, one of several the network has somehow rented. The route, down a road on which people literally live, will become familiar over the coming days. It takes us past a nomad camp which nestles alongside an NGO feeding station. The Somalis camp in makeshift shelters here, not tents really, but long flexible sticks bent into hemispherical frames that they cover with cloth and plastic.
The French Foreign Legion has set up a checkpoint on the road near this encampment, parking an amphibious vehicle three quarters of the way across the road. These soldiers are large, thickly-muscled men, bigger than you expect Frenchmen to be. They don’t smile. They stop every vehicle, including ours, point their rifles right at us, and wordlessly stare, until we show them some ID. The informal rule of transit since we’ve arrived is that the white man sits in the front passenger seat for all to see. A good plan, we decide, since Gary and Cliff might be mistaken for Somalis by a quick-triggered Frenchman.
A crowd of Somalis constantly watches the Legionnaires. The day before, the French killed three Somalis and wounded three others, we are told. They now have a reputation as ruthless, and the Somalis clot around the checkpoint, partly out of fascination, partly out of fear.
Through the checkpoint now, and with another media land rover ahead of us, we make our way down the potholed road to the ABC compound. No one at ABC knows about the activity at Baledogle, we discover.
Cliff and I decide to go to Baledogle with another ABC crew, while Gary and Brad stay to write and edit a piece that’s already been shot.
We leave in a convoy of two land rovers, up an unsecured highway, through a flat landscape of scrub somewhat reminiscent of the desert Southwest. The danger here is roadblocks, where Somali clans can stop and rob you. The rover ahead of us has a guard with a gun. Whether this provides any protection is anybody’s guess.
Baledogle is an abandoned Soviet airbase, which now, it becomes clear, will be the first ‘beachhead’ outside of Mog for American troops. We’re not the first reporters there. It is more than bizarre to drive 70 miles across desolate desert in a sparsely populated country, with no phones or communications, only to find a gaggle of news people standing around in the middle of nowhere. CBS, NBC and CNN are represented by camera people without correspondents. A Marine PIO tells us the military expected to find a hoard of reporters waiting for the first aircraft to land at this base, just as a group of reporters tracked down Marines landing on the beach at Mogadishu a few days before.
Sorry, we tell the Marine. It’s just us.
A troop transport swoops down onto the runway, bearing the first soldiers from Ft. Drum, New York. Marines, brought in by the choppers we saw taking off at Mog Main earlier, have already landed. Canadians are expected later.
We drive back to Mog and begin to assemble the story. As sunset comes to the compound, Lt. Gen. Robert Johnston, the Marine commander, arrives with a half dozen machine-gun toting guards. He and Ambassador Robert Oakley will be interviewed live on David Brinkley show later.
As the sun sets in Somalia, it is just Sunday morning in the states. We’ll work two days for every one here: one Somali day to gather news, another Dallas day when that’s over. The workday usually ends when the sun rises in Mogadishu.
Monday December 14, 1992
Today the Senators arrive. David Boren, (D-Okla), Carl Levin, (D-Mich) and Claiborne Pell, (D-R.I.). ABC doesn’t have a spare camera, so we cover for them. Our plan is to try to get aboard a ship today to see a side of operation the audience may not be familiar with. While waiting for the politicians, I meet a Navy Lieutenant from the USS Tripoli who used to work for Navy Dallas.
The Tripoli would be happy to have us aboard. We are choppered to the assault ship, which is about the size of a WWII aircraft carrier, and discover the captain went to high school in Fort Worth. There’s always a Texas somewhere.
While on the bridge, I hear one of the corpsmen talking to another sailor from Fort Worth on his headset. Gary combines the two interviews for a good story. As a plus we are treated to an unexpected luxury: grape drink with real ice.
Water was one of our biggest concerns before coming. Local water, when you can get it, is unsafe. ABC is air freighting in cases of bottled water every day. Each day before we leave, I pack four big bottles. ABC has rented a house for reporters of its affiliates to stay in, a great piece of luck for us. It has running water some of the time. That water is unfit to drink but usable for showers. We rely on baby wipes, the reporter’s old standby for disaster coverage, to keep clean, and bottled water to brush our teeth.
Later in the day, Brad Kaplan and I are editing a story at the ABC compound when a loud shot rattles the courtyard. We run out of our editing room to see a guard lying on the concrete and a dark pool of blood growing under his head. He has somehow shot himself. Luckily, Dr. Nancy Snyderman a medical correspondent for Good Morning America, is in the compound, preparing some stories for that show. She quickly looks at the wound, determines it to be minor, cleans it and patches him up with some gaffer’s tape and gauze.
Gary was standing near the Somali when the accident happened. He apparently dropped his rifle, it went off, and the bullet went through one cheek and out the other. These guys, many of them teenagers, have no training in weapons. The Marines who watch them grab their rifles by the barrel with the weapon pointing at themselves are continually appalled.
Next: Seven Days in Somalia III. Food gets through.