Three international news agencies report that 110 people died in Somalia in just two days the first week of March. This is a familiar, if tragic, story.
Nearly a quarter century ago, President George H.W. Bush initiated Operation Restore Hope in Somalia. That nation was racked by anarchy after more than a year of civil war, chaos and famine had killed at least 300,000 people. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union had competed for influence in the horn of Africa. But in 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed. A new world order, led by the United States, appeared to be evolving. The United Nations had attempted to secure order and supply food to Somalia. But by the fall of 1992, it became clear the food was not getting to the people who needed it.
It was being hijacked by violent, feuding warlords whose clans resold staples to those who could afford to pay black market prices. The UN requested that the United States lead a mission to assure the food aid would reach its target. Operation Restore Hope, with 25,000 American troops, was the result. Food supply lines were ultimately established, and a temporary crisis, solved.
But twenty-five years later Somalia still has no central government. It is portrayed by Transparency International as the most corrupt nation on the planet. It is still threatened by violence, this time from the terrorist group Al-Shabaab, which invokes such fear in the nation that February’s election had to be held in a secure site at the Mogadishu airport. Only a few hundred legislators could vote, and some of those votes were tainted by bribes.
Mogadishu airport is the same one where reporter Gary Reaves, Photographer Cliff Williams, Editor Brad Kaplan and myself landed to cover Operation Restore Hope in December of 1992. It was a plunge into anarchy.
What follows are my photos and notes from one of the most challenging weeks of our lives.
For all we have been told about Mogadishu, a city of about a million (in 1992), we are not prepared for what we see. The unpaved streets are choked with people. They share the streets with donkeys, pickup trucks and land cruisers, which when on the road seem to aim at pedestrians. Virtually every structure has a wall around it, and few of the buildings are more than two stories tall. Nearly all the structures are white, their brilliant reflections shimmering in the dusty air.
Most of the people live outside the walls, in nomads’ camps, or small huts which line the roads. The distended bellies, prominent skulls and trance-like gazes we’ve come to expect from television are not yet to be seen.
These are very thin, short people; slow-moving, gentle, and quick to smile. They touch each other and you as a normal part of conversation, an endearing quality. Men, for the most part, dress like westerners. Women wear sarongs and headcloths. Both, by western standards, are in rags.
The heat and dust are unrelenting. The dust combines with your sweat to form mud rivulets on your face. There are smells we have not smelled and cannot place. Omnipresent is the clawing odor of decay, which turns out to be the sweet-sour scent of rotting corpses.
The IMC (International Medical Corps) hospital sits atop a hill at one edge of the city. It reeks of an odor you can nearly taste, a sickening stench produced by the patients dying inside and the squalid squatters who reside there. Yes, people are living in the hospital. Two years ago, during the civil war, the hospital was looted and taken over. Now, instead of being a dedicated health care facility, people are camped out in many of the rooms. Sanitary conditions in the four-story structure are nonexistent. People dump their garbage off their porches onto the ground. Nobody bothers to clean it up.It is picked over by a scrawny corps of goats and cats who patrol the area.
Lenny Olmstead is our first acquaintance. He is an MD originally from Pittsburgh, who tells me he studied thoracic surgery at Baylor. He wears wire-rimmed glasses, has huge arms, and speaks softly, but even then, only when you ask him a question. He escorts us into a treatment area, where the miasma intensifies, and flies swarm as thick as at a garbage dump.
Dr. Olmstead says Mogadishu is the worst place he has ever been. I ask him why is here. He says it's the kind of ‘medicine,’ using the doctor’s word, he should be doing. It does not look like medicine as I know it. Cliff and Gary have entered a small room where Raymond Delille, a physician’s assistant from Grand Prairie, is working. Inside, a woman, already dying of tuberculosis, is being treated for a gunshot wound. A string, hanging from the ceiling for no apparent reason, is coated with seething insects, their blue backs glinting in the low light. I wonder if the string will fall onto the patient.
Crimson cotton balls are scattered about the gurney where she lies on her side. Family members stand about the room, while Raymond Delille, in blue scrubs and a surgeon’s mask, attends to her. There is a pool of chunky, cream-colored vomit on the concrete floor. Rolls of sweat gather on my forehead as I absorb the scene before me.
As Cliff and Gary shoot video, Dr. Olmstead tells me he left his practice in the states when medicine took a back seat to money-making. His wife and four children left him. He went for awhile to Samoa with IMC, which is a worldwide NGO in addition to running the hospital in Mogadishu. Now he is here.
Raymond finishes with his patient. Surely she will die soon. Dr. Olmstead tells me many of the gunshot victims they see are are so weak to begin with that they have little chance of survival, even after they’re treated. Triage is continual. We follow Raymond to another part of the compound, chased by a small gang of children, all of whom seem to be on crutches. A high percentage of Somalis have lost their legs to land mines, planted by each successive international power as it has tried to hold sway over this nation. The power loses interest in Somalia. It leaves. The mines stay. The children’s legs are blown off.
Missing legs are so common that as I’m talking to one teenager, he nonchalantly rests his leg stub on the back of a chair in front of me. A smaller percentage of Somalis retain their lower limbs, but suffer from injuries from birth defects or other injuries. Crutches are as common here as skateboards in the United States.
Another ward, another gunshot wound. A frail man, chest heaving, lies on a stretcher, a tube in his arm, a dressing on his torso. His family rings his cot. Gary interviews his wife. Will he survive? She does not answer quickly. I hope so, she finally replies.
Raymond Delille, the Grand Prairie physician's assistant, says he enjoys this work, that it makes a difference. It must be unbearable to maintain one’s psyche. Yet he and Dr. Olmstead are still here at 6 pm, when the rest of the staff leaves at 4:30.
The Long Road to Mogadishu. How We Got There.
Mogadishu was a war zone, we knew. Airlines generally do not fly to war zones. To get to Somalia, it was necessary to fly to Nairobi, Kenya, and then find someone with an airplane to fly you into Mogadishu. We were aided in this search by an expert from ABC News in Frankfurt, who was regularly dispatched to hot spots around the world to smooth the way for news crews. Paul Brueneman was his name, and I would meet him a few years later where he was doing a similar job in Islamabad, getting journalists into Afghanistan after 9/11.
There were plenty of aircraft at Wilson Airport in Nairobi, we discovered. Most of them were used to fly loads of Khat, a green-leafed, mildy narcotic stimulant many Somalis chew to abate hunger. Wilson Airport, however, was also the departure point for many Non-Governmental Organizations, NGOs, non-profit agencies which chartered small planes to Somalia to help disperse the small amount that made it past the warlords. Breuneman hired a charter to fly Ted Koppel out of Mogadishu and Gary Reaves could grab a space when the plane went in to pick him up. All Gary had to do was be in the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel at 3:15 in the morning.
Meanwhile, we ran across Tom Rapier, a former WFAA photographer who now shoots for CBS. He injured his back in a fall with a camera, and was on his way back to New York. He was full of horrors about Mogadishu. Seven cameras were stolen from news crews. Reporters and producers were mugged. There was no water. No showers. No place to sleep. CBS people were starting to get sick, he said, because they were all sleeping in one big room in their compound. He advised strongly and repeatedly not to go. We decided to risk it.
By 7:30 the next morning, Gary had already left and the rest of us held space, at $500 a head, on a quasi-airline called African Air, which flew a ragged schedule across North Africa in an unmarked Boeing 707 whose engines didn't match. After several hours of delay so the pilot could load hundreds of cartons of contraband cigarettes to sell to American soldiers, we boarded, with less than two dozen others: some CNN folks, and Italian TV crew, a lone Portuguese photographer, a guy from the Associated Press, and a handful of Somalis, including an elderly woman in a wheelchair, who was patted down for weapons, twice.
Coming: Seven Days in Somalia II. Making News Nine Time Zones Away.