U.S. War Crimes in Somalia
Published on: Feb 28, 2007

Eighteen U.S. soldiers died in the worst single day’s combat losses by the U.S. army since Vietnam. The battle was described in DeLong and Tuckey’s book Mogadishu!: Heroism and Tragedy and recently in Mark Bowden’s articles ‘Black Hawk Down’ for the Philadelphia Inquirer. The losses were too great for the U.S. forces—or more precisely, U.S. public opinion—to take, and General Aidid had won this exercise in politics conducted by other means. Hard-headed U.S. commanders considered the Olympic Hotel operation a success: they had apprehended two senior Aidid aides and inflicted fat greater losses on the SNA militia than they had sustained themselves. With more time, more weaponry, and more stomach for losses, they argued, the U.S. could have persisted and won.

The U.S. tried to blame the UN and other contingents for the failure of the mission. The usual mantra was that the early, ‘humanitarian’ stage of Operation Restore Hope had been successful under U.S. leadership, but when the UN took over in May 1993 things had gone wrong. This is wholly unconvincing. No less an authority than Jonathan Howe emphasized that ‘The QRF and the Rangers were under total U.S. control…. No American unit commander was asked by the UN to do anything he felt was inappropriate.’9

The U.S. was in charge all along. It was Ambassador Oakley who appeased Aidid in the early months, and Admiral Howe who decided on a policy of confrontation. U.S. officers made all the major decisions during the battles which took place between June and October, including the ill-fated weapons search at Radio Mogadishu, the attempt to destroy Aidid’s headquarters twelve days later, and subsequent helicopter operations. In fact, the U.S. insisted on retaining control of all major military operations. The 3 October battle was a solely U.S. affair, undertaken without even informing other UN contingents—Malaysian and Pakistani troops—who later had to be called upon to rescue the stranded U.S. aircrews and Rangers.

The collapse of the UN-U.S. intervention can only be understood when it is realized just how deeply the UN forces had antagonized a wide swathe of Somali society. When the Marines landed on Mogadishu beach on 9 December 1992, hopes were high that they would solve the problems of Somalia. But not only had they disappointed on that front—particularly on the issue of disarming the militiamen—but the behaviour of a large number of the troops was deplorable. Many countries had sent hardened paratroopers and other combat troops on a mission in which police training and civil engineering skills were needed. In many cases the operations quickly degenerated into routine brutality against Somali civilians.

War Crimes

The Belgian troops stationed in Kismayo were a case in point. Without provocation, they harassed, beat and killed many Somalis, many of whom were unarmed.10 Speaking anonymously, Belgian soldiers were frank. ‘You know, if someone had been killed, you just left him there. In the end, all you thought about was the red tape it would cause [to report it]. . .At the very end, we would shoot at them, straight away.’11 Another soldier described how inflicting pain had become part of their everyday life:

There were some really funny things. I saw a guy putting a metal ‘necklace’ around the neck of a kid. It wasn’t hurting him but he couldn’t get out of it. And then six of them, six Somalis, tried to pull him out of it, and they couldn’t. They simply couldn’t pull him out. So yes, then, we did laugh. This kid wasn’t really in pain, because of that piece of metal, but he wasn’t thrilled at the idea that he would have to run around for the rest of his life with this piece of metal around his neck.

Other cases included locking children in metal containers—one boy died from heat exhaustion and suffocation—or dragging people behind tanks, throwing children into the Jubba River, and other incidents too disgusting to recount. The sexual aggression of the paratroopers also caused concern in Kismayo.

When the abuses were first publicized by African Rights, the Belgian army and government denied them outright: Commander Van de Weghe said ‘The [African Rights] report is scandalous. The facts have been exaggerated, taken out of context or simply invented.’ Medecins Sans Frontières–Belgium, which was running the hospital in Kismayo, also went out of its way to deny the allegations.

But when Belgian soldiers began admitting to torture and killing, and photographs of blindfolded Somalis being tied to radio antennae and beaten were published, the truth had to be recognized. In fact, the troops’ activities were more scandalous than African Rights’ report had intimated, and an inquiry was belatedly set up. The first report was superficial, with a few remarks on just seven incidents.12 But the allegations would not go away. A further 268 incidents were then submitted for investigation, including 58 cases of killing or serious injury. On the numbers killed, one of the paratroopers interviewed on Belgian radio commented, ‘You can multiply the official figure by four or five. At the minimum.’ One case came to court in which three paratroopers were acquitted of manslaughter. A second case of aggravated assault was also brought but thrown out. Later, in 1997, another case obtained publicity because part of the evidence was a photograph of two Belgian paratroopers holding a Somali boy over a burning brazier. These two were also acquitted, on the technicality that the Somali boy had not come forward with a complaint.

In May 1998, the Belgian courts belatedly showed some resolution when the sentence on a paratrooper accused of forcing a Somali girl to perform a stripshow was increased from three months to one year, after an appeal from the prosecution. He had ‘offered’ the girl to one of his colleagues as a birthday present. The judge accepted that Sergeant Dirk Nassel had been motivated by racism but could not convict him of torture and sexual abuse because the victims had not come forward to testify.13 Prosecutors are also investigating the case of another paratrooper photographed urinating on the corpse of a Somali boy inside the battalion’s base camp.

The abuses by the Canadian force became far better known. Two Somalis were killed, and the Canadian army tried to conceal their murder. A Commission of Inquiry reported in 1997, finding much evidence for manoeuvring by the Department of National Defence to keep the inquiry from discovering the truth. They concluded:

Perhaps the most troubling consequence of the fragmented, dilatory and incomplete documentary record furnished by DND is that, when this activity is coupled with the incontrovertible evidence of documentary destruction, tampering and alteration, there is a natural and inevitable heightening of suspicion of a cover up that extends into the highest reaches of the Department of National Defense and the Canadian Forces.14

In this case, as with the Belgians, the abuses appear to have been caused by front-line troops acting in a brutal and ill-disciplined manner. They were in a foreign country, without translators and often poorly led. Higher level involvement in their atrocities were chiefly to do with the cover-up of abuses committed by the lower ranks. A similar pattern is evident with Italian troops responsible for abuses including looting camps for displaced people, dangerous destruction of munitions, rape and assault. The Malaysians beat up hospital staff and looted houses; the Pakistanis and Nigerians indiscriminately fired on protesting crowds; the Tunisians shot down civilians in the former university compound and later described them as ‘bandits’; the French opened fire on a truck at a checkpoint and then falsely claimed that the truck was carrying arms and a gunman had opened fire…. The cases are too numerous to detail. (The Irish, Botswanan and Australian troops came away with good reputations however.)

The Canadian abuses became most infamous. This is ironic: the Canadians deserve credit for thoroughly investigating every case that came to light. According to Somalis, the Canadians were some of the best behaved of the peacekeeping forces. A total of four cases of killing by the Canadians led to two cases of criminal charges. By contrast, several hundred cases of killing by the Belgian troops have yet to lead to a single conviction.

Ironically, given their high-level leaders’ disregard for civilian life, the U.S. troops also had a relatively good record of everyday behaviour. Two early cases of wounding and killing by U.S. troops in February led to court martial cases—though the result was one acquittal and one very light sentence.15 The U.S. was the only contingent in Mogadishu to have an office that entertained complaints from the Somali public and made compensation payments, chiefly to the victims of traffic accidents; only the Canadians and Australians (outside Mogadishu) had similar arrangements. Otherwise, Somalis had to suffer abuses without any official course of redress—a dangerous matter in a heavily armed society where people have a strong sense of honour and a universal readiness to defend themselves. They were often ready to voice their complaints with bullets.