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America's two faces in Somalia

About the authors
Harun Hassan worked for Associated Press and the BBC in Somalia. He currently works as a freelancer.
Michael Maren served in the Peace Corps and worked for Catholic Relief Services and the United States Agency for International Development. He spent nearly twenty years in Africa and the Middle East writing for The New York Times, The Village Voice, Newsweek, The New Republic, Harper’s and other magazines. He is the author of The Road to Hell: the ravaging effects of foreign aid and international charity (The Free Press, 1997).

Dear Michael,

In my early life, my view about America was black and white. I was born in 1969 when the only government I have ever known came to power in Somalia. That government was an ally of the former Soviet Union. America was the “devil”. Eight years on, my country shifted alliances from the USSR to America. America was now my angel.

I had to wait until 1992 to have a proper and independent experience of the good and bad sides of your country.

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You can guess how this came about. Famine hit my homeland. After intermittent wars, which destroyed countless lives and properties, my compatriots were helpless and destitute. The media, led by influential American organisations like CNN, ABC, and NBC arrived. You were one of the journalists who came to my country to tell the world about the suffering of the Somalis.

You broadcast images of scores of people travelling hundreds of kilometres in search of food. A starving child in the arms of a dying mother. The sight of a father feeding his children with a dry animal skin while the mother conceals a portion of it for the next meal. These were defining moments for the donors.

The famine claimed the lives of 1,000-1,500 Somalis every day. Some farmers would eat the donated seeds instead of sowing them. One of the worst hit cities had a truck known as the “death truck”, which was used to make rounds every morning to gather up the dead.

The disaster was of our own making. America and the rest of the world had had nothing to do with it. But tens of thousands of people were dying and all the United Nations did was issue the usual calls for international help. The humanitarian organisations couldn’t cope. The European countries such as France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Ireland sent in “fact-finding missions”. The situation in Somalia was officially declared the “worst human catastrophe” since the Biafran war in Nigeria in the late 1960s.

But we needed action not historical facts. We needed a friend in deed not in words and UN resolutions.

The warning of deadly catastrophe fell on deaf ears until one man raised his hands: George Bush, president of the United States. Many Somalis thought the Americans were after our resources – gold, oil, sand dunes! But I thought the Americans were coming to help. 19,000 American troops arrived within a month of President Bush’s promise.

For many Somalis, it was too late. But many others were saved by American intervention. Under “Operation Restore Hope,” the starved were fed, the warlords hid their weapons and relative peace returned to the streets.

America came with wealth and generosity. I went to the airport and watched the marines walk for the first time on Somali soil. Within twenty-four hours I found employment with Associated Press. My salary leapt from $5 to $30 per day. It wasn’t long before I was earning $1,500 a month – money I’d never seen in my entire life!

But then came the other side of America – the bad side. With Somalia en route to recovery and 95% of the Somalis fully behind the American presence, a fatal mistake was made. One warlord, who was never happy with the intervention, disagreed with the American generals. America responded with muscle.

One bad move led to another. America started importing her own “Somalia advisors”, namely Somali-American professors who had been away from the country for decades. As the fighting intensified, American marines began shooting Somalis indiscriminately. All the good things America had done for Somalia and the Somalis were forgotten. It only took a few weeks. The biggest enemy of America, I concluded, is herself.

The United States of America showed a total lack of political foresight. Its primary aim was to stop the famine that was killing over 1,000 people every day in Somalia. Once that was done, America had no other plans. Apparently, the only thing seen as worth doing was to test fire the latest military hardware products. This “gun-friendly attitude” is one of the biggest weaknesses of your countrymen.

In Somalia, we have a proverb: “the best bed that a man can sleep on is peace”. If there is no peace, everyone will have to stay awake and be watchful for the enemy. Only when you don’t have an enemy can you sleep well.

But America seems determined to create animosity for herself. America acts as if only she knows right from wrong. Any country or individual that reflects American interests is labelled democratic. Those who don’t are not.

I now believe that America’s intervention in Somalia was helpful, but I doubt if it was genuine. As America was alleviating hunger in Somalia, she was in the process (via United Nations sanctions) of imposing hunger on Iraq. On the day the last US marines left Somalia, 26 March 1994, other US marines were landing in Haiti to reinstate Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

What happened in Somalia is now taking place in Iraq. American intervention has helped rid Iraq of the tyrant Saddam, but I doubt if the desire to help Iraqis is genuine.

The United States of America needs to join the rest of the world. Only by doing this will she start to think wisely. America must realise that she has enormous potential for good. As the world’s wealthiest and most powerful country, America can take the lead in alleviating the world of this terrible cycle of bullets, bombs and poverty. It is not America herself that so annoys people. It is her misuse of power.

Those who have had direct experience of American military might – from Vietnam to Somalia to Iraq – have a right to expect that America stops repeating the same mistakes again and again.

Iraq might teach America a hard lesson. But how many chances does a nation have to learn from its past?


Dear Harun,

It is true that in Somalia you saw the best and worst of America, often at the same time. Indeed, America’s best and worst is very often two faces of the same thing. I will attempt an explanation, as much to myself as to you for, as you recall, I was there in Somalia with you watching the entire sad episode unfold. For the first time in my life, I had the opportunity to watch my own country as an outsider – and I was as puzzled as many Somalis.

America is more than a physical, national entity. It is an idea and an ideal. I don’t know if this can be said about any other country on earth.

The American idea is a great idea, which Americans have embraced with an evangelical zeal that can often cross into a self-righteous conviction that America’s way is the only way. When America does “good” in the world, it wants more than just gratitude. It wants affirmation that the American way has prevailed. It wants an admission that America’s wealth is evidence of its superiority. When American generosity is not adequately acknowledged – or violently rejected, as it was in Somalia – American feelings are hurt, and the hurt becomes anger.

In March 2003, we didn’t want to hear from the Iraqis who lost innocent loved ones as American forces rained destruction on Baghdad. And on 3 October 1993, we didn’t want to hear that 1,000 Somalis lost their lives, only about the eighteen American soldiers who died that day. We want only gratitude because our intentions are good. The collateral deaths – always those of others – are the price of our gift of freedom.

The 9/11 attacks were, among many other things, a massive violent rejection of America, albeit on the part of a radical fringe group. Still, Americans were pained to see the isolated celebrations by a few people who felt that America had gotten its comeuppance. The hurt turned to anger on a massive scale. We needed to lash out at somebody, make somebody feel our pain. Iraq would do.

When George W. Bush sees the hatred for America that emanates from much of the Islamic world, he can only think that the people there hate democracy, hate what America stands for. Blinded by his own conviction, he cannot see below the surface to what causes such fanatical ideas to grow within the hearts and minds of men. Much of the popularity among US voters that Bush enjoys today is the result of his refusal or, more likely, inability to question American motives and to see the world from the perspective of the poor, or indeed the “other” as a whole. In this, he is typical of Americans. We do not want to do this. We prefer to try and remake the world in our own image.

Iraq may, as you say, teach America a hard lesson – but I doubt that America will learn it. If you were in the United States today you would see history being rewritten as it happens. We steadfastly reject the parallels you make: Vietnam, Somalia, Iraq. We are big and strong enough to allow the lessons of history only to sting, but not cripple us.

The American experience in Somalia has been distilled into a Hollywood movie: a movie in which the Americans are the heroes, in which the Americans win. That’s how we like our history. That’s how we like our wars. But this rewriting is an evasion of history rather than an engagement with it.

What your letter makes me realise is that the process damages ourselves as much as Vietnamese, Somalis, or Iraqis. Americans need, perhaps above all, a new, collective effort of imagination to overcome this. A real engagement with the truth of our past – especially with those chapters of it that have brought us into violent conflict with other countries and peoples – is the only way that we will move beyond fantasies of perpetual heroism and victory onto another field of dreams: our common humanity.

Best wishes,

Next week: Antara Dev Sen, Editor of The Little Magazine in New Delhi, writes to Dinesh D’Souza, best-selling author of What’s So Great About America.

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