The Cold War Ended, an African Sore Festers Out of Sight in Somalia

NEW YORK. — New York--Mohammed Siad Barre, the former despot of Somalia, frequently promised he would leave behind neither a country nor a people.

To a large extent, he has succeeded. The current bloodshed is the work of rival factions of the Hawiye clan and, within the same rebel movement, the United Somali Congress. Hungry for power, their two leaders are exploiting the gun culture that developed during Mr. Siad Barre's time. In Somalia now, as in many other parts of the Horn of Africa, it is easier to obtain lethal weapons than an aspirin or something to eat.


The United Nations has had a wonderful year, reviving its moribund reputation by intervening in internal conflicts in the headlines, such as Yugoslavia, Cambodia and El Salvador, and in facilitating the release of Western hostages in the Middle East. Somalia was once important as a Cold War pawn in Africa. But now it is just an impoverished country trapped in a spiral of war; it is not an attractive candidate for the attention of the United Nations or any other government.

For a year there has been no government. The infrastructure has collapsed, most relief and humanitarian agencies have left, there is no security to grow food or transport it to the city, famine has spread and communication with the outside world has virtually ceased. In October, the International Committee of the Red Cross complained publicly about the "indifference of the West toward this forgotten country."


UNICEF has been particularly aggressive in promoting itself as an effective voice for the protection of children. Earlier this month, while UNICEF and other U.N. officials were meeting in Nairobi to discuss the Horn of Africa, thousands of innocent civilians were being slaughtered in Mogadishu; the overwhelming majority of them were women and children.

Citing "security concerns," UNICEF withdrew its expatriate personnel from the capital after Mr. Barre's ouster last January: the killing of innocents had already begun in earnest. Security concerns did not prevent a much-publicized campaign by UNICEF to save the children of Dubrovnik. It seems unlikely that the assessment team created at the Nairobi meeting will also go to Somalia.

In a recent communique, the Red Cross called the situation in Mogadishu "a human disaster of the worst magnitude." The Red Cross is virtually alone among international agencies attempting provide emergency services. The ferocity of the shelling has now forced even the Red Cross to withdraw from the north of the city, leaving the civilians there without any access to food or medical care. It has also had to withdraw its surgical teams from the south of the city.

Unusually strong public criticism of the United Nations from the U.S. State Department and the Red Cross finally shamed UNICEF into action last week. UNICEF offered to pay two-thirds of the cost of flying in relief supplies organized by the European Community. But much more needs to be done.

As in the case of Liberia, Somalia highlights the unwillingness of the Organization of African Unity to offer leadership in Africa. The current OAU chairman, President Ibrahim Babangida of Nigeria, has not made a single public comment. Only last week did the OAU secretary general, Salim Ahmed Salim, condemn the violence and offer to use his good offices.

Without external pressure, it is unlikely that the OAU will seek to bring the matter before the Security Council or take practical steps to end the war or assist civilians. The usual rationale for silence is the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign member countries. But even that excuse does not apply to Somalia, as there is no government to protest such activity.

In a recent statement condemning the United Somali Congress, the U.S. State Department referred to the "selfish" actions of the two camps. Today's tragedy, however, is also the result of a selfish and shortsighted American view of Somalia. From 1978 to 1989, the United States supported -- with arms, money and diplomatic ties -- a ruthless dictator whose divisive tactics polarized society and set the stage for the nightmare that now engulfs Somalia.

Anxious to "balance" Soviet presence in neighboring Ethiopia, successive U.S. administrations turned a blind eye to the evidence of murder, torture, imprisonment, corruption and policies that manufactured divisive differences among regions and clans. With the end of the Cold War, Mr. Barre was suddenly dispensable and the United States turned its back on the people of Somalia when they most needed attention.


The residents of Mogadishu may not have seen the worst yet. There is the looming threat that the violence will break out with even greater ferocity if the forces mustered by Mr. Barre succeed in recapturing Mogadishu. Mr. Barre, who has taken refuge along the Somali-Kenya border and is said to be receiving assistance from senior Kenyan officials, has promised a ferocious repression against the Hawiye who targeted Mr. Barre's clan and others associated with his rule after he was driven out.

It is now accepted that the way governments treat their people is a legitimate concern for the international community. Aid, trade and the need for diplomatic ties provide leverage even with the most abusive governments. It is harder to have an impact on callous rebel movements intent on killing their way into power. But if the current war turns into a stalemate of carnage, it may force both sides to seek a way out.

That is unlikely to happen unless there are parties willing to mediate. Before there is no one left in Mogadishu, efforts must be made to bring the slaughter to an end. It is time for the United Nations to remember its responsibility to people in a country that now matters little to anyone but its own citizens.

Rakiya Omaar, a Somali, is executive director of the human-rights organization Africa Watch.