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new internationalist
issue 242 - April 1993

Operation Humiliation
Rakiya Omaar was kicked out of her director’s job at Africa Watch,
the US-controlled human rights organization, for saying the US
‘rescue mission’ to her native Somalia was doing more harm than good. On a
trip home she discovers that the Somali voice isn’t being heard there either...

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Rakiya Omaar, sacked for speaking out against the US intervention in Somalia [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
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‘Today it is a curse to be an educated Somali. To you I seem normal, appearing to cope. But everyday I feel I die a little inside, from humiliation and frustration.’

Adbi is the most senior Somali in a large relief organization in Somalia. His eyes welled with tears as he spoke of the demoralization and marginalization of Somalis in their own country.

I was back in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, for the first time since civil war erupted a little over a year ago. I thought I was well prepared for what I was going to see. In the past few years every encounter with another Somali had led me to anticipate nothing but pain and tales of loss.

As director of the human rights group Africa Watch for four-and- half years, with special responsibility for research in Somalia, I had been immersed in chronicling Somalia’s nightmares and the cruelties that awaited even those who managed to escape abroad.

I had interviewed hundreds of Somalis who spoke of the killing, torture and imprisonment of loved ones; of watching their children die of starvation in front of their eyes and of the destruction of their homes, villages and towns. I had seen their shame at the poverty that war had reduced them to.

Yet I was quite unprepared for the indignities of what it means, on a day-to- day basis, to live in a country with no central government. Somalis had no reason to mourn the death of Mohamed Siad Barre. The corruption, manipulation of clan identities and fear fuelling Somalia’s violence are the direct legacy of his 21-year dictatorship. But his demise does not alter the stark realities facing Somalis today – both rural and urban.

In Mogadishu and other towns there are no government institutions which can provide work. There is no banking system, no national airline, no telephone or postal system. The only schools are religious and dominated by fundamentalists. There are a few private schools with virtually no resources, where volunteer teachers attempt to keep some children from lapsing into illiteracy and to win boys away from the gun culture. Most schools, and even the university, have become centres for the displaced. Aid organizations and the few UN agencies operating in Somalia are the only employers for educated Somalis.

I visited Farah, a relief worker who graduated from a western university and who has a wealth of field experience. He pointed out to me a relatively inexperienced young expatriate working in his office. Farah is the young man’s boss and earns the equivalent of $250 a month in local currency. Because he is an expatriate, the young man gets $3,000 in hard currency, plus 25 per cent hardship allowance, free lodging, food, water and a host of other benefits.

As a Somali, Farah is lucky to have a job. But most Somalis with jobs today also bear the tremendous burden of a large extended family to support, including many members who have been displaced by war and who are in desperate need.

Ambassador Robert Oakley, the US special envoy to Somalia, recently expressed ‘surprise’ that there were so many of what he called ‘middle class’ people left in the country. That the US was either ignorant of the fact or made no effort to find out before the launch of Operation Restore Hope speaks volumes about the gross misrepresentations of Somali realities that preceded the operation.

The majority of the people Oakley calls ‘middle class’ are jobless but in spite of this abundance of trained and experienced people with nothing to do, the UN is reluctant to hire them. Instead, scores of young and unqualified foreigners are taken on. A senior UN official announced the other day that the UN were ‘unable’ to fill about 80 positions created for Somalis. He blamed what he called a ‘cult of suspicion’ towards Somalis and said there was no enthusiasm to hire them.

But what really hurts is not jobs or money. It’s the daily humiliations I experienced and saw during my month in Somalia, the invisibility and lack of independence of Somalis, as foreigners make decisions about their country. The war and the prevalence of gunfighters have forced agencies to tighten security. If you are Somali it is virtually impossible to gain access to their buildings. While you plead with the guards you watch white people enter, no questions asked. Former Government officials who are today refused entry recall the days when relief officials came to visit them in their offices.

Men and women who used to make decisions about the qualifications of foreigners to work in Somalia are now powerless. Six months ago a UN agency decided to create an agricultural advisory board. Some of the country’s most experienced agricultural specialists decided to apply for the posts, only to find that the man interviewing them was the young expatriate son of a foreign colleague who had worked with them in Somalia 15 years earlier.

There are of course thoughtful foreign aid workers who express discomfort that their ‘local’ counterparts are so much more experienced and better qualified than they are. The local professionals, meanwhile, are left feeling that they were recruited only for their knowledge of the local situation, as if their professional qualifications and experiences were irrelevant.

Because there is no communications system it is hard for the international media to get to hear the Somali voice. People like Abdi and Farah could have left the country, as have many of their fellow citizens. They chose to remain. But having survived the worst of the fighting, many are so demoralized that they question the value of staying put. ‘I don’t want to leave my country,’ Farah commented. ‘But how long can one continue in this situation?’

Since leaving Africa Watch, Rakiya Omaar has become co-director of a new London-based human rights organization called African Rights.

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