A decade after gunmen shot down two U.S. Army helicopters
Friday, October 3, 2003
MOGADISHU, Somalia -- The wreckage of a Black Hawk helicopter lies tangled in a big prickly pear cactus. It's the only remaining evidence of the fierce battle on a dusty side street a decade ago that killed 18 U.S. soldiers and spurred the exit of American peacekeepers.
On Oct. 3, 1993, Ali Shera was a lieutenant in warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid's militia, and Musa Hussein was a streetfighter toting an assault rifle. They said they rejoiced when they won the 19-hour battle against the world's only superpower.
"You can imagine Somalia, a small nation, we beat the most powerful country in the world," Shera, 41, said while looking at the wreck. "For us, we were very happy we beat the Americans."
But in the years since, the two men have come to hate the clan militias that still prowl Mogadishu's streets and the anarchy that has left Somalia a state in name only. Shera and Hussein said they have seen too much death and destruction.
"Now we are tired. We've fought each other, and we can't defeat each other," said Hussein, 34, who along with Shera is unemployed. "We hate to carry guns anymore."
While much of the aluminum from the Black Hawk's wreckage has been cut away to make kitchen utensils, a turbine engine remains, along with the floorboard and a steel beam from the frame, most of it concealed by the overgrown cactus.
Its carving-up mirrors what has happened to this arid, Texas-sized country of 7 million people on the Horn of Africa.
Former President Mohamed Siad Barre ran a tightly centralized state during a 22-year dictatorship, keeping opponents divided by cultivating distrust and hatred among Somalia's six major clans. After he was overthrown in 1991, clan fighting spread across the country, and no one has been able to form a central government that can exert control.
Mogadishu itself has been divvied up among seven faction leaders. While it is possible to pass from one neighborhood to another, Somalis must be careful with whom they do business or how long they stay in a neighborhood that isn't theirs.
At night, it is easy to tell good neighborhoods from bad. The progressive ones have diesel generators for electricity, and people walk the streets. But in the Medina district -- controlled by Muse Sude Yalahow -- there is only darkness and fear of his notoriously undisciplined gunmen.
The capital's main seaport and airport remain closed, primarily because no clan has been able to gain control over them.
Militia charges fees
All foreign cargo and international travelers pass through other makeshift ports controlled by separate sub-clans, where militiamen collect user fees. The same system applies on highways at checkpoints manned by gunmen.
That worries foreign terrorism experts, because anyone able to pay the fees can enter Somalia. There is no government to issue visas or immigration officers to check passports at the five functioning airports or hundreds of docks.
While there is no evidence of terrorist training camps or offices, at least one suspected al-Qaida member has been snatched from Somalia and another reportedly has been spotted in Mogadishu.
A warlord's gunmen captured a Yemeni named Suleiman Abdalla Salim Hemed in March. Authorities in neighboring Kenya claimed credit for arranging his capture and said he provided them with "useful information" about the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania as well as leads on last November's attack at an Israeli tourist hotel on the Kenyan coast and the unsuccessful attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner.
Kenya's minister in charge of national security, Chris Murungaru, said in a statement that Hemed was turned over to U.S. authorities. American officials have refused to comment, and Hemed's whereabouts are unknown.
Hiding place for terrorists
Somalis on the street know the United States is watching their country, but they insist no international terrorists are operating from here. They say Somalia is an ethnically homogenous country, making it nearly impossible for a foreigner to go unnoticed.
"It is possible they are here," Hussein acknowledged.
As for Shera and Hussein, they hold no ill will toward the United States and would like Somalia to have normal relations with America.
"After the war ended between the Somalis and the Americans, we forgot everything," Shera said. "That was 10 years ago. I hope we can solve these problems and sit down and talk together."