The tears of Mary Robinson

October 14, 1992

It took President Mary Robinson of Ireland to put the tragedy of Somalia squarely before the world. After three days visiting its starving people and dismal camps, she faced a press conference in neighboring Kenya, broke down and wept. Not many presidents do. She was "shamed, shamed, shamed that the developed world had lost its humanity and watched as others suffered."

She spoke of children waiting, silent and still, for a food ration that never came; a mother whose milk had dried up trying to breast-feed her baby; a mother holding a child to show sores on head and body; children with stomachs protruding and flies in their eyes.

And then her message: "I have a sense of what the people of Somalia want me to say. I have such a sense that the world must take its responsibility. Yes, the U.N. and other agencies must rise strongly to the challenge. Yes, individual governments must re-identify their priorities and individuals must face this crisis."

Strong stuff from a constitutionally weak head of state forbidden to talk policy. So the stereotypically female qualities of empathy and weeping, largely banished from political and governmental, prove to be assets in moving great powers in the right direction. Perhaps what the world needs is more presidents capable of weeping.

And yet the solution to the problem Mrs. Robinson identifies almost certainly involves the stereotypically male side of government, the mailed fist. Somalis are starving because rival armed thugs, the only government Somalia has, are starving them. Machine gun fire raked the port of Mogadishu as freighters unloaded food. Mortar fire caused Belgian and Canadian cargo planes at the airport to suspend unloading and fly away. Half the 181,500 tons of food delivered so far were stolen.

The Hawadle clan controls the airport and charges a relief plane $1,000 to land and journalists and aid workers $20 a head to debark. The strongest clan leader, Mohamed Farrah Aidid, moved armored vehicles in position to seize the airport. When 500 Pakistani U.N. troops deploy at the airport and port, they will at best confirm the power of those holding it. But getting food to starving people probably would mean killing Somali bandits who prevent their receiving it. So far, governments have not contemplated that.

President Robinson pinned her hopes on a U.N. donors' conference in Geneva on Monday and yesterday. U.N. official Mohamed Shnoun proposed a 100-day emergency program of health, sanitation, public works and agriculture as well as feeding and medical care, and said afterward that nations responded. He also warned of arms shipments still going into Somalia. The powerful tears of Mary Robinson pricked the conscience of the world. But they cannot get the starving people of Somalia fed without force of a different kind.

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