Bogging down in Somalia, as U.S. charity turns bitter


June 20, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

If no good deed goes unpunished, then the United States is now receiving its reward for Somalia.

We are threatening to send more troops into a country we were supposed to be getting out of.

And we are fighting on the same side as troops who, some witnesses say, are guilty of massacring civilians.

The United States went into Somalia on Dec. 9, 1992, with about 24,000 troops in order to restore enough order so that starving people could get fed.

In April of this year, we began pulling out our troops (about 4,200 remain) and turned over Mogadishu, the nation's capital, to Pakistani troops, who are serving as United Nations peacekeeping forces.

The Pakistani soldiers were subjected to the same kind of sniping that U.S. forces were subjected to, but U.S. forces had acted with extreme restraint.

In fact, considering American lives were in peril, U.S. military authorities went to great lengths to demonstrate that the Somalis were to be treated with respect:

On Feb. 2, U.S. Marine Gunnery Sgt. Harry Conde was riding in a military vehicle in Mogadishu when a Somalian teen-ager, who was well-known as a thief, reached into the vehicle, slapped Conde's head against the seat and stole his prescription sunglasses.

Conde later said that he had feared for his life. "I did feel like this could be the end for me," he said.

So Conde pointed his weapon -- a confiscated grenade launcher filled with buckshot -- out the window of the vehicle and fired.

The teen-ager was hit in the stomach and later had to undergo surgery to remove part of his colon.

Conde was court-martialed, found guilty of assault with a dangerous weapon, fined a month's pay and demoted in rank.

He later said: "It's just ironic how you come here to restore hope. Who's going to restore my hope? It's ironic that you come here to relieve victims, but you leave a victim."

Clearly, the Marine Corps meant to send a message. And further messages were sent:

Pfc. Larry Thomas was leaving Mogadishu's main airport when a street vendor approached his car selling canes. Thomas grabbed two canes and drove off. When the vendor caught up with the car, Thomas punched him in the face.

The Marines charged Thomas with theft and assault. He pleaded guilty and threw himself on the mercy of the court, which showed very little: He was fined, reduced in rank, sentenced to two months in confinement and one month at hard labor.

And though forces from other nations have been accused of misconduct, the United States is one of the few to actually investigate and punish its soldiers.

Which brings us to Pakistan.

On June 5, Pakistani soldiers were surrounded by Somalian women, who acted as human shields for gunmen who killed 23 of the Pakistanis.

On June 13, perhaps in retaliation, Pakistani soldiers opened fire with automatic weapons on a crowd of Somalian civilians, killing at least 20, including women and children.

The Pakistanis then boarded their U.N. vehicles and rode off, ignoring cries for help from the wounded.

The Pakistanis claim they were fired upon first and were fearful of another human shield attack.

But witnesses, including journalists, say they heard no shots except those fired by the Pakistanis, who were shooting from behind elevated, sandbagged barricades.

"This is an absolute disaster," a U.N. official said. "Before this, we had the moral high ground."

In his news conference Thursday night, President Clinton strongly criticized warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid for the June 5 attack on the Pakistanis.

Clinton said not a word, however, about the June 13 attack on Somalian civilians.

None of this is playing well with the people of Somalia, who are getting fed up with the armed foreigners in their midst.

But we cannot leave.

Not only must we battle the Somalian gunmen, but we must stay to make sure none of our allies overreacts and starts shooting the place up.

Last week, the Pentagon announced that a force of 2,200 Marines in the Indian Ocean were being moved southward toward Somalia.

And what started out as a legitimate mission of mercy now has all the makings of a quagmire.

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