Speaking Out videos: Somalia 1991-1993: Civil War, Famine Alert and a UN “Military-Humanitarian” Intervention

Frontline Doctors - Pontfilly, Laffont - MSF source d’information en Somalie

1991 - A Corps – Pontfilly, Laffont - MSF à Mogadiscio (English)

1991 - A Corps – Pontfilly, Laffon - MSF in Mogadishu (French)

1991 - A Corps – Pontfilly, Laffont - Interview du directeur de la collecte de fonds de MSF France (French)

Commentary: Blinded by the sandstorm sweeping through the Gulf, the media appear to be unaware of what’s happening in Somalia. MSF is trying to inform the public of what its team is doing in Mogadishu in order to raise funds. This message was written by the organisation’s marketing and communications department and a few days later it was delivered through the letter boxes of 520,000 donors.

Xavier Descarpentris: This fund-raising effort was not only a way to finance MSF but also to let people know what’s happening in Somalia.

Commentary: Over 15 million francs raised. A record for MSF, despite the media’s silence on events in Somalia. As the expression goes, there are none so blind as those that will not see.

1992 - Mars, MSF Archive - Interview du coordinateur de MSF France en Somalie (French/English)

1992 - Mars, MSF Archive - Interview MSF France coordinator in Somalia (French)

29 April 1992 - Interview of MSF Coordinator in Somalia

Presenter: So we’re going to link up perhaps with Médecins Sans Frontières, who are going to have a logistics base here in Mérignac in a few months. MSF is currently working in Somalia, a country facing civil war. Our reporters were still in Mogadishu just a few days ago.

Reporter: Mogadishu, the devastated capital of a non-nation, non-State. There are no functioning structures or systems, no water, no electricity, no communications. There is only one diplomatic mission--Egypt's. Only M16s and Kalashnikovs have any legitimacy here, and armed violence is the only law. Toppled dictator Mohamed Siad Barre’s troops have just fallen back toward the Ethiopian border after launching another offensive against the capital, Mogadishu, which is split between two rival clans. The March 3rd ceasefire agreed to by Generals Aidid and Mahdi was supposed to allow UN food aid, but for obvious security reasons that still hasn’t happened.

Patrick Vial: We really hope that either next week, or at least in the next two weeks, the first boat or even several boats will be able to get here. We really hope for that. If the boats can’t get here, there is going to be very, very serious unrest, I think, and the NGOs may have to leave.

Reporter: A preliminary assessment today found at least 400,000 IDPs in precarious circumstances in Mogadishu and south of the Somali capital. There are numerous cases of malnutrition, the famine threshold has been reached, and the mortality rate in some camps has reached 20 deaths per 10,000 people per day. Western medical teams are still seeing gunshot victims daily. One of the NGOs working in Somalia, Médecins Sans Frontières operates every day, morning and night, under armed guard.

Patrick Vial: Aside from Liberia, which was a bit like Somalia, I don’t see or know of any other place in the world where it’s so difficult to work.

Reporter: The UN Security Council just decided to send fifty unarmed observers to ensure the distribution of international food aid. That seems very inadequate in the current chaotic situation, according to the humanitarian organisations still on the ground.

1992 - Urgence Nutritionnelle en Somalie

16 September 1992 - ABC - Déclaration de Rony Brauman devant le comité des affaires étrangères du congrès étasunien (English)

September 1992 - CCE

20 October 1992 - France 2 - Valérie Fourniou - Interview of MSF Medical Coordinator, Somalia (French)

Presenter: We’re going to watch a story right now. The central figure is Mohamed, who is eight years old. Mohamed was wounded, lost his family, and has been all but adopted by Médecins Sans Frontières. This is the story of a child dealing with the absurdity of Somalia’s civil war.

Reporter: Mohamed’s only moment of tenderness, a walk, side-by-side, hand-in-hand with the woman who saved his life and who eagerly waits for him each day.

Brigitte Doppler: Mohamed was one of the very first casualties to arrive at the operating room in the last war, which started November 27th, 1991. On the second or third morning we found him in a wheelbarrow in front of the OR, his right leg completely blown apart. A mortar had fallen on their house a few hours earlier. We took him into the OR straightaway; we had no choice but to amputate.

Reporter: Since then, Mohamed has lived right here, in front of the MSF operating room door, in a burlap shelter with his grandmother, sister and brother, the family’s only survivors.

Mohamed’s grandmother: Here is Mohamed before the war, here is his sister Fatoum, here his brother Fahrir and here is their mother who died. They have no parents anymore. How are we going to live now? I’m too old to work; I spend my time looking for a bit of food.

Reporter: The hospital is their only shelter. Far from the city’s violence, sporadic gunfire and looters, a refuge for the children without parents.

Brigitte Doppler: The whole country is destroyed, the city is destroyed. We have no idea what their future will be. There’s no school, there’s nothing. The only place he can survive is here, for now, or else become a street kid like so many others. He has his house here, so he stays.

Reporter: As long as he stays away from adult violence, Mohamed will keep playing his childhood games, but he’s already mimicking their gestures.

20 October 1992

Presenter: So as we were just saying, the aid from the West, from USA, from France, is very real.. But distribution is precarious in a country that is, unfortunately, in the midst of a civil war. Recently, MSF attempted a small foray fairly far – several hundred kilometres – from the capital.

Reporter: In Abel Barba, the whole village, from the most able-bodied to the frailest, is involved in building what will be a feeding centre for children, and for the first time everyone is setting aside their internecine quarrels and clan rivalries.

Jean-Luc Pleigner: For this village, I’m pleasantly surprised, it’s pretty rare to see, everyone’s involved and things are progressing at a phenomenal pace. We should be able to start in three or four days. We have our screening room where the children come in and get weighed, and we give them bracelets so we can recognize them. After that there’s the kitchen and the storeroom, where we’re going to store all our goods.

Reporter: Like everywhere in Somalia, food is always protected and closely guarded. Médecins Sans Frontières gives the children – especially the weakest ones – an energy porridge called Unimix. But before that, as at the other centre that just opened in Kansardere, a doctor auscultates them and conducts an initial screening.

Isabelle Fournier: The ones that come are the ones that are mobile. We see malnourished children, since our criterion is malnutrition, but there are certainly many more all around us, not very far away, in the trees. We know that there are whole families that are unable to come because they're too weak, and we're going to try to help them, too, by going out to look for them, doing active detection.

Reporter: And the scale of the tragedy is becoming clearer every day. Famine, of course, but also scabies and TB. All these diseases due to a lack of water and hygiene. News of the centre’s opening has spread quickly well beyond the villages, and people are crowding around the only source of safe drinking water.

Jean-Luc Pleigner: We bring the water in on donkeys, in 200-litre barrels.

Reporter: You mean there aren’t any wells?

Jean-Luc Pleigner: No, they’ve been completely destroyed or plugged in the war. So the only supply is from these small lakes or ponds around here, so the water is filtered, chlorinated and then brought here.

Reporter: In the space of ten days, Médecins Sans Frontières managed the impossible in this stricken country: to build, rebuild, and give two villages some hope of life. But the tensions and out-of-control armed conflict would get the better of their efforts. A few hours after we left, the entire MSF team had to evacuate the sector until the situation cooled off.

20 October 1992 - France 2 - Les gueux en Somalie - Interview of an MSF Logistician (French)

Presenter: This morning, after a 12-day wait, the rice collected in France was unloaded near Mogadishu. But solidarity is a thing of the past in this country; some are excluded from humanitarian aid.

Journalist: Under heavy guard, rice and broad beans are protected from the down-and-out and especially from low-lives of all stripes, willing to kill so that they can sell their loot for a handful of Somali shillings. International aid has arrived, for the first time, in the village of Kansardere, and those now getting around are the most able-bodied, survivors of the year-long famine. But away from the village, not far from the distribution, are the outsiders – people who don’t belong to the group or clan.

Outsider: I’m a nomad; I have two children, my husband was killed and no one is helping me. Grass is all we have to eat.

Reporter: Everywhere around the village, they wait for someone to deign to take care of them.

Jean-Luc Pleigner: Those people are nomads, IDPs. They’re treated like lepers, or beggars; they get pushed away.

Reporter: No one helps them?

Jean-Luc Pleigner: No, there’s no solidarity; they depend solely on us.

Reporter: How many of them are there around the village, the beggars? Many of them are lame, or orphans, and of course abandoned old people.

Village head: Yes, we give him something to eat, a little… A little…but well, he has no family anymore, you know.

Reporter: The distribution just started; a few of the nomads will manage to slip in among the villagers and get a ration of rice, a reprieve. As in all wars and all famines, solidarity is gone. And the primary mission of international aid organisations is to help those who have no weapons to defend themselves, to survive.

5 December 1992 - France 2 

TV presenter: So let’s start with Somalia where the looting of food supplies goes on, making a military intervention more necessary than ever. Today, armed gangs held up yet another convoy attempting to deliver cereal. These gangs are getting rich on humanitarian assistance. How will they react when the first international forces arrive? This is the question on everyone’s lips here in Somalia where Bernard Kouchner has come in person to oversee the delivery of bags of rice from France. Here’s a report from our correspondents, Jérôme Bony and Alain Dumas:

The police now play a very minor role in the Somali capital. The people in control are known here as the "technicals". Skilled in the handling of weapons, they roam the town in Land Cruisers equipped with heavy machineguns.
Today, Bernard Kouchner, accompanied by a representative of the United Nations Children’s Fund, is crossing the demarcation line that separates the southern part Mogadishu from the northern part of the city. Each of these parts is occupied by one of two clans from the same tribe that today hate each other with a vengeance. They will be meeting the man who runs the northern sector, interim president Ali Mahidi, who claims to be in favour of the arrival of foreign troops with a mandate to restore the peace. This is why, he adds - optimistically, the price of a machine gun on the Mogadishu market has gone down from 5000 francs to 1000 francs . He is also keen to show our minister the weapons he claims to have withdrawn from his fighters, although some of these vehicles simply look broken down.
On this Saturday morning, the Minister for Health looked more like President Mitterrand’s special envoy on a tour of inspection before the landing of the American and then French troops. But this afternoon, he was again wearing his humanitarian aid hat when he helped unload the 4000 tonnes of rice sent out in October by French schoolchildren. Bags whose precious content was left waiting offshore for two weeks in the hold of the cargo ship, Tadorne II, unable to dock because of the fighting, but which have finally reached the beaches of this famine-stricken land.

Bernard Kouchner: "They felt all the symbolism surrounding this gesture by French children; I mean they know about how the schools contributed, and the post office, and about everyone who helped us, and that each bag of rice is a donation from a child from among 13 million French people. So I think they felt the weight of the determination for peace."

Nearby, hundreds of people are waiting, each representing a whole family. Many of them have walked for days for their share of this precious mixture of rice, oil and - for want of meat – beans. This food distribution is the crowning achievement of the outpouring of solidarity by our schoolchildren towards the children of Somalia, where a third of the population is threatened by famine and 250,000 people may be dead by Christmas.
There are about 800 kitchens like this for the whole of Somalia; most of them are run by the Red Cross. But many of these kitchens are inland, in the combat zones, where getting supplies through is very difficult, more difficult than in the Mogadishu region. And this is why the people here are eagerly awaiting the intervention by the American troops that could take place on Monday, and that of the French and the Europeans at the end of the week.

7 July 1993 - RTBF - Interview with MSF Belgium coordinator / Interview Coordinateur MSF Belgique sur abus des casques bleus belges à Kisimayo (English/French)

7 July 1993 - RTBF - Interview with MSF Belgium coordinator / Interview Coordinateur MSF Belgique (French)

May 1993 - MSF France - Journal de l’année (English)

May 1993 - MSF France - A Year in Focus (French)

9 June 1993 - France 2 (French)

Presenter: In Somalia, the situation is still extremely tense after Saturday’s ambush that killed twenty-three UN Peacekeepers. The UN is preparing to attack those responsible and, fearing reprisals, has asked humanitarian organisations to leave the country quickly.

Presenter: CARE already left yesterday, and this morning AICF announced it would follow shortly, for security reasons. Since last night, leaflets hostile to the UN forces have been distributed in the capital.

Reporter: On this road from Mogadishu to Baidoa, armed groups have targeted humanitarian organisation vehicles not escorted by UN military vehicles on a regular basis. AICF had nevertheless decided to stay, like here in the village of Burakaba, but since the ambush that killed 30 Pakistani UN Peacekeepers in Mogadishu, it decided – like MSF and Pharmacists without Borders – to suspend its mission in Somalia. Everyone fears reprisals against the staff, because the UN soldiers are reportedly on the verge of striking those responsible for Saturday’s ambush.

Christelle Breton: I think it’s mostly armed groups working on their own. What they want, in fact, is to loot cars, steal cars…and they won’t hesitate to kill for that.

Reporter: Twenty-one people from AICF will be leaving the country, though they've fed thousands of children and treated hundreds of patients for months with their two doctors and six nurses. Their activities have helped nearly 80,000 people. The departure of several humanitarian organisations from Somalia leaves the population facing new food and medical aid problems. Only the 18,000 UN soldiers will now be in a position to distribute that food, which the Somalis still need very badly. The humanitarian organisation had until 2 pm to leave the country.

27 July 1993 - France 2 - interview with Rony Brauman, MSF France President (French)

TV presenter: Rony Brauman, good evening You are the president of Médecins sans Frontières, thank you for coming tonight. You waited a month and a half before lodging your complaint against the UN. Were you hesitant about going up against such a major institution?

Rony Brauman: No, not really. We just wanted to take the time to get our facts straight, and then to build our case, draft it, translate it and send it off. And so it’s taken us until today to officially lodge this complaint. But the reasons for that were purely technical.

Presenter: There were also MSF doctors inside the building. In your opinion, was this a blunder or a deliberate attack.

Rony Brauman: No, I think it was a blunder, but a revealing blunder, as it was clearly part of an escalation of a visibly military nature. As time goes on, the United Nations – which at first were, let’s say, military-cum-humanitarian –, have become less and less humanitarian and, dare I say it, more and more military. But they’ve kept the humanitarian label, of course. And bit by bit, by putting down demonstrations that they considered threatening - and some of them were, and by carrying out reprisals against the troops of General Aidid, - understandable reprisals, they’ve become indiscriminate, coming down on the civilian population in the same way, or practically the same way, and on the headquarters of a humanitarian organisation, on a hospital with sick and injured people. In other words, yes, it was a blunder, but it was due to an implacably military-style escalation which has given us the impression that the UN, supposedly here to try and restore law and order and possibilities for dialogue, and to enable humanitarian operations to go ahead, has in fact been reduced to the rank of yet another Somali clan, running its own war, killing children, women and civilians blindly, mercilessly.

Presenter: So what can be done to resolve the problems caused by the UN wearing two hats: one humanitarian and one military?

Rony Brauman: Well, as we’ve said from the start, for the UN’s humanitarian agencies to be able to take action and deploy these two hats need to be on different heads. This is what we hope for and this is what we are urgently calling for. We need them, and it is crucial for them to be in the field. But the humanitarian approach, humanitarian assistance must be allowed to go its way, and the politics - and any military means that go with it - should go theirs. Then we will avoid - although not completely - we’ll avoid the growing confusion that is causing aid workers in Somalia to be suspected of the darkest of motives because, after all, you might start out as an aid worker but you end up with a gun.

Presenter: MSF has withdrawn from Somalia since these incidents.

Rony Brauman: Yes, we withdrew in April, and then we came back when the tension was at its height because we still have a base in Somalia. But we withdrew because the emergency was over, that’s important to know and it's a good thing, and also because we considered that running longer-term projects wasn’t an option given the growing risks and tension.

Presenter: Rony Brauman, thank you very much

6 October 1993 - France 2 - Interview with Rony Brauman, MSF France President (French)

TV presenter: Rony Brauman, good morning. MSF left Somalia a few days ago, openly criticising the UN as it went. Do you think there really is "slippage", as we call it, in the UN’s mandate at the moment?

Rony Brauman: I don't just think so, I see evidence of it every day. To begin with their engagement was military-cum-humanitarian; but it gradually became less and less humanitarian and more and more military. It has now become unacceptable. Troops who engaged to defend humanitarian principles, for moral reasons, are firing on civilian demonstrators, on hospitals, and are even attacking aid workers and journalists – although unintentionally of course. It is totally unacceptable and it is my belief that we needed to put our foot down, at least to make sure it wouldn’t happen again.

Presenter: In short, you’re leaving so as not to be associated, as you say, with a military operation.

Rony Brauman: We’re leaving for two reasons. Firstly, because the life-threatening emergency is now over. Fortunately, the famine is behind us. Well, for lots of reasons in fact, some due to the military intervention, but also because the famine had already been brought under control before this intervention took place. And because the risk of our staff being taken for soldiers is growing all the time. We used to be at risk of a stray bullet; now we are in danger of becoming the direct targets of certain armed groups who take us for military personnel.

Presenter: So you’re in more danger now than during the famine, yet the people were hungry then and out in the streets?

Rony Brauman: Its paradoxical, but true. We’re less safe because before the risks were created by a war whose consequences didn’t implicate us. We were respected as members of a humanitarian aid organisation. Today, the armed groups take us for soldiers, for an invasion force, as Valérie Fourniou explained so well in your report. And so we have become direct targets. One of Médecins sans Frontières' vehicles was attacked three times within 80km on the road from Merka to Mogadishu. That’s a clear sign of how serious the security problems have got. But given the huge number injured people – over the last few days almost 1000 wounded people have arrived at the hospitals - we are getting ready to send a team of surgeons back in - in slightly better security conditions.

Presenter: What kind of relations did you use to have with warlords like Aidid who we’re hearing a lot about at the moment?

Rony Brauman: They were always very complicated because each warlord wanted to claim the political and material benefits of humanitarian aid for himself. But something that wasn’t always understood is that we did have some room for negotiation. In fact we were able to apply pressure by playing on the rivalries between the clans, and we managed to secure the safety of our teams, forward aid to where it was most needed, and we at Médecins sans Frontières, along with the International Red Cross and lots of others, were able to deploy our teams throughout the country. So humanitarian aid was possible, but military action did absolutely nothing to help the aid workers do their job – and I think that’s what needs to be understood.

Presenter: Rony Brauman, thank you very much

21 October 1993 - France 2 - Interview with Patrick Vial, MSF France coordinator in Somalia (French)

Commentary: A handover, an agonising withdrawal. But for Patrick, there can be no question of MSF condoning the United Nation’s action by its presence.

Patrick Vial (MSF) : "I’m one of those who spoke out to draw attention to Somalia. So I feel really concerned about what’s going on now because I feel a bit responsible for the arrival of the United Nations here, a bit at fault. But I think we must keep speaking out, not just for the sake of the Somalis, but to defend the very idea of aid work, to keep humanitarian aid untainted. If aid operators now have to play second fiddle to armies or governments who place their own foreign policies before the priorities of the United Nations, then this is extremely worrying and I think more people need to react, not just people, governments too."

Although Operation Restore Hope failed in its mission in Somalia, it succeeded – in the name of the right to intervene - in tarnishing the idea of humanitarian aid, in sullying the work of aid workers who, like Patrick, want to remain neutral and independent. “I don’t want to lose my humanitarian soul”, he told us as he left.

May 1994 - MSF Archive (English)

May 1994 - MSF Archive (French)