Former Somali refugee praises the UN peacekeeping mission 25 years ago but says more can be done


By Dominic Cansdale

A Somali refugee who lived through a deadly civil war and famine which killed hundreds of thousand of people has called for a renewed public focus on rebuilding the war-torn country.

Ahmed Tohow, who is a representative of the Global Somali Diaspora — an advocacy group representing Somali communities living abroad — worked for the Red Cross and the United Nations in the capital Mogadishu in the early 1990s, when 990 Australian Defence Force personnel were deployed to the country.

He praised the UN peacekeeping mission which was launched in Somalia in July 1992 after an estimated 300,000 people were killed.

“The world invested a lot of time and it was a missed opportunity,” Mr Tohow said.

“Somalia looks like it’s been forgotten by the international community.”

‘People were getting buried alive’

Prior to the peacekeeping mission, Mr Tohow surveyed living conditions in Baidoa, dubbed the ‘City of Death’ by foreign journalists.

“I’ve seen a lot of people burying other people who were still alive, waiting to die,” he said.

“Our job was to take off the street those people who died and I couldn’t cope.”

In November 1992, the US announced it would lead a force of 37,000 personnel, including 990 Australians, to enable the distribution of humanitarian aid with the UN mandate to use “all necessary means”.

“People slowly, gradually, got food and started having some kind of hope. Hospitals were built by the peacekeepers and they did some sort of education to get people back on to farms,” Mr Tohow said.

“The American peacekeepers and the Somali young people used to play basketball … and the normalcy and life were slowly getting back.”

Mr Tohow said Australians gained a friendly and approachable reputation among locals.

“They were being welcomed by everyone. Kids used to laugh and run towards them. I remember they used to give out lollies and they used to kiss and hug,” he said.

“The attitude was very calm with the Australian peacekeepers to Somali community on the ground.”

From refugee to community leader
After fleeing Africa for Melbourne in 2000, Ahmed Tohow began working with the Global Somali Diaspora- international network of Somalis living abroad.

“The Somali community [in Australia] is very small and very recent compared to UK and America,” he said.

“My interest was to learn how the Somali community settled in those countries and get that information and help the Somali community in Australia.”

Mr Tohow returned to Somalia in 2006, 2012 and 2016, to work for aid agencies and attend international conferences on the country’s development.

While the Federal Government committed $17 million towards humanitarian assistance in 2017, Mr Ahmed said Somalis living in Australia could help foster relationships with aid agencies and locals.

“Educated Somali people are really working in the area of peacebuilding particularly in Somaliland, Puntland and also in the capital city,” he said.

“So I would really commend Australia also to do similar steps.”
A violent mission with threats of death
Former Superintendent William Kirk, who is based on the Gold Coast, served with the Federal Police in Baidoa in 1993-94 and was tasked with rebuilding law and order.

“A lot of their police had been trained in the Soviet Union. They were above average when you come to developing countries and the expertise of police,” he said.

“The strategy was to resurrect the police and by that, to re-hire even some of the people that had retired to reintroduce that culture, the good culture, back into the policing in Somalia.”

But Mr Kirk said efforts to restore the judicial system — based on that of the former colonial power Italy — clashed with some locals who wanted Sharia law.

“If you can take your grievance to a court and get someone to listen to you, you’re less likely to get a gun out and use violence,” he said.

“There were forces working against us and in retrospect it was the Bin Laden-type efforts trying to get religious courts.”

Mr Kirk said while he was “threatened occasionally” during negotiations with local officials, Australian personnel were mostly welcomed by others in the Baidoa community.

“I was hugged and hand-shaken so many times by locals, militia, shopkeepers, because I was Australian.”

“The Australian military had absolutely done such good work in Baidoa by doing foot patrols in town and giving the people confidence.”

The collapse of the humanitarian mission
In October 1993 a small force of elite US soldiers attempted to remove warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid from power in Mogadishu, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of Somalis, 18 US troops and two UN personnel.

The mission failed and the defeat received significant media attention at the time, later becoming immortalised in popular culture by the movie Black Hawk Down.

William Kirk said more foreign intervention in Somalia would be improbable while violence, including a 2017 bombing that killed more than 350 people, continued in the country.

“Countries don’t want to send policemen to a situation where they’re usually unarmed in a different environment when soldiers are being killed,” he said.

“Time hasn’t advanced enough to start putting the civilian structures in place.

The US withdrew its forces from Somalia in March 1994 while Australia removed its remaining personnel in November.

The African Union launched a peacekeeping mission to Somalia in 2007 in a bid to curb the threat of extremist group al-Shabab.

Last year United States President Donald Trump approved expanded operations against al-Shabab, including the use of drone strikes.

ABC News Austraial