Highway to Hell: The Rise and Fall of the Somali Republic

This is the third and final paper I had to write for my English class. The assignment was, effectively, to write a history paper with a personal interview and research to support that interview. For mine, I interviewed my friend, Darren, who served in Somalia while he was in the Army. I’d initially intended for the paper to focus on his time in Somalia, but it quickly morphed into the history of Somalia from WWII to the present.

In late 1994, a young man from East Los Angeles named Darren Shimasaki was a private in the United States Army’s 117th Airborne Artillery Division. He was assigned to an Infantry Support Battalion in the 117th, which was based out of Fort Sill, Oklahoma. In August of that year, the 117th received new orders: they were to deploy to the nation of Somalia, where they would provide armed convoys to distribute humanitarian relief supplies to the starving population.

“I had no clue where it was,” Shimasaki said of Somalia. “I thought it was somewhere in the Caribbean.” While searching in vain to find an island called Somalia off the Florida coast, Shimasaki’s First Sergeant pointed another location out for him: Africa. Located on the eastern horn of Africa, in 1994 Somalia was home to an estimated seven million people and had been devastated by years of warfare (Famighetti 808). Previous attempts to provide relief supplies to the starving civilian population had been met with violence, the relief supplies stolen by the warring factions (Bayer, et al 214). According to a profile published online by the United Nations, in March 1993, the United Nations Operation in Somalia II, referred to by its acronym UNOSOM II, was “established to take over from the Unified Task Force (UNITAF)—a multinational force, organized and led by the United States, which, in December 1992, had been authorized by the Security Council to use ‘all necessary means’ to establish a secure environment for humanitarian relief operations in Somalia.”

Arriving at a base of operations approximately 100 miles south of Mogadishu—where, months earlier, the now-famous “Blackhawk Down” incident had occurred—Shimasaki was startled by the drastic change in climate. “It was hot as hell,” he said. Mean temperatures in the low areas of Somalia, which is located in a tropical climate zone near the equator, range from 76 to 88 degrees Fahrenheit with high humidity, and rainfall averages about 11 inches per year, though droughts occur frequently, often taking a heavy toll on life (Bayer, et al 211). It was in these conditions that Shimasaki’s unit would drive convoys of trucks through the Somali countryside, delivering food and other relief supplies on behalf of the Red Cross, ensuring its safe delivery to the Somali citizenry as intended.

While Shimasaki himself never drove the trucks—he laughed at the fact that, to this day, he still can’t drive a manual transmission—he often rode in the cab of the trucks with the drivers, or in the back with the crates. Most of the time, the trips were uneventful, but on occasion, the soldiers would have to defend their cargo at the risk of their own lives.

One such occasion that Shimasaki still recalls with absolute clarity was during an overnight stop on a mission to a remote village. The soldiers were relaxing around a campfire after having eaten dinner when one of the posted sentries called for quiet. In the sudden stillness, fallen branches and twigs snapped loudly under approaching feet. Then a coffee can landed in the midst of the soldiers’ camp.

The soldiers all dove reflexively for the nearest available cover: behind vehicles, trees, or whatever else was nearby. Shimasaki dove behind a large rock, just as the coffee can exploded, sending nails and other shrapnel and debris in all directions. “I thought I’d banged my hand on the rock,” Shimasaki recalled, holding up his left hand. “When I looked at my hand, there was this huge screw sticking out” from between his thumb and index fingers. “I pulled it out, and blood just went everywhere.” The attackers were killed almost immediately after the can exploded. “Everybody just opened up in the general direction [the attackers] came from,” Shimasaki said. “I still have nightmares about that night, sometimes.”

Tales like these of starvation and predation present a troubling question: how did Somalia get to be like this? The origin of the many conflicts in Somalia can be traced back to the years following the Second World War. What is now Somalia was originally two European protectorates: British and Italian Somaliland. In 1941, during the war, Italian forces were driven from Italian Somaliland, and the territory came under British rule, which lasted until 1950, when Italian Somaliland became a U.N. trust territory. On June 26, 1960, British Somaliland became an independent nation, and the following week, on July 1, it merged with Italian Somaliland, creating the Somali Republic (Bayer, et al 214).

The Somali Republic was short-lived, however, as factionalism and corruption quickly took hold. The 1969 election was soon followed by the assassination of President Abdirashid Ali Shermarke in October of that year by the nation’s armed forces, led by General Mohammed Siad Barre, who then seized power. Siad dissolved the Parliament and had many of the prominent political leaders arrested. The Supreme Revolutionary Council, chaired by Siad, was established to rule Somalia, which was soon renamed the Somali Democratic Republic and declared a socialist state (Bayer, et al 214).

The Supreme Revolutionary Council was replaced by the Somali Revolutionary Socialist Party in 1976, and Siad remained in power until 1991, after a resistance group, the Somali National Movement, formed in the north of Somalia and riots began to break out in the capitol city, Mogadishu, in 1989. By January of 1991, Siad was removed from power and replaced by an interim government, which quickly collapsed. Siad attempted to retake Mogadishu and reclaim control of the government three times, but remained unsuccessful, forcing him to flee to Kenya in 1992 (Bayer, et al 214).

The Somali National Movement unsuccessfully tried to declare the north of Somalia to be the independent Somaliland Republic in May 1991 as fighting continued in Mogadishu to the south. Relief shipments were suspended in December 1991 due to the fighting, and a U.N.-brokered cease-fire was reached in March 1992, which allowed relief shipments to resume the following month. The cease-fire did not last, however, and relief shipments were again disrupted by the fighting. In July 1992, the United Nations Security Council approved Resolution 767, which allowed increased U.N. presence and intervention, if needed, paving the way for the U.S.-led UNITAF mission in December 1992. By May 1993, UNITAF was dissolved in favor of the United Nations-sponsored UNOSOM II mission (Bayer, et al 214).

Seven months after Shimasaki was sent to Somalia to take part in UNOSOM II, the operation was brought to a close. The ongoing factional violence made implementation of the United Nations-sponsored peace agreement reached in the Ethiopian capitol of Addis Ababa in March 1993 impossible, and two years later, on March 3, 1995, the last U.N. troops were withdrawn from Somalia. International leaders hoped that the death of General Mohammed Farah Aidid, who had led one of the main groups involved in the fighting, would lead to a renewal of peace efforts, but the factional violence continued nonetheless. Although the United Nations distributed some emergency supplies again following another famine, which struck Somalia in mid-1996, the ongoing civil war made another extensive relief effort like UNOSOM II impossible (Bayer, et al 214).

After the ouster of Siad in 1991, Somalia had no functioning government, but a peace deal signed in January 2004 led to a transitional parliament—Somalia’s first government in more than a decade—which was inaugurated that August, though they were forced by the continued fighting in the country to meet in exile, in Nairobi, Kenya. Abdullah Yusuf Ahmed, elected to the presidency of the parliament, was sworn in that October. In July 2005, President Yusuf established a transitional capitol at Jowhar, Somalia, and then convened an interim parliament in February 2006 at Baidoa. In June of that year, an Islamist militia seized control of Mogadishu, defeating secular warlords who had been backed by the United States. The Islamist group, who called themselves the Supreme Islamic Courts Council, also controlled much of the central and southern regions of the country. President Yusuf escaped an assassination attempt in September, but eight other members of the government were killed in a car bomb explosion five days later (Joyce 817).

With the assistance of Ethiopian forces, Yusuf’s transitional government recaptured Mogadishu in December 2006. In 2007, increased fighting in the capitol killed hundreds and forced more than 350,000 to flee. Also in 2007, bombings and kidnappings escalated, a series of cease-fires failed, and international aid workers were forced to leave. Pirates began increased attacks on shipping in coastal waters in 2008, hijacking more than two dozen ships between January and September of that year (Joyce 817).

Unlike the warlords of years past, the pirates were simply brigands looking to make as much money as possible by raiding ships passing in or near Somali waters. Little planning or thought goes into their raids, according to a pirate spokesman interviewed by Jeffrey Gettleman, a reporter for the New York Times. “We just saw a big ship,” the pirates’ spokesman, Sugule Ali, told Gettleman. “So we stopped it.” The pirates have frequently been paid million-dollar ransoms to release the ships they capture. “The juicy payoffs have attracted gunmen from across Somalia, and the pirates are thought to number in the thousands” (Gettleman).

Originally, the pirates were fishermen who began attacking foreign commercial fishing boats that were taking advantage of the chaos following the implosion of Somalia’s government in 1991. The fishermen armed themselves and demanded “taxes” from foreign ships hunting for tuna off the Somali coast. (Gettleman) “From there, they got greedy,” Mohamed Osman Aden, a Somali diplomat in Kenya, told Gettleman. “They [started] attacking everyone.” Before long, the pirates’ attacks expanded to include vessels in international waters near Somalia, most famously the standoff earlier this year aboard a life boat from the Maersk Alabama, in which Somali pirates held the ship’s captain hostage while surrounded by the U.S. Navy after having been forced off the Alabama. Ultimately, the pirates were killed, and the captain rescued (Hefling).

There has been a fair amount of debate on how to best respond to the pirate attacks, particularly now that they seem to have escalated in the past year. Senator Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat from New Jersey who chairs a senate subcommittee that holds jurisdiction over the maritime industry, believes that the U.S. military has taken too timid an approach in handling piracy and seeks to have the military’s role in fighting the Somali pirates expanded, with more aggressive protection of American cargo ships instead of responding after the ships have been attacked. Richard Phillips, the captain of the Maersk Alabama, testified before Congress that better training for Merchant Marine crews, private shipboard security, and an increased presence by the U.S. Navy are needed. Currently, the crews remain largely unarmed, making them easy prey for the pirates (Hefling). “Unless the root causes of piracy are addressed, it will continue to expand and evolve into a greater and greater threat for American and foreign seamen,” he told the Congressional panel (Douglas).

Philip J. Shapiro, President and CEO of Liberty Maritime Corporation, agrees with Phillips. Speaking before a Congressional committee, Shapiro urged Congress to “consider clearing the obstacles that block ship owners from arming our vessels in self-defense to protect our crews when it is appropriate.” Liberty Maritime’s Liberty Sun was attacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia on April 14, just two days after the rescue of Captain Phillips, and following a vow of revenge by the pirates, who said that they would attack any U.S.-flag ship they found (Marine Log).

Despite the fact that the crews remain largely unarmed does not mean that they are completely defenseless. The pirates take as little risk as possible for as high a reward as they can get, and even light resistance can be enough to deter an attack. Theresa Whelan, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs, said that seventy-eight percent of the region’s unsuccessful pirate attacks were prevented by the crews of the ships being attacked, while the remaining twenty-two percent were stopped by military or law enforcement interventions. Whelan insisted that the most effective short-term response is to work with merchant shipping lines to ensure they know how to respond in the event of an attack (Hefling). Following the hearings, senators urged the commercial shipping companies that operate in the region to take greater responsibility for the security of their vessels and rely less on the U.S. Navy or other international militaries for help. (Douglas)

Shimasaki has fared far better than Somalia in the past fifteen years. He left the Army in 1997, having eventually been promoted to sergeant, and returned home to Southern California. He attended Fullerton College, then transferred to California State University, Fullerton, where he earned a Bachelor’s degree in History. He obtained teaching credentials in Special Education and Social Sciences, and now is a high school teacher in Santa Ana. He got married in 2003, and now has two children.

Shimasaki is dismayed that the situation in Somalia has not improved in the past fifteen years. “It sucks that they can’t get a government together,” he said of the ongoing struggle for the Somali people to organize a government with real power that could take on the problems wracking the nation. He also takes a dim view of the pirates currently operating in the region, and feels that the cargo ships “have a right to defend themselves” from attack. Shimasaki remains pessimistic about the outlook for Somalia’s future. “You can’t do too much,” he said, “because their government’s too corrupt.” He feels that the most effective way to deal with the pirates is to find and destroy their bases of operation, making it more difficult for them to continue to operate. Sarcastically, he added, “Nuke ‘em. Let God sort ‘em out.”

In conclusion, the ongoing chaos in Somalia, which has its roots in the political upheavals of its independence and subsequent decline into dictatorship in the 1960s, has no simple or clear end in sight. Until the political situation in that nation can be resolved, the violence there will not abate. And until the violence subsides, humanitarian aid cannot continue, as the attempts to do so in the 1990s and the current troubles with high-seas piracy clearly illustrate.

Works Cited

Bayer, Patricia, et al, ed. “Somalia.” Encyclopedia Americana—International Edition. 2001 ed. 211-14

Douglas, William. “Shipping firms asked to get tough on piracy” Miami Herald. 6 May 2009. 07 May 2009 <http://www.miamiherald.com/news/world/story/1034187.html>.

Famighetti, Robert, ed. The World Almanac and Book of Facts 1994. 1994 ed. New York: World Almanac Books, 1994.

Gettleman, Jeffrey. “Somali Pirates Tell Their Side – They Want Only Money.” The New York Times. 30 Sept. 2008. 07 May 2009 <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/01/world/africa/01pirates.html>.

Hefling, Kimberly. “Senator asks military to step up patrols.” The Associated Press. 5 May 2009. 07 May 2009 <http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5jDwPwVBkcirkTon7pMMfS63vhNGgD980BGIG0>.

Joyce, C. Alan, ed. The World Almanac and Book of Facts 2009. 2009 ed.New York: World Almanac Books, 2009.

“Liberty Maritime CEO to Congress: Remove obstacles to arming vessels.” Marine Log Magazine. 5 May 2009. 07 May 2009 <http://www.marinelog.com/DOCS/NEWSMMIX/2009may00052.html>.

Shimasaki, Darren. Personal Interview. 22 Apr. 2009.

Shimasaki, Darren. Personal Interview. 7 May 2009.

“UNOSOMII.” Welcome to the United Nations: It’s Your World. 31 Aug. 1996. United Nations Department of Public Information. 23 Apr. 2009 <http://www.un.org/Depts/DPKO/Missions/unosom2p.htm>.

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