Skip to main content

A personal account, part three

by Marc Wentling

On September 25, a U.S. helicopter was brought down and all three crew members aboard were killed. Not all the details about the shooting down are known as there were efforts to cover up the details surrounding this pivotal event. In hindsight, it was unfortunate that the events surrounding the shooting down of this helicopter were not made more widely known and examined in more detail. Lessons learned from this tragic event may have helped prevent the tragedy that was to follow eight days later.

Just after the helicopter crashed, there were grisly reports of Somali women and children ripping apart the bodies of the dead crewmen as they vied to see who could get the biggest bones to keep as souvenirs. There were even worse reports about Somalis tearing off flesh to eat later. It was also alleged that the head of one crewman had been impaled on a stake and was on display at Bakara Market. I am not sure of how much any of this was true but these were the kind of things we were hearing at the time. One thing for sure this was a big turning point in the conflict as we saw that Somalis had figured out how to shoot down low flying helicopters, and, thus, U.S. government policy makers were obliged to re-visit again the basis and the need for continuing this “humanitarian” mission.

There has been a book written and a movie (I still have a hard time watching it) produced on “Black Hawk Down,” so I will not go into any details and stick to what this piece is supposed to be all about, i.e. my own personal recollections. I remember I was in my office on October 3 doing duty as the most senior civilian at post on that day when one of the FAST marines from the observation point we had on the roof came in to tell me that they thought one of our helicopters had been shot down and there was a lot of black smoke rising from the Olympic Hotel area where it went down. Immediately, I followed the marine up the ladder to the roof so I could see for myself but I no sooner arrived on the roof when I reversed myself and flew back down the ladder as we were being fired at by Somali snipers.

I later learned that as soon as the helicopter went down the Somali militiamen and almost every Somali with a gun mobilized into something of a pre-planned full court press throughout Mog. Roadblocks were thrown up everywhere, armed men were stationed at every corner and snipers went into action. A special alarm was sounded and every Somali prepared for a big fight. Those who could not fight were told to stay inside. Later, a second helicopter was shot down and a third helicopter suffered damage and crashed when it returned to base. Already, we were hearing that Somali children and women were dancing on the downed helicopters. The Somalis seemed to have a plan of action while we did not have a plan A or B.

It was a long day and night of pandemonium as we tried to find out what was happening. Given that the Special Forces were outside of our chain of command and had undertaken this operation without the knowledge of the UN, it was hard to know what was happening and harder to do anything to help those who had been downed in broad daylight in the busy and very congested Bakara Market area of Mog. Hours passed before the UN could be properly briefed. Agreement was eventually achieved to send troops from the U.S. Army 10th mountain division along with some UN Pakistani troops and a Malaysian contingent to rescue the down U.S. troops.

The Malaysians mainly got the nod to go in because they were the only ones with armored personnel carriers and this fact underscored the absence of the additional military equipment that had been requested but never provided. Sadly, long before these troops were able to fight their way in the middle of the night through all the roadblocks, our special forces had suffered a number of casualties. In the end, 84 U.S./UN troops lost their lives that night and it estimated that from 500 to 1,500 Somalis died in this huge fire fight. Given the heavy fire power used by the U.S. military, it was hard to avoid this kind of carnage and high levels of collateral damage.

Much of that terrible time remains a blur in my mind. We were all traumatized and puzzled over the tragedy that had taken place. We could not understand why the Special Forces broke many of their own rules, which called for operating only at night, and carried out a drop in the middle of day in one of the most heavily populated and armed areas of Mog. They had lots advantages at night but not many in the day. We later learned that they were under a lot of pressure to succeed in their mission after several months of failure and, if they did not succeed soon, they would be recalled, so they made this last ditch, exceptionally risky effort to complete their mission.

Needless to say, this was a watershed moment for our involvement in Somalia and the highest levels of the U.S. government were seriously shaken and senior decision-makers were pressured to scramble to bring the situation under control and to elaborate an end-game strategy. The ugly scenes broadcasted on TV of dead U.S. soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mog raised public anger and sentiment against the presence of U.S. troops in Somalia. This military disaster ultimately led to the resignation of the Secretary of Defense, Les Aspin, and contributed to the end of the career a couple of years later of Major General William Garrison, who was the top commander of the special forces operating in Somalia. Also, the U.S. Special Envoy, Robert Gosende, was recalled to Washington for consultations but was never allowed to return.

Immediately following events of October 3 and 4, President Clinton dispatched his first Somalia envoy, Ambassador Robert Oakley, to speak directly with Aideed about achieving peace and the release of the helicopter pilot, Michael Durant, who had been captured, and the turn over the bodies of Durant’s fellow crewmen. These negotiations did result in the release of Durant, who had been held captive for 11 days, and the delivery of the bodies, and one Nigerian soldier who had been captured earlier. I note that one of the bodies was missing a head; therefore, I was convinced that a head had been impaled at Bakara Market. Much of what occurred in these intense negotiations is not known but it is thought that some promises were made to Aideed in exchange for agreement to stop attacking U.S. troops while an exit strategy was devised for them.

Much more went wrong than could have been expected in that perilous daytime drop. One of those things was the downing of a helicopter with an RPG. We were told that the Somalis had learned from Afghani Taliban how to plant their RPG weapons in the ground to shoot down low-flying helicopters. Also, our troops that dropped into central Mog did not take water or night vision goggles as they thought they would be in and out in less than 30 minutes. The 15-hour battle that occurred after the Black Hawk went down was one the fiercest that had occurred in Africa since World War II and the number of U.S. soldiers killed in action in one day was the heaviest loss since the Viet Nam War.

I heard General Garrison testify before a Senate committee of inquiry that more lead fell in the battle of “Bakara Market” (now called by many the Battle of Mogadishu) than had fallen on any other single day anywhere else in Africa since the beginning of time. He also said that if more munitions had been used, Mog would have sunk into the ocean. When he said that my first thought was about how all that lead, and all that was connected to delivering it, probably cost more than our entire humanitarian relief effort. Certainly, this was one of the most humiliating and inglorious days experienced by the U.S. military since the Viet Nam War.

Nothing written here should be interpreted in any way as to diminish the heroism and conspicuous bravery displayed by U.S. service men who were fighting for their survival during this horrendous battle. Indeed, there are probably few battles in U.S. military history where soldiers acted so bravely in the face of overwhelming odds and in extreme urban chaos. Those valiant men who fought and died during this relentless battle were very deserving of the recognition bestowed upon them. Altogether, two Medals of Honor, posthumously, and 41 Silver Stars (seven posthumously) were awarded to those men who went well above and beyond the call of duty on this bloody weekend in central Mog.

Not surprisingly, after this unprecedented weekend of violence, nothing was the same. Initially, new arms and special troops were brought in to keep the Somalis from thinking they could continue attacking but this did not last long and we knew that the days of a U.S. mission in Mog were numbered. U.S. troops were quickly drawn down and everything was turned over to the UN in March 1994, and the UN mission was terminated a year later. In many ways, after the end of all the efforts of “Operation Restore Hope,” things in Somalia were worse than when the operations started in December 1992. This fact has me asking myself all these years what our presence and sacrifices in Somalia were really all about.

I recall asking one of the departing U.S. military officers what would happen to us after there were no U.S. troops remaining to protect us. He said the Pakistanis and Bangladeshis would do the job and I responded that that was not the same. I also asked this colonel what he thought should be done about Somalia. His reply was to build a strong and high fence around the country so nobody could get in or out, and give all the Somalis better guns and ample ammunition so they could kill each other more efficiently. In this way, the protracted conflict could end more quickly. This kind of cynical attitude prevailed because nobody could conceive of any remedy for Somalia’s unending condition of anarchy, violence and profound human suffering. The sense of futility was overwhelming.

Looking back, maybe we missed something when we tried to track violent events to see if more events occurred on certain days of the week. I now see that all the big armed clashes occurred on weekends. June 5 (when the Pakistanis were slain); July 12 (the bombing of the Abdi house and killing of Dan Eldon and three others); September 25 (downing of first helicopter and killing of three of its crew); and, November 13 (killing of Kai Lincoln and one other) all occurred on Saturdays. And, the Bakara Market battle started on a Sunday (October 3) and ended on a Monday. I wonder if all this is mere coincidence or if there is something to a tendency for big fights to occur in Mog on weekends.

In those last months before withdrawal of foreign troops (the outside clan), the Somali militia pressed harder and fought more among themselves as they competed over looting remaining assets and began feeling the pinch of losing the bounty that the presence of foreign troops and NGOs provided them. Somali elites would be losing several million dollars a month from rents and services.. It was calculated that one well-placed Somali earned more than $500,000 per month on house and office rents alone in southern Mog. And, for sure, the top warlords got a cut of all earnings in Mog and much of these earnings were plowed back into buying arms needed to defend and expand their turf.

The core of the conflict was about competing for profit and loot and protecting vested interests, and that is how it has been in Somali for a very long time. Profit, clan pride and greedy personal ambitions continue to be at the root of violence in Somalia, and, now, Islamist insurgents have added another layer to Somalia’s complex, protracted conflict and failed state status, making it even more tragic that we were not able to do the job we set out to do in 1993. Personally, I see no way of ending violent conflict in Somalia. Maybe the job continues to be to contain the conflict and find better ways to move forward to alleviating human suffering for most of the eight million Somalis who would be happy to see some sort of long-term peace to be achieved and a better life for their children.

There were so many things I really never understood about Somalia’s situation, and after 13 months there I left with more questions than answers. One of the things I did not understand was the role of the Italians, the former colonial masters, in the Somalia conflict. Italy still maintained its embassy in northern Mog (Ali Madhi territory north of the green line) and there were some Italians who had lived in Mog all their lives. I always thought that if any outsiders could understand Somalia, it was the Italians who had spent their lives there. I thought we should try to learn all we could from the Italians but we never talked to them. We did hear that some of the Italians who had lived in Somalia for a long time were profiting from the conflict as they collaborated with warlords to arrange for the import of arms. I do not think the role of the Italians in southern Somalia has yet been fully revealed.

Although we went into Somalia with little good planning and a low level of knowledge of the country, it was not like we did not examine and study the situation in Somalia closely. On the contrary, special teams were sent by the State Department and the UN and they generated well-crafted and thoughtful reports with a number of useful recommendations. One of the problems was that the recommendations put forth were never adopted and we did not listen to those who knew something about Somalia. We also received several Congressional Delegations (CODELs), which also made recommendations. One reason few of these recommendations were adopted was the pervading desire to remain optimistic and not point at any possible fatal failings. Indeed, at the time, any negative reports that were written were squelched or heavily censured.

Our bosses only wanted to hear good news about our mission in Somalia. I recall one CODEL was so desperate for optimistic news that I escorted them to visit with what we thought were some upbeat NGO representatives. As each rep was given an opportunity to speak, the global picture painted was indeed bleak. One of the CODEL members became so exasperated by all this doom and gloom talk that he asked if there were not one optimistic person in Somalia. One NGO rep replied that if he wanted to hear some optimism expressed, he should talk with people who had been in Somalia less than two weeks.

Perhaps one of the most bizarre events that occurred while I was in Somalia was the disappearance of about $4 million from the UN administrative offices located within the heavily protected UN headquarters. I heard that UN administrative officers were afraid that an upcoming audit would reveal that they had not yet disbursed all the money they should have, so they removed about $4 million from their safe and hid it in some file cabinets. While preparing for the audit, the money somehow mysteriously disappeared and to this day (as far as I know), it is not known how this money was stolen. I also never heard of anyone ever being punished for this huge loss.

About the same time that this big sum of money disappeared, a man we called “Rambo” also left Somalia. Rambo was a former U.S. army major who stuck around after the departure of U.S. troops to work with the UN’s security contingent. He was called Rambo because he was always heavily armed and he would go anywhere day or night to help out if called on to do so. If you had an off compound security problem, Rambo was the guy you would call. I always found it uncanny how Rambo left at the same time the money disappeared. I have always wondered whatever happened to Rambo and where he is today.

Throughout my Somalia tour, we were constantly told that humanitarian concerns were the driving force behind everything we did. But most of the time I felt that military and political interests overrode everything. There was never the “right” balance among all these interests and those leading the humanitarian side of things were often shoved to the back when it came to making important decisions. The hyper-politicization of the Somalia situation hampered the efficient and correct implementation of humanitarian programs.

The “fog” of the evolving conflict clouded our vision and diminished our focus on doing good works. Nonetheless, we were determined for many months to tame Somalia and make its people submit to our good will. Maybe, in hindsight, no aid would have been better. Certainly, all the lives lost and the over $2.3 billion the U.S. spent in a 12-month period in Somalia, proved not to have been worth it. It would have not been hard to design a better and less costly way of helping those in need in Somalia. For sure, we did not live up to the banner, “Operation Restore Hope,” that we all served under.

The Somalia mission got off to a bad start from the beginning by the very impulsiveness of the presidential decision that was issued following Thanksgiving 1992. President Bush had lost the November elections and was under pressure from the African-American community to do something to help alleviate human suffering in Somalia. Taking the moral high ground, this lame duck President gave the order to send the troops to Somalia and under the bright lights of TV cameras the marines landed on the Mog beaches on December 9, 1992. After that we were playing catch-up as to exactly what we would do in Somalia to save lives. Things began to fall apart from the very beginning of our involvement and kept falling apart until we terminated our well-intentioned, but wrong-headed mission in Somalia.

Then and now, I still believe we should have never entered Somalia with U.S. and UN troops. We could have pursued a much modest approach that would have met the needs of the suffering. With the worst of the famine over, we should have focused on selected target areas in need of assistance. As for the peace process, it would have been much better to have allowed UN negotiators to continue the talks that were ongoing with warlords before U.S. Marines waded ashore in December 1992. Once we decided to do more than feed the hungry, “mission creep” got out of hand and beyond what was achievable.

I now believe it would have been much better to have left the UN’s designated negotiator, Mohamad Sahnoun, to continue with the talks he had been holding with Somali faction leaders in 1992. I thought Sahnoun was doing an excellent job and could have achieved good results if the U.S. troops had not entered Somalia in December 1992. The main drawback to the negotiations ably conducted by Sarhoun was some of the background of his boss, UN Secretary General, Boutros-Boutros Ghali. The latter formerly served as Egypt’s Foreign Minister and had had a close relationship with Siad Barre.

This fact made it harder to negotiate with Aideed, who considered Ghali to have been too close to Barre for the UN to be an impartial arbiter in the Somalia conflict. Differences between Ghali and Sahnoun did result in the dismissal of Sahnoun. When I first arrived in Somalia, I heard the wish expressed several times by Somalis that Sahnoun return as the chief negotiator in Somalia. Finding an honest broker for the Somalia conflict continues to be a challenge.

Maybe if we had never intervened with such a massive effort in 1993, Aideed would have succeeded in defeating Ali Madhi and became the supreme warlord and replacement of the former strongman, Siad Barre. After all, he and Ali Mahdi had been fighting since 1991 over which one of them should replace Barre. If Aideed could have become as powerful as Barre once was, we might have a strong ally today in Mogadishu to help us counter al’Qaeda involvement with Somali Islamists. Maybe our policy in 1993-94 should have been the reverse of what is was, i.e., supporting Aideed instead of trying to eradicate him. In my opinion, one thing that Somalia needs is a dominant power that few, if any, question or dare to contest.

In essence, the dream of every Somali warlord is to become like Barre was at the peak of his powers. Barre ruled Somalia with an iron hand from 1969 until he was obliged to flee the country after prolonged battles with opposing militia led mainly by Aideed and Madhi. If we really wanted to have made a lasting difference in Somalia, the time to enter on the Somali scene in a major way would have been right after the fall of Barre in 1991. But, instead, we fled in January 1991, leaving our just built, and very expensive embassy complex, to be looted and heavily damaged by Somali militia.

I remind that Barre was a strong U.S. ally after he was abandoned by the Soviets in the 70s. During this Cold War moment, there was a “flip-flop” as the Soviets left Somalia for Ethiopia and the U.S. made the reverse move from Ethiopia to Somalia. Ironic that the Soviets constructed the deep water port and air strip in Berbera, and the U.S. upgraded these strategic facilities in the early 1980s. The Berbera Port and airstrip, and Somalia’s strategic geographic location in the Horn of Africa should still be of interest to the U.S.

These facilities are located in northern Somalia, Somaliland. This part of Somalia has a very different history, as it was colonized by the British, while southern Somalia was colonized by Italy. With the exit of Barre from Somalia in January 1991, Somaliland declared its independence from the much disliked southern Somalia. One reason Somaliland wanted to cut its ties from southern Somalia is that its capital was obliterated by bombing ordered by Barre in 1988 and conducted by General Hersi Morgan, referred to since as the “Butcher of Hargeisa.” It was following this horrendous bombing of Hargesia that the U.S. started distancing itself from the Barre regime.

Later, General Morgan and his fighters would become the major force to contend with in the Kisimayo area. The bombing of Hargeisa (and alleged use of poison gas) in 1988 destroyed most of Hargeisa and killed an estimated 10,000 people, and subsequent fighting in northern Somalia killed another 50,000 people. This incident, among others, makes it impossible for the distant Somaliland to join southern Somalia to form one country, as it did at the time of independence in 1961. For me, having a functional and peaceful Somaliland, helps reduce the magnitude of the Somalia problem.

I visited Hargeisa once in 1993. All of Somaliland was under the authority of its President, Ibrahim Egal, except the airport, which was controlled by a renegade militia group. They were not dangerous but they required cash payments for a visa and the security of your plane before they would allow you to leave the airport. From the airport to President Egal’s office was a very short distance, and our visit with this veteran of Somalia politics was very cordial. Then, and now, I thought we should recognize Somaliland as a sovereign, independent country and build strong relations with this new and strategically-placed country.

For reasons hard for me to understand, the U.S. still has not recognized Somaliland. The answer I get sometimes is that an African country must recognize Somaliland first before we do. I still believe that it is very much in the interests of the U.S. to recognize Somaliland, which has been de facto independent since 1991. At the same time, the U.S. might want to consider establishing some sort of special relationship with “Puntland,” a self-declared independent enclave in northeast Somalia that is governed from Bosasso. The same may apply to Galmudug in Central Somalia, which has also declared its autonomy. These two areas of Somalia would be resistant to accepting heavy involvement from a central government based in Mog. It is mostly the southern tier of Somalia that has been, and still is, the problem.

From the time U.S. Marines landed on the shores of Mog in December 1992, I was part of the State Department’s joint operation group that covered Somalia around the clock seven days a week. For many of us, this was an entirely new experience and we were forced to cope the best we could and to stay on a quick learning curve. Indeed, the Somalia experience might have been unique in many ways. For sure, working in a country that did not have any working central government was a novelty.

It was sort of like working in a place where the only people you could work with were the very criminals you wanted to eliminate. It was like the drug lords were running New York City and there were not any local police and no federal government, so we could only deal with the drug lords. It was not likely that, in a short time, we were going to change the warlord culture and the interests that generations have devoted to promoting and protecting. It is not easy to remove the spots from a leopard but, even without the spots, it is still a leopard. There is no quick way of changing the nature of the beast and human nature.

After our experiences in the Balkans and elsewhere, we thought going into Somalia would be easy. The terrain was flat and there was not any well-equipped, organized army but a collection of rag-tag militia operated in a feudal fashion by poorly trained warlords. We thought Somalia would be a pushover and no lengthy and detailed planning was required as was usually the case.
We did not know enough about Somalia and we had little time to do our homework. For sure, we underestimated the indomitable capacity for fighting and dying for one’s clan or sub-clan. It is hard to win when the other side is so willing to sacrifice more lives than we are, and we are fighting in their homeland and not ours. It was like warfare was something of a national sport in Somalia and, the more we threw at them, the more they resisted, fought back and looked for a way to beat us.

The Somalis were ready to suffer anything to win, whereas we were after the impossible: a victory that entailed almost no pain on our part. We thought a demonstration of our military might would terrorize the Somalis into submission, but the opposite effect occurred, and Somalis became more emboldened when we upped the military ante. In hindsight, I do not know why we thought we could stabilize the situation and bring about peace by causing so much death and destruction. We were bound and determined to make justice and the rule of law prevail in a place where the law of the jungle had been the rule for years. We did not want to do any harm but little progress could be achieved without taking the years and heavy presence needed to uproot the jungle, but doing that was well beyond the price we were willing to pay for what was supposed to have been a short-term humanitarian action to save starving Somalis.

I really do not have any answers for so many things that relate to Somalia, and this summary of what I experienced in Somalia only skims the surface of the complex challenge Somalia represents to world order. More than17 years after leaving Somalia, I still have not found a satisfactory explanation for so many other questions. For my own mental health, I have tried to keep myself from thinking about Somalia or speaking with others, especially Somalis, about my experience in that long-suffering country. Sometimes, I wake up in the middle of the night asking myself “why.” Part of the reason for writing these words is to try and get it all out on paper so I don’t have to wake up in the night any more.

We should have learned a lot of lessons in Somalia but I never thought we should allow our experience with Somalia to keep us from trying to do good elsewhere. Somalia was such an unusual case, and the fighting spirit and prowess of its people so exceptional, that it would be hard to imagine such a situation elsewhere. We went into Somalia reluctantly because of the “Viet Nam Syndrome” and that was understandable. We did not intervene in Rwanda in time to stop the genocidal killing of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus because of the “Somalia Syndrome” and that was wrong because these two situations were not comparable.

We could have stopped the killing in Rwanda, which was mostly done by clubs and machetes, but we hesitated because of what happened in Somalia. The point can be argued but, for me, that was wrong then, and it is still wrong today. I hope the U.S. government has got over its Somalia experience so that it will not refrain to act as appropriate in other humanitarian crises in Africa. There have been many opportunities in Africa where the U.S. could have done much good with only a fraction of the ill-advised military effort it made in Somalia.

I really do not know why I am writing all this now. So much has already been written about Somalia that I did not see any reason to add to all these writings. For years, my excuse for not writing anything was that I had lost in one of our rapid evacuations the 10 steno notebooks that I filled with my observations while I was in Somalia. Maybe I am writing now because fighting continues in Somalia and the anniversary date for “Black Hawk Down” is fast approaching.

Mostly, I think it is because I still lose some sleep over my time in Somalia and I feel that writing about my Somali experiences helps improve my sleep. For years, I avoided Somalis and the subject of Somalia, because remembering Somalia was just too painful for me. I am trying to get over all this and move on but it is not an easy thing to do, especially as reports on violence in Somalia continue to appear in the media.

I still mourn all the casualties caused by the U.S.’ presence in Somalia during the 1993-1994 period and I count myself among the surviving casualties. All told, 42 Americans were killed and dozens were wounded over a 15-month period in 1993-94 in Somalia. Also, I admit that I have some guilt as there were many times in Somalia that I did not do the right thing because of the constraints imposed by U.S. policies and putting my own career above my humanitarian commitment. I hope that I am now doing the right thing by writing this piece and that my “take” on Somalia furthers understanding of this much troubled land.

This personal account is not a worthy or sufficient honor but I dedicate it to other civilians like myself who risked their lives in Somalia in service of their country. These unsung heroes never received any medals or awards for their service in Somalia but they deserve high recognition for their many sacrifices and unfailing dedication to duty in one of the toughest living and working environments in the world.End.

Mark G. Wentling
Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso
Revised: September 12, 2011

Mark G. Wentling
Mark G. Wentling

Mark G. Wentling spent nine years with the Peace Corps (Honduras, 1967-69; Togo, 1970-73; Peace Corps Staff, Togo, Gabon and Niger, 1973-76) before joining USAID in 1977. As a U.S. Foreign Service Officer he served in Niamey, Conakry, Lome, Mogadishu, Dar es Salaam and Washington, D.C before retiring from the Senior Foreign Service in 1996. Since his retirement he has worked for USAID as it Senior Advisor for the Great Lakes and Country Program Manager for Niger and Burkina Faso. He is a 1992 National War College Graduate. He has also worked in Africa for U.S. Non-Governmental Organizations and he is currently Country Director for PLAN in Burkina Faso. On September 20, he marked 41 years since arriving in Africa in 1970. He has worked in, or visited, 53 African countries.


Comments are closed.