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In the Newsroom

October 22, 2008
Remembering Somalia before the pirate attacks

Producer Bryan Myers shares a story from his coverage of the conflict and humanitarian crisis in Somalia in the early 1990s. Bryan traveled to a water well in the walled city of Wajhid near the Ethiopian border.

The recent pirate attacks in Somalia have brought international attention to the war-torn and drought-stricken country, but the fighting is a result of a decades-long conflict between warlords and insurgents.

In the early 1990s, Somalia underwent a power shift. In 1991, dictator Mohammed Siad Barre was ousted by opposition forces and replaced by an interim leader who was not accepted by all Somalis.

Clan fighting ensued, displacing over a million Somalis, and United Nations observers were sent to monitor the situation. The U.S. sent troops to Somalia as part of “Operation Restore Hope,” but continued clan warfare led up to the Battle of Mogadishu in October 1993.

The fight killed over 1,000 Somali militiamen and civilians and more than a dozen U.S. soldiers, and soon after, President Clinton called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. The U.N. withdrew in 1995 and Somalia faces inter-clan fighting and political upheaval to this day.

 

Somalis at a water well in Wajhid. Photo: Bryan Myers

Bryan Myers:

Famine was everywhere, and the country was lawless. There was no government; most of the country was ruled by clans who enforced their authority at gunpoint. You may recall seeing television images of so-called “technicals,” young men in pick-up trucks with machine guns mounted in the back.

Somalia had no running water or electricity—thieves had stolen all the parts from the factories to sell on the black market. There was no phone service either. The bandits had also stolen all the wire from the phone lines (this was before cell phones).

The situation was so bad, the first President Bush had ordered several divisions of U.S. troops to Somalia to distribute food and restore order. Their base of operations was the capital of Mogadishu.

At first, things went well. The famine was brought under control pretty quickly. However, when the U.S. military tried to disarm the clans, things turned sour. The clans resisted, and many shootouts followed.

After spending several weeks covering the violence, we were eager to find out if there was any part of the country that still functioned normally. Someone mentioned the remote town of Wajhid, near the border with Ethiopia. Close to Wajhid was a garrison of French Foreign Legionnaires which was working with elders in Wajhid to create a local police force.

After two days of hard driving up dusty ravines that barely qualified as roads, we finally came upon Wajhid. It was one of the most amazing sights I’ve ever seen.

It was nothing less than Biblical. Set on a pale dust plain, Wajhid was a walled town, with a huge wooden entrance gate that was closed in the evenings. Outside the main gate was a large well.

Because of the well, Wajhid served as a crossroads for every nomad in the region. Local men brought up water in leather sacks, no doubt the same as had been done for centuries. Hundreds of camels and scores of goats crowded in, eager for a taste as the water poured down wooden sluices. Among the animals, children splashed themselves, trying to beat the heat.

Amid the horror, we had somehow managed to find beauty.

Read the latest news on Somalis fleeing to Yemen: Somalia struggles with famine, fear and flight.

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