10/11/2005

Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone - Day Five: What I learned in Somalia and Congo

Truth is, unless you're Emily Dickinson, reality tends to trump imagination.

Somalia, for instance: What can adequately prepare you for Somalia? I have traveled to enough places in which men with guns are the law of the land, but rarely have I seen them driving around with anti-aircraft artillery welded onto their pickups.

'You can kill me...'

I emailed a friend of mine, Dennis Walto, who worked for the aid group International Medical Corps in Somalia in the early '90s, and asked him what to expect when I reached Mogadishu. He said he was nearly killed in two incidents but for the fact he had memorized a Somali proverb and repeated it to each of the gunmen about to dispatch him with an AK-47 round.

"You can kill me," Dennis quoted under duress, "but you have to have a reason."

On both occasions, it seems, they didn't.

Libertarian's dream

When I arrived, I guess I expected to see anarchy in action. The place has been operating without a central government for the past 14 years. That I needed a team of eight heavily armed Somalis to allow me to do my job as a journalist is probably a good illustration. But there were surprises.

Somalia, though brutally poor, is a kind of libertarian's dream. Free enterprise flourishes, and vigorous commercial competition is the only form of regulation. Somalia has some of the best telecommunications in Africa, with a handful of companies ready to wire home or office and provide crystal-clear service, including international long distance, for about $10 a month.

I also learned that camel is a lot leaner than beef; that in this part of Africa older men like to apply red henna to their hair or beards, and that the Somali coastline along the Indian Ocean is a haven for shark attacks. The culprits: a small but ravenous breed of Zambezi River sharks. ..

I learned from my reporting that there is an anti-Western and anti-American sentiment still simmering here, carried over in part from the 1993 multinational famine relief effort Operation Restore Hope that turned into a war with Somali strongman Mohammed Farrah Aideed.

Reader comments on Somalia

Most surprising to me were the large number of angry and even hateful comments from some Hot Zone readers who wrote that talking to Somalis about their perspective on the 1993 events -- including the "Black Hawk Down" incident -- was advocacy or even anti-American. It's either a complete lack of understanding of the role of journalism or willful ignorance.

In the case of Maria Osman, who said her child was killed by a crashing helicopter, a lot of people had a hard time grasping that reporting on her pain and loss does not negate the pain and loss of those who lost friends and family on the American side.

Giving Somalis a chance to say how they feel is called balanced reporting -- especially when so many readers wrote wondering why things turned bad in Somalia. That shows there are information gaps that have to be filled...

I went to Somalia to speak to Somalis. That's the idea of traveling to these places -- to provide the perspective you're not getting, to let you hear the voices you're not hearing. That's not advocacy; it's journalism. Some people find it very useful to explore things beyond their world. For those who don't, stay out of the Hot Zone.

Heart of darkness

When I first arrived in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I met with the staff of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) to begin work on a series of stories here.

The staff half-jokingly wondered if I could report on the Congo without referring to Joseph Conrad's classic novel, "Heart of Darkness," or the famous Muhammad Ali comeback fight here with George Foreman called the "Rumble in the Jungle." Well, the answer is obviously no.

Those are certainly Congo touchstones for outsiders, but this is a country as rich in stories as it is in diamonds, gold and mystery. Nothing helps you focus on that as much as a ride down the mighty Congo River in a dugout boat called a pirogue, hewn out of the trunk of a Cypress tree. While cruising down the chocolate brown waters, you don't just see the spirit of the Congo, you become a part of it and its winding current.

A brief history of the Congo

Unfortunately, a big part of the current is the legacy of war. After gaining its independence from Belgium in 1960, the new nation was placed (with the help of Belgium and the United States) firmly in the hands of army chief Joseph-Desire Mobutu, who renamed it Zaire.

Mobutu systematically plundered the nation for more than 30 years in a dictatorship that nearly defined corruption in Africa. He was finally overthrown in 1997 by Laurent Kabila with the help of troops from Uganda and Rwanda. But a year later, rebels backed by those same countries rose up to oppose Kabila.

Zimbabwe, Namibia and Angola all sent troops to support Kabila. The conflict became known as Africa's first world war.

An alphabet soup of rebel groups, ethnic militias and foreign fighters -- all motivated to a great degree by the Congo's diamond, gold and coltan (a mineral used in cell phones) resources -- clashed mostly in eastern Congo.

Kabila was assassinated in 2001 and his son, Joseph, succeeded him as president. A power-sharing agreement with rebel groups was signed a year later, creating a transitional government and an intermittent peace pending the Congo's first democratic elections (scheduled for summer 2006).

Within all of that conflict, some of the most unfortunate victims have been children, forced or recruited by all sides to support their armies or become actual fighters. At one point, non-governmental organizations estimated that as many as 30,000 child soldiers were fighting in the Congo.

The most heartbreaking story for me was a 13-year-old boy named Antoine (not his real name), scarred with burns and a bullet wound, who had been rejected by his family and was thinking about returning to the ethnic militia he had been with for the past three years. The only family this child believed he had was the one that had been using him as cannon fodder.

Many Hot Zone readers posted informed comments about the series we did on child soldiers, making historical references and comparisons to Western military culture. This is the kind of dialogue that gets people thinking and has the potential to lead to solutions. ..

Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone From Yahoo! News

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