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Foreign interference, including by the U.S., helped drive a million Somalis into exile — including Ilhan Omar

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Somalia, where the remarkable Congresswoman Ilhan Omar was born, has over the past few decades generated one of the highest number of refugees in the entire world; 1.5 million people are internally displaced, and another nearly one million have fled the country entirely. Somali warlords have a great deal of responsibility for this gigantic tragedy. But outside forces, including the United States government, should also share some of the blame.

Let’s start in the mid-1970s. Somalia was still unified, ruled by General Mohamed Siad Barre, who had seized power in a coup in 1969. Neighboring Ethiopia was dominated by the elderly feudal emperor Haile Selassie. On the Cold War chessboard, Somalia was allied with the Soviet Union, while Ethiopia was still under U.S. influence. In 1974, Ethiopian “revolutionaries” overthrew the emperor, and plunged the country into nearly 2 decades of murderous chaos. The new Ethiopian dictator, Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, broke with the U.S. and allied with the Soviet Union, and to Cuba’s discredit Fidel Castro sent troops to sustain Mengistu’s repressive rule.

President Siad Barre saw an opportunity for Somalia. Ethiopia’s eastern Ogaden region is populated mainly by ethnic Somalis, and Siad Barre had long claimed it. In 1977, he took advantage of the chaos in Ethiopia to invade, at first successfully. The United States, now shut out of Ethiopia, switched sides, allied with Somalia and started shipping weapons to Siad Barre. It was a cynical, irresponsible move; America could have promoted negotiations instead of treating Somalis and Ethiopians as expendable pawns in its competition with the Soviets.

Let’s be clear; there would have been friction, quite possibly even war, without the outside meddling by the Soviet Union, the United States, and Cuba. But with the superpowers supplying modern weaponry, the fighting got even more deadly than it would have otherwise; the Ogaden War’s death toll on both sides was an estimated 15,000 to 20,000. Across Africa, people regularly point out: “There are no arms manufacturers on our continent, with the exception of South Africa. Yet Africa is awash in weapons.”

Ilhan Omar was born in 1982, into a prominent family in Mogadishu, the Somali capital. Her mother died when she was 2 and she was raised by her father and grandfather. When she was a little girl, President Siad Barre’s disastrous leadership finally collapsed, and civil war broke out. She told the New Yorker recently that as a child she learned to identify the sound of incoming mortar shells: “My earliest memories, any unhappy memories that I have, are deeply rooted in feeling extremely tuned in to the noise of a mortar falling — the noise that it makes as it takes off and the noise that it makes when it is landing close to you.”

Ilhan Omar’s family fled when she was seven, to a refugee camp across the border in Kenya. She remembered today in a New York Times opinion article that the camp had “no formal schooling or even running water.” The family stayed there 4 years, until they were admitted to America. Today, the Dadaab refugee camp holds half a million people, and the tenacity and energy of the people who live there has been captured in a moving book, City of Thorns, by Ben Rawlence, a British reporter who has also worked for Human Rights Watch.

Events back in Somalia made it impossible for Ilhan Omar’s family to return home. In 1993, as the civil war continued and famine spread, a botched U.S. effort at “humanitarian intervention” ended in tragedy. American (and other United Nations) troops completely misunderstood the local reality and opened fire on civilians, turning initial Somali sympathy for the relief effort into hatred. On July 12 that year, a U.S. helicopter gunship raid in Mogadishu provoked Somali anger, and enraged local people responded by killing 4 Western reporters. (One of them was an impressive young man named Dan Eldon, who I had befriended in Nairobi, Kenya some years earlier.)

The U.S. intervention culminated in the notorious Black Hawk Down raid on October 3, 1993, in which 18 American soldiers died. One estimate is that during that attack, U.S. helicopters fired 50,000 rockets, in a crowded urban setting, so the Somali death toll must have been huge. 

Again, Somalia would almost certainly be in some kind of crisis today even if the U.S. and the Soviet Union had never set foot there. Climate change and repeated droughts are a challenge to the country’s largely pastoral way of life. Clan membership is a central feature of Somali life, and would probably have provoked conflict over scarce resources, especially once unscrupulous clan leaders emerged. But foreign interference, especially but not only the weapons transfers, surely made a bad situation worse.

What’s also clear is that Ilhan Omar, more than any other member of the U.S. Congress, knows first-hand what it’s like to try to survive in a lawless world that crushes human rights. As she wrote in her New York Times opinion piece:

It was in the diverse community of Minneapolis — the very community that welcomed me home with open arms after Mr. Trump’s attacks on me last week — where I learned the true value of democracy. I started attending political caucuses with my grandfather, who cherished democracy as only someone who has experienced its absence could. I soon recognized that the only way to ensure that everyone in my community had a voice was by participating in a democratic process.

James North

James North is a Mondoweiss Editor-at-Large, and has reported from Africa, Latin America, and Asia for four decades. He lives in New York City.

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10 Responses

  1. DaBakr on July 27, 2019, 1:43 am

    In the authors view based on articles past it appears that the US is “partly” to blame for every major humanitarian crisis in the region of the middle east, northern Africa and elsewhere. It’s the typical condescending and often patronizing far left attitude towards people of socalled ‘colour’ in the face of supposedly non colored colonialists. A fairly narrow view of world history,human nature and the cycles that various regions are subject to. but for the author, it’s part for the course. Omar is obviously a heroic figure to him and has been from the start. No critical thinking involved.

    (She deserves the same respect as any other elected congress person. However, there is a reason politicians rate near the bottom of the lowlife polls regardless of party affiliation)

    • Misterioso on July 27, 2019, 11:10 am


      To be brief:

      A couple of examples of the U.S. being responsible for humanitarian crises in the Middle East:

      The borderless, expansionist, neo-colonialist, racist entity referred to as “Israel” would not exist if it were not for the enormous financial aid ($134.7 billion) successive U.S. administrations and American taxpayers have provided “Israel” since 1948 despite the fact that it promptly reneged on the commitments it gave to the UNGA in 1949 in order to gain UN admittance.** Since then, the U.S. has looked the other way as “Israel” has continuously occupied more and more Palestinian and other Arab lands (e.g., Syria’s Golan Heights and Lebanon’s Shebba Farms) by war and brutally occupied, killed, dispossessed, expelled and imposed immense suffering on the indigenous Palestinians Christians and Muslims. (“Israel” also expelled about 130,000 Syrians from the Golan Heights following the war it launched on 5 June, 1967.)

      Another example of an utterly horrendous humanitarian crisis the U.S. has created in the region began during the presidency of George Bush Jr., i.e., its illegal invasion/occupation (based on what are now proven lies) of Iraq in collusion with Britain under Tony Blair (aka “Tony Bliar”) and encouragement by “Israel” and its U.S. lobby, which led to the death of 600,000 Iraqis, destruction of their infrastructure, and millions of refugees who were forced to flee and thereby providing major impetus to the flood of refugees into neighboring Arab countries and Europe.

      **After being rejected twice, on 11 May 1949, the General Assembly passed Resolution 273 granting Israel admittance to the UN. As a pre-condition, Israel formally agreed at the UN to obey General Assembly Resolution 194 regarding the then over 800,000 Palestinian refugees as well as Resolution 181, the Partition Plan. Along with Arab states and Palestinian representatives, Israel also signed the Lausanne Protocol at the 1949 Lausanne Peace Conference to the same effect.

      Resolution 273: “Recalling [Resolutions 181 and 194] and taking note of the declarations and explanations made by [Israel]…in respect of the implementation of the said resolutions, the General Assembly… decides to admit Israel into membership in the United Nations.” Israel is the only state admitted to the UN on the condition that specific resolutions would be implemented.

      • gamal on July 27, 2019, 1:03 pm

        ” its illegal invasion/occupation (based on what are now proven lies) of Iraq in collusion with Britain under Tony Blair (aka “Tony Bliar”) and encouragement by “Israel” and its U.S. lobby”

        so soon not only has America forgotten Raqqa, as it was being flattened it was pre-forgotten in the manner so well described by the late Alan Pinter, but also Fallujah, Fallujah where we turned the people into burning tallow, all men between 14-55, meaning all were denied the right to flee the killing zone, it was filmed but never happened, Fallujah where an obstetrician warned young women not to ever get pregnant, “oh say can you see..”

        “February 26, 2005, the German newspaper Junge Welt published an interview with Dr. Mohammad J. Haded, a member of the medical staff of the Central Hospital of Fallujah, and Mohammad F. Awad, a member of the Iraqi Red Crescent Society who helped gather corpses in Fallujah for identification.

        In that interview, Dr. Haded described Fallujah as “Dresden in Iraq” and Awad recounted the “remarkable number of dead people [who] were totally charred.”

        Dr. Haded also described how U.S. forces “wiped out” the hospital in Fallujah, attacked rescue vehicles, and destroyed a makeshift field hospital.”

        American documentary-maker Mark Manning has made similar observations; you can read his story of being embedded in Fallujah here.

        The doctors at Fallujah warn that there haven’t been enough studies done to absolutely tie the hideous increase in birth defects to depleted uranium, but expert Christopher Busby has said that the culprit is more likely that than the ‘napalm derivative’, WP:

        “…the uranium particles can also wreck the DNA of sperm and eggs produced by contaminated adults – causing a multitude of birth defects in any baby they conceive, and that “white phosphorus is not something that specifically damages the DNA, but depleted uranium, normal uranium and enriched uranium are all mutagens and cause birth defects at quite small concentrations.”

        A study done by Busby and two other researchers two years ago showed a 12-fold increase in childhood cancer in Fallujah since the 2004 attacks. The report also showed the sex ratio had declined from normal to 86 boys to 100 girls, together with a spread of diseases indicative of genetic damage similar to but of far greater incidence than Hiroshima.

        Dr Alani visited Japan recently, where she met with Japanese doctors who study birth defect rates they believe related to radiation from the US nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

        She was told birth defect incidence rates there are between 1-2 per cent. Alani’s log of cases of birth defects amounts to a rate of 14.7 per cent of all babies born in Fallujah, more than 14 times the rate in the affected areas of Japan”

      • oldgeezer on July 27, 2019, 1:27 pm


        Fallujah where the US used white phosphorous as an offensive weapon in contravention of the chemical weapons ban.

        CNN reported the action with glee. The destruction of Iraq and the death of countless thousands was treated as some form of high entertainment.

        The officer (Colonel I think) who explained that they used HE to drive people out of wherever they were hiding. Then once out they would use WP to burn them to death.

        The grin and laugh as he informed viewers we call the tactic “shake and bake”.

    • Stephen Shenfield on July 30, 2019, 10:32 am

      DaBakr: First insure yourself against criticism by means of an expression of formal respect, then throw in the slur ‘lowlife’ (no need for substantiation). Very neat. Congratulations.

      The reason why certain people get into the ‘lowlife polls,’ by the way, is their targeting for relentless slander and abuse by the corporate media, whose owners view them as a threat.

      • DaBakr on August 1, 2019, 9:11 pm


        You are arguing that politicians don’t poll as the least trustworthy of all professions and hence, my reference to “low lives”? Show me polling data where ordinary citizens view politicians (in general) as anything but the lowest in trustworthyness. Otherwise, I don’t know what your getting at.

  2. echinococcus on July 27, 2019, 7:26 am

    Whoever wrote the headline of the article here gets the Mister Cow Award for Euphemism.

    “Foreign interference, including by the U.S.” to say American Imperial Aggression.

    The inclusivity of the polysyllabic wording is sheer genius!

    Anyway, never mind: with some exceptions including Palestine (all to her credit), even Ms Omar supports American warmongering.

  3. Elizabeth Block on July 27, 2019, 9:46 am

    I’ve been reading “Why Nations Fail” – a big thick damned square book, as the Earl of something-or-other said to Edward Gibbon, but a good one, and considering its length and subject, an easy read. Highly recommended.
    Yes, there was continuing conflict in Somalia, a nation without a central government that could keep order. But it was made much worse by the “gift” of modern weaponry.

    • DaBakr on July 27, 2019, 2:00 pm


      the ‘gift’ of modern weaponry. that pretty much hits the nail on the head. and by modern, we can go all the way back to slings over arms, long bows, cross bows, swords, cannon, rifles etc. with the industrial revolution things took off like lightning. as long as your into big books you might be interested in Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. Its partly an anthropological /geographical/ climate based explanation for why things ended up how they are now. (It’s not political, not pro-israel or anti-) I think it was a big best seller way back so many have probably read it already

  4. Marnie on July 27, 2019, 9:39 pm

    I am very happy that Ilhan Omar and her family members made it to Minnesota and have been calling it home for years. She’s one of the best things in recent years to come out of Minnesota besides Betty McCollum. #StandWithIlhan

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