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.”
23 years ago, from a refugee camp in Kenya, my father and I arrived at an airport in Washington DC.
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) January 2, 2019
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.