Somalia: Pirates are a reminder of country's chaos, international neglect

Lawless Somalia elbows its way back into the news
ByElizabeth Sullivan
Pirates are a reminder of country's chaos, international neglect
Sunday, October 12, 2008
The emergence of a virulent form of gunboat piracy off So malia's shores is just the latest symptom of a country - and region - in crisis.
Anyone who's paid even modest attention to the plunge into anarchy of this Horn of Africa nation knows its bumper crops of late have been gunmen, radicals, terrorists and crooks. Now, a high-stakes pirate standoff may finally be bringing the world back for a closer look at the trauma that is Somalia.
Somalia's No. 1 export, however, long has been desperate people - including many who die aboard rickety boats abandoned by unscrupulous human traffickers. The country stays afloat largely because of $1 billion in annual remittances from exiled Somalis, but even that lifeline is now threatened by the rising violence.
Formerly home to poets and prosperous nomadic clans, Somalia hasn't functioned as a state for more than 17 years.
And while this nation not far from the Persian Gulf has pockets of relative stability and one of Africa's most ethnically homogenous populations, its clan warfare is accelerating. Increasingly, that's drawing in gunmen, opportunists and terrorist operatives from outside its borders - with profound implications for the potential infection of more violence, extremist ideology and terrorism from this failed state into others nearby, including Kenya, Ethiopia and Yemen.
Long the world's most ignored tragedy, Somalia largely dropped off the West's radar after U.S. forces ignominiously withdrew in 1994, five months after 18 U.S. soldiers died in the dust of a Mogadishu street, during a one-day battle gone disastrously wrong.
Yet out of the spotlight, its humanitarian horrors have grown exponentially, greased by the continuing cycle of international neglect and misguided intervention, as well as by recurring droughts. That's not to mention the depravities of a gangland society that has lost its internal order and glue.
With one in every five Somali toddlers dying before their fifth birthday and nearly half the rest chronically undernourished, more international light couldn't come too soon. Especially since it's the international caregivers - teachers, aid workers and transporters of desperately needed food - who find themselves prime targets of the gunmen and terrorists. At least half a dozen aid workers and teachers have been executed this year; as of July, another seven were being held hostage.
Street warfare has virtually emptied much of Somalia's once-bustling seaside capital, Mogadishu. The U.N. refugee agency estimates that more than a million Mogadishu residents are internally displaced and living in squalid camps outside town. That's on top of a million Somalis who already fled the country. That means at least one fourth of the nation's populace have abandoned their homes.
Sadly, what drew the world's attention was not this human trauma, but the offshore drama focused on modern-day Somali pirates in fast boats with advanced weaponry and GPS systems, who seized a Belize-flagged ship, its mostly Ukrainian crew and Ukrainian cargo of 33 military tanks, six anti-aircraft systems and other arms, and is holding them for ransom.
As of this writing, that standoff continues, with a Russian frigate on the way and a half-dozen U.S. warships surrounding the pirated vessel to make sure the military hardware doesn't go to al-Qaida-linked groups.
Mysteriously, the ship had no armed escort. Even food shipments into Somalia have to be heavily guarded. So why wasn't this one? The Kenyans confirm they were the intended recipients of the arms, yet notations on a cargo invoice obtained by BBC News with the initials GOSS, which may refer to the "Government of South Sudan," raise questions about the ultimate recipient. (Kenya says the initials stand for General Ordinance Supplies and Security, a government arms office.)
If the U.S.-aided southern Sudanese, supposedly adhering to a peace deal and cease-fire with the Sudanese government, are instead in the market for tons of new military hardware, that could blow out of the water the deal that ended a major civil war.
Either way, Sudan's order also is threatened by Somalia's disorder - a tragedy with many causes and no clear cures. A 2007 U.S.-backed Ethiopian military incursion that successfully overthrew a fledgling Islamist Somali government Washington believed was in league with elements of al-Qaida has simply changed the nature of the conflict to a multipart war. It's a war in which the Islamists, other Somali clans, the Ethiopians, U.N. peacekeepers and U.S. soldiers hunting terrorists out of a base nearby in Djibouti all seem to have their own agendas.
Sadly, the pirates are the ones who seem to be doing best out of this mess, with their own seaside villas and high-end cars. The rest of the Somali people are just slipping further into the abyss.