Never any pretence of neutrality

By Sue Neales (2-8-00) [emperors-clothes]

CARE Australia's compound in Somalia consisted of three whitewashed buildings on a red dirt road on the outskirts of Baidoa. In December 1992, hundreds of sandbags barricaded the wooden gates to ward off the rebel attackers who had been arriving with guns late at night to try and steal the aid agency's wheat stores.

Inside, besieged CARE Australia staff awaited the arrival of the relieving Operation Restore Hope forces. Tension had been growing in Baidoa since the United Nations had secured Mogadishu, and vital aid work to help outlying villages deprived of food and water had temporarily been halted.

The only link to the outside world for the CARE Australia leader, Mr. Lockton Morrisey, and his remaining staff - as well as this journalist, a paying guest - was a satellite phone and small dish that sat on the ground under a palm tree. On the other side of the compound's walls, bullet shots could be heard.

In the early hours of December 15, four US State Department officers arrived. Supposedly meant to be inconspicuous, these agents with their white shirts, black paratrooper pants and cases of communications equipment succeeded only in looking ludicrous in the dusty, hot war town.

Two hours later, Mr. Morrisey told us that two of the agents, with their hand-held military GPS boxes, would be coming with us on the CARE Australia van that we had already arranged would be taking us on a tour of the still-dangerous streets of Baidoa.

As we drove off, the van detoured to some of Baidoa's outer streets and intersections - meeting the main road from Mogadishu down which the UN convoy would arrive the next day. For the next two hours the US men furiously keyed map co-ordinates into their handsets aboard the CARE Australia vehicle, designing a route by which the troops could arrive in Baidoa and quietly encircle the city, while avoiding its troublespots and main thoroughfares.

All that day, brightly colored paper notes blew down Baidoa's laneways, past its few remaining barricaded homes and across its overgrown soccer pitch. They were UN propaganda leaflets - apparently dropped by the same US planes that had delivered our State Department emissaries - picturing a smiling US soldier backed by a rifle, helicopter and armored car shaking hands with a happy Somali villager in his sarong.

It was meant to read, "We are international soldiers from the United Nations and we come in peace to help you", but the Somali language had been mangled, causing much hilarity in the Baidoa marketplace when it called the US-led forces "Soldiers of the united slaves".

That night, after waking about 2am and hearing noises, I climbed the concrete stairs of an outer building in the CARE compound. On the flat white rooftop I found about six black-garbed figures moving around in the shadows under a clear starry desert night.

Lime-green snap fluorescent sticks were laid out across the flat roof. There was much whispered talking into walkie-talkies, while large transmitters and communication boxes buzzed and crackled.

The officers were talking with the UN forces, in their combat helicopters, tanks, armored cars and marching men, who were on the outskirts of Baidoa ready to enter the town before dawn.

There was no pretence that this was the roof of an independent and supposedly neutral aid agency. This was a precision military operation being carried out from within the safety of CARE Australia's Baidoa compound.

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