Excerpt from Chapter 7, Bloody Monday
Through a haze, steeped in memories that roil with anger, I see the images of 12 July 1993, when both outrage and the need to forgive battled to control my emotions, when friends died brutally at the hands of Somalis, and when many more Somalis died murderously at the hands of American forces. These impressions surround one moment—17 critical minutes, precisely—that would prove to be the turning point in Somalia. It was a case in which bloodshed compounded bloodshed, a monumental example of vengeful rage exacted without accountability. This moment inflicted murder in the service, unbelievably, of a sad oxymoron: peace enforcement.
"Get the fuck out of here, it's too dangerous!" screamed the American soldier, his eyes bloodshot with fear, his men sweating at their defensive positions as Cobra attack helicopters howled above. This was the perimeter cordon sealing off Qaybdiid's house, the latest target of UN "peacekeeping" ire in Somalia now belching smoke.
I had arrived quickly, too quickly, with my driver and diminutive translator, Hassan. From the roof of the Sahafi Hotel we had seen the helicopter attack unfold, first the blast of TOW missiles, then the sustained hammer of 20mm cannon fired from more than half a dozen helicopters at once creating a deadly killing box. Within minutes I jumped into the car with Hassan and driver Duguf and we raced to where the thick column of smoke ascended toward the sky.
Young Hassan had bad teeth, a little english, and a good sense of well-intentioned humor. Duguf was short, built like a bulldog, and tough. He kept a stem of qat in his mouth all the time, like a toothpick, and his skin was very black. He didn't say much, but he was with me. I had been working with this pair for a couple of months, since Hersi had left the gunman business. The situation has been so calm in recent days that I didn't bother to bring my own M-16 (for another gunman's use—I never traveled armed myself) or, in the rush, even a normal gunman.
We went alone, but already the lump in my throat was there, my own protective instinct of fear growing in warning, telling me I was entering a zone normally forbidden and that I could be harmed.
We arrived at the road behind the Qaybdiid house and found a tense American squad. They were set up at a sandy crossroads, the snipers keeping Somalis at bay down three separate roads. Their commander saw Hassan and ordered him to halt, as I gingerly continued my advance. The Americans warned me away, too, but I had always taken such exhortations with a grain of salt. They rarely visited these streets. And when they did they were under fire. There was Hassan, barely high school age who told stories with long, elegant, magical fingers. The Americans throught Hassan was a killer. Their average age was nineteen, just out of high school themselves.
So I ignored the soldiers and crept past and round the corner, leaving Hassan shaking with fright despite my assurances, hunkered down 30 yards from the US unit. What I didn't know in my arrogance was that this mission was to be the shortest ever mounted in Mogadishu: 17 minutes, and I had arrived at minute 15. I peered through an open gate to see the target house ablaze, but from there at the back not worth a single picture.
The Americans disappeared, pulling out as quickly as they had warned me to stay away. And then there was a strange moment of silence, a solitude virtually unknown in this country, and one that immediately forced the lump in my throat to attention and filled all my emotion with terror. The quiet roar of the flames was muffled by my crippled consciousness. Then—with the army snipers gone—Somalis began to rush at me from three sides.
I could see that they were enraged by the concentration of the attack, so I turned and walked, then ran, to get back around the corner to where I knew that Hassan would be able to calm the crowd. I was running then and saw Hassan, but the Somalis were upon him, too, and we were engulfed by the mob. In the last moments they had watched their fathers, sons, and grandfathers die in a fusillade of UN-sanctioned violence, so quickly and finally. In 17 minutes, that single compound had been obliterated by 16 TOW missiles and 2,020 rounds—the American pilots counted them later—of 20mm cannon fire. For all the Somalis knew, I had been deposited there by the US troops. As a foreigner, I was their revenge target.
The mob surrounded me, grabbing hold of my cameras and bag, and my mind raced uncontrollably, knowing instinctively that there would be no running away from this violence, from this seething group that grew larger every moment. It all happened in seconds: I saw Hassan fistfighting, trying to explain that I was innocent; I screamed "Hassan! Hassan! Hassan!" until I was hoarse and we were losing the battle and it was all I could do to parcel out my cameras to buy time, but then I was being clubbed and a boy brandished an 18-inch blade toward my face and as I fended that off a machete smashed into my head. My arm was struck again and again, and the crowd tightened around me; I was fighting and this was never my war but now I had gone too far...I had crossed the line that divides observer from killer and victim.
Death in Somalia is inevitable—who can stop the sunrise?—and I felt my last moments of dawn were giving way.