TOPICS : Somalia: A cruelty the world ignores

As tens of thousands more frightened and exhausted people fled the terrors of Mogadishu last week, a Somali leader condemned the international community “for watching the cruelty in Somalia like a film and not bothering to help”. He was mistaken. The international community has barely been watching the cruelty in Somalia at all.

Life in Mogadishu has become even more intolerable since Ethiopia intervened last Christmas to install the transitional government of President Abdullahi Yusuf. Ethiopia had been alarmed by the aggressive rhetoric of the Islamic Courts government that had taken over the Somali capital. It had seen off the warlords and brought unprecedented order to Mogadishu. But threats of jihad against its powerful neighbour provoked a muscular response. The US stood by its regional ally, declaring that Somalia must not become a terrorist haven.

The Ethiopians calculated a lesser risk in having Yusuf in charge. Having installed him, they promised to withdraw quickly, agreeing to remain only while an African peacekeeping force was mounted. The optimism rested on highly dubious assumptions. It presupposed that the transitional government possessed legitimacy, and had the capacity to govern. It also assumed too easily that an African peacekeeping force would materialise.

The core problem was that Somalis everywhere were appalled to see Ethiopian troops on the streets of their capital. Opposition to the Ethiopian military presence manifested and an insurgency was born.

Ethiopian forces launched massive military attacks on various quarters of the city in March and April, designed to root out extremists. Their complete disregard, and that of the insurgents, for the population’s safety has been condemned by human rights organisations. But the international community took all too little notice of events in a city that was just too dangerous to visit . Humanitarian organisations quietly started to provide for the 300,000 people who fled Mogadishu.

There were other consequences of Ethiopia’s rampage through the city. It hardened the insurgents’ resolve, and made new enemies among the clans targeted; it deepened opposition to the transitional government, in whose name the operations were conducted; it prompted the flight of the business so vital for any normalisation; and it alarmed African nations who might have considered joining the small Ugandan contingent to provide security and enable the Ethiopian forces to leave. A renewed crackdown in Mogadishu has caused hundreds more deaths and pushed another 200,000 into destitution.

We cannot say we were not warned. Six months ago the UN’s head of humanitarian affairs highlighted the deplorable conditions of the displaced. He observed that more people had been displaced from Mogadishu in the previous two months than anywhere else in the world, and that a political solution was the only way to resolve the crisis: “Otherwise I fear the worst.” The worst has now come. What are we waiting for? — The Guardian