Cactus and Bitterness Grow Where American Chopper Was DownedCactus and Bitterness Grow Where American Chopper Was Downed
That day, Oct. 3, 1993, became known as the Battle of Mogadishu, when an American mission against Somali warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid went terribly wrong. The Somalis shot down not one but two Black Hawks that day -- one of them, call sign Super Six One, would change Maria Osman's life forever. "I hate the Americans," she says, her eyes maintaining their empty sadness rather than shifting to anger. "I hate them for what happened to my daughter. If I saw one I would cut them up into so many pieces." The crowd that has gathered around us laughs, but some begin to eye me suspiciously. Maria and her husband have three more children, she says, but both parents are jobless so they can't always afford to feed them. "I have no hope," she says, eyes downcast. "No hope for Somalia." I wander over to the exact spot where the chopper came down. Over the years, locals snatched up most of the wreckage as souvenirs. But a small bit of Black Hawk Super Six One is still here. Another woman in the crowd shouts that she lost four family members in the fighting that day, including a child. This seems to agitate the crowd of 50 or so people. "Why did you bring a white man here?" one of them demands from Duguf, my interpreter. While I continue to videotape, Duguf taps me on the shoulder and nods toward the truck. We make haste just as fingers begin to point and voices grow louder and angrier. Somalia is a failed nation-state, as still-teetering Afghanistan once was.
For the past 14 years it has existed without a central government. Although I have never covered Somalia, I had heard enough stories from colleagues about it. It's a place where human life has little meaning, where feuding clan militias, juiced up on khat (a chewable stimulant herb), roar down dusty backstreets in "technicals" (pickup trucks modified with anti-aircraft or machine guns mounted on the bed). In Somalia a show of force is the only way to get from one block to another without getting shaken down for cash by other heavily armed gunmen at ad hoc roadblocks. One warlord, Duguf tells me, bragged that he was making the equivalent of $40,000 a day in Somalia by operating dozens of roadblocks throughout the area. Even empty passenger buses must pay between $4 and $6 at each blockade, a fortune in a country where the average annual income is only $600 (according to 2004 CIA estimates).
A major misstep in the operation, acknowledged even in the U.N.'s own independent inquiry, was a United States-led attack on what was believed to be a safe house in Mogadishu where members of Aidid's Habr Gedir clan were supposedly meeting to plan more violence against U.S. and U.N. forces. In reality, elders of the clan, not gunmen, were meeting in the house. When the operation was over and the smoke had cleared, more than 50 of the clan elders, the oldest and most respected in their community, were dead. Many here agree that was the turning point in unifying Somalians against the U.S. and U.N. efforts here. It would also lead to the deaths of four journalists, killed by angry Somali mobs when they arrived to cover the incident.