Monday, September 19, 2011



What’s the first thing that came to your mind upon reading the word “Somalia”?  I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about Somalia lately, so I’m not even certain I know how to answer that question for myself anymore.  My answer is probably “Runners Without Borders”, of which I’ll speak more about later.  Let’s get back to you.  When you read “Somalia”, perhaps you first thought about Johnny Depp?

You know, Somalian pirates.  No?  Maybe not rakishly handsome pirates with a hearts of gold and an insatiable lust for the same, but actual real pirates?  Apparently the real ones aren't at all like Johnny Depp.  We’re talking legitimate bad guys, hijacking unarmed freighters, stealing their cargos, and kidnapping, terrorizing and murdering their crews.  Yes, piracy still exists.  And Somalia, you may know, is the base for most modern-day pirates that roam the Gulf of Aden, and serve as a gauntlet of trouble for commercial fleets travelling between Europe and Asia.  Like I said, from all accounts I can read these are not long-haired, fun-loving, cutlass-brandishing Disneyesque animatronic stereotypes brought to life, but extremely dangerous people. 

I don’t claim to be an expert on the issue of Somali prates, but I suspect they exist because a) although the risk is great, the rewards are tremendous, b) the opportunities to earn a legitimate living in Somalia proper are few and far between, and c) there is very little internal Somali governance and punishment of pirates.

I’m sure we’ll revisit the pirates, but I’m off track here.  Maybe pirates aren’t the first thing you thought of when you read “Somalia”.  Maybe you visualized the shape of the country itself.  It has a funny sort of shape, like a triangle of cheese with a smaller triangle bitten out of it.  It is one of several oddly shaped countries in Africa (I’m looking at you, Zambia and Senegal).  It is also one of only two predominantly contiguous countries whose geographic centroid is (probably) not actually located within the boundaries of the country itself (Croatia being the other “predominantly contiguous” country.  Yes, I’m looking at you, Indonesia and the Philippines.  I’m looking at a lot of places, apparently). 

In the case of Somalia, I believe its “centroid” is actually in Ethiopia, in a place called the Ogaden.  The Ogaden used to be part of Somalia, but Ethiopia successfully lobbied to keep it after World War II.  And the remaining part of the triangle, so to speak, was for a time separated into two European colonies, British Somaliland in the North, and Italian Somaliland along the East and South.  I like to think of Somalia as having three bits; the former British bit in the North, currently called Somaliland, the larger bit in in the east and South, the former Italian colony which is divided into Puntland, and Central and Southern Somalia, and finally the “missing bit”, that is, Ogaden, where apparently most of the people speak Somali, but is technically part of Ethiopia. 

But once again I’m off subject.  Perhaps upon reading “Somalia”, you thought neither of Jonny Depp, nor triangles of delicious cheese, but of “Blackhawk Down”.  In late 1992 The United States military assumed command of a United Nations peacekeeping effort in Somalia.  The UN was in Somalia to help deal with the effects of a terrible civil war, which started in 1990 or so, and by late 1992 had helped lead to a massive famine, and the attendant deaths and displacement of millions of Somalis.  Originally the United States provided logistical support and food and medicine, but gradually as the effects of the war became worse, and conditions more dangerous for the peacekeepers, the United States assumed a more militaristic role in the operation.

At some point it would appear that the UN and the US took sides in the civil war, and this led to an attempt to capture the head of one of the rival militias, Omar Salad Elmi, and his deputy, Abdi Hassan Awale Qeybdiid.  On October 3, 1993, the US led a military operation into the heart of Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, to do just that.  But as chronicled in the book/movie “Blackhawk Down”, the operation did not go well.  The operation was supposed to take only 30 minutes, but it lasted for about a day, and the bulk of the operation was concerned with rescuing soldiers who became trapped behind enemy lines.  At the end of the battle the Somali targets were not captured, two US black hawk helicopters were shot down (hence the book/movie title), and 18 US soldiers were killed.  The Somali belligerents, for their part, did not treat the few captured dead US soldiers with respect, dragging their bodies through the streets of the capital.  As a result, bilateral appeal for staying in Somalia and helping to mitigate the effects of or even help solve the civil war were quite diminished, and by early 1994 the US pulled out of Somalia.

 I must note that I never read the book nor saw the movie (though I have heard both are very good), but I do remember the failed military mission, which coincidentally happened while I was living in Africa myself, teaching high school in Ghana for the Peace Corps.  It seemed to me to be an embarrassment for the United States along the lines of the failed Iran hostage rescue mission in 1980, and I was in favor of leaving a country that did not seem to want us there, even if the original intent of the mission was to help, not harm.  

Now if black hawk down was your first thought, and you are an American, you may not have a very good impression of Somalia and Somalis.  Fair enough.  But I'm guessing most of you didn't think of pirates, or helicopters, or cheese.

Maybe you thought of this:

or this:

or this:

And this is why I'm writing about Somalia today.  This is famine, and not to understate things too terribly, it's bad news.  Somalia has endured famine before.  In fact famine was one of the reasons the United States got involved in Somalia in the early 1990's.  And in 2011 famine has returned to Somalia, and believe it or not the United States is starting to get involved again, and more importantly the situation looks pretty bleak for many thousands if not millions of people.

In an article from September 15th, Jeffrey Gettleman from the New York Times reports via the United Nations that is it possible that 750,000 Somalians may run out of food completely in the next few months, because of a failed harvest due to drought, and also due to bad governance and outright malevolent behavior by the various militias currently in charge (read here):

It's bad, and many thousands of Somalis have already died and many thousands more have fled the country into Kenya.  And it is about to get worse.  The article goes on to state that Somalia is very soon going to enter it's rainy season.  At first blush one (like me) would think that the advent of the rains is a good thing.  Rain means food means famine over, right?  Actually this is not the case.  Apparently the onset of the rainy season will spread diseases like malaria, cholera and typhoid, diseases that will cause many more deaths before crops can grow to fruition.  So in order to save lives at this point it is important to administer aid in the form of emergency food, but also medicine and disease control.

Jeffrey also reports that even though this is a bad crisis and much emergency aid is needed, that the international aid community is not "stepping up" they way it did back in the early 90's.  I suspect this reluctance may stem from the "Black Hawk Down" experience of 1993.  Then as now, Somalia was for the most part controlled by militias who answered to no government, prevented aid from reaching recipients, and took aid for themselves.  This perhaps is causing some reluctance to provide aid to Somalia.  Why give money to help Somalians if the money is simply going to end up in the hands of militias, and not in the hands of the starving and the sick? 

And it gets more troublesome.  Apparently the largest and most feared militia is "Al Shabab".  According to state-side accounts, this militia is disturbingly similar to the Taliban.  They are accused of blocking international aid to Somalia, and also accused of preventing Somalians from leaving the country in order to seek aid in Kenya.  Again, this tends to give would-be donors pause when thinking about assisting Somalia, and for two reasons;  One, the likelihood that aid will be misused seems high, and Two, there is an understandable reluctance to provide assistance to a country that is in part controlled by people that are on the official United States Foreign Terrorist Organization list

And yet for all that, I can not shake the feeling that innocent people are literally starving to death, and that there may be something that I can do to help.  One of the few aid agencies that is being allowed into Somalia right now is an organization called "Doctors Without Borders".  Well actually they're called "Medecins Sans Frontieres", but no matter how you say it, these guys are in Somalia right now trying to help.  They won't be able to save everyone, in fact their task is darn near impossible, but I applaud them for trying.

And I want to do more than just applaud, I want to send them some money so they can try to save more lives in Somalia this year.  And I want you to help me.  So I've come up with a fund-raising idea I am calling "Runners Without Borders".  I will post the details in a couple of days, but the general idea is that on October 22nd, 2011 (date pending), for every person who runs a 6.7 mile trail loop I have measured out in Lory State Park and Horsetooth Mountain Park (west of Fort Collins) I will donate a dollar to Doctors Without Borders.  If you run two loops, I'll donate two dollars.  10 loops, 10 dollars (there are several of you who could do that). I will pledge up to $250 total.  All you have to do is show up and run, or hike, or ride your bike, and you will earn money for Doctors Without Borders.  And if you want to do more than just show up, make a pledge of your own!  You can pledge a dollar for each loop I run.  You can pledge 10 dollars for each loop I run.  (I will probably run two loops).  You can pledge a dollar for each loop you run yourself.  You can get your family and your coworkers to pledge a dollar for each loop you run. You can get creative with it.  And if you're shy and don't like asking people for money, or poor and can't afford to give money to a charity right now, just show up and run.  I'll chip in a buck for you.

I hope to get official approval from Lory in the next few days.  At that time I will post the details of the route.  At this point I can tell you that there is no entry fee, this is not a timed event and there are no "winners". You have from 8 am until 4 pm to complete your loop or loops.  You will have to pay to park (or use your pass), we will have one basic aid station, and the route encompasses both border crossings between Lory and Horsetooth.  The official loop start and end is at the south lot of Lory State park but the loop passes very near the Soderberg lot at Horsetooth so that is a viable place to park for those of you who have Larimer Country passes.

Thanks for reading, and I hope to see you on the trails next month!


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