MOGADISHU, SOMALIA – The road to Gesira Beach leads through a landscape of Somali history, stretching from the white stone walls of the old port of this city where ships from ancient Arabia once docked, past shanty slums in the desert suburbs where camels ramble the dunes, to Finnish-made windmills on the Indian Ocean surf that provide electricity for the coast.
Twenty miles south of Mogadishu, near flatlands where nomads extract salt from the turquoise sea water, the road makes a sharp right and twists past an inconspicuous sandy gorge. It was here, last summer, that another chapter in Somali history was written.
“We found shoes here. So many shoes. And blood on the sand. There were cartridges from bullets everywhere,” said a young Somali engineer, standing near the gorge, recalling his visit to this place last July, one day after 47 civilians were rounded up and shot to death, reportedly by government troops. “We should never forget this place and what happened here.”
The date of the carnage was Friday, July 14, a day on which many things changed in this East African country of 8 million. Before then, Western countries, including the United States, were inclined to continue limited political backing for the 20-year-old government of Mohamed Siad Barre, the Somali ruler who for many years had been a staunch ally of the United States in its struggle with the Soviet Union for influence in the Horn of Africa.
That backing was sustained despite growing charges from international human-rights groups that the Somali government was committing atrocities against its own people. High on a list of offenses was the destruction of the northern city of Hargeisa, Somalia’s second largest, where thousands of civilians died in 1988 during random bombing and rocket attacks by Somali armed forces in their war against anti-government rebels.
The U.S. government – Somalia’s chief source of economic and military aid since 1978 – also was assailed by these human-rights groups for playing an indirect role in the killing in the north. Critics pointed in particular at an ill-timed shipment of $1.4 million worth of automatic rifles and ammunition to the government in June 1988. The guns arrived in the middle of a period when the Somali army “purposely murdered” at least 5,000 civilians in that fighting, a report prepared for the State Department last fall said.
Then, last July, the horror came to Mogadishu.
During demonstrations by Moslems protesting arrest of their religious leaders, panic-stricken government troops went on a shooting spree, killing at least 450 civilians here, according to Westerners who witnessed the carnage.
“It was the first time I ever saw bullets fired from a gun. I can still see the blue flames that shot out of the barrels,” said a Somali employee of an international aid organization, who, like all the Somalis interviewed for this story, asked to remain unidentified. "The soldiers were manning guns on land cruisers. They shot at anyone who moved, even little children who were trying to run away.
“This was happening all over the city, in every neighborhood,” the aid worker said. “The bodies were all over Mogadishu.”
Many of those killed here on July 14 were Issaks, members of a northern Somali clan whose members make up the rebel Somali National Movement. It is one of four rebel groups currently fighting to topple the Siad Barre government.
During the height of the bloodshed, 48 Issak men were rounded up at random by government troops known as the Red Hats and driven in trucks to Gesira Beach, according to Westerners and Somali dissidents.
The Red Hats, who wear crimson-fringed berets and are members of Siad Barre’s ruling Marehan clan, ordered the handcuffed prisoners into the sandy gorge and fired point blank into them, according to a young Issak man who said he was the lone survivor of the executions. After being shot in the shoulder, he pretended he was dead and later escaped north to the neighboring country of Djibouti. There, in a refugee camp months later, he told his story to a reporter with the British Broadcasting Corp.
Lying wounded in the gorge, the Somali told the reporter, one soldier noticed him twitching from the shoulder wound. The soldier prepared to fire another round into his body, but he was stopped by a colleague who suggested that the body spasms were those of fast-approaching death. The victims reportedly were buried in a mass grave.
“Since that day, the feeling has been that anyone is fair game, even in Mogadishu,” said an Issak here. “I am the only member of my family still here. Everyone else has managed to leave the country. Many, many families are trying to leave.”
The executions also helped prompt a reversal in American policy. Earlier that month, the Bush administration had asked Congress to grant Somalia more than $20 million in emergency economic support funds for the aid-starved government. The Mogadishu and Gesira Beach killings, however, not only swayed Congress to strike down the request but also persuaded the administration to distance itself further from Siad Barre. Since the violence last July, the United States has cut the size of its embassy staff here by more than half, from 189 to 85.
The violence also appeared to help bring about a greater unanimity of purpose within the U.S. Embassy here, where officials had differed sharply over how the situation in Somalia should be reported to Washington. “Before July 14,” said one Western official, “I think there was a tendency to give Siad Barre the benefit of the doubt. But after July 14th, no more.”
The U.S. policy retreat clearly is facilitated by the political changes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and by a reduction in East-West tensions that has diminished the strategic significance once attached to the Horn of Africa. As the Soviets have backed away from their ally, Marxist Ethiopia, in recent months, so the United States is withdrawing from Somalia.
In an interview here late last month, Siad Barre assailed human-rights organizations for what he considered inaccurate reporting on his country. Recently, the New York-based rights group Africa Watch reported that the Somali government has been directly responsible for the deaths of more than 50,000 of its citizens in the past 19 months.
Siad Barre claimed that his soldiers act only under orders from their officers and that the officers have ordered them to “kill no one,” although they must act “in self-defense.” He acknowledged that civilians were killed here during protests last July but denied that the Gesira Beach executions took place. Several months ago, Siad Barre insisted, he ordered a parliamentary investigation of the incidents. However, the findings – if any were compiled – have not been made public.
No arrests have been made in connection with the Mogadishu or Gesira Beach killings. The Red Hats – estimated to number about 5,000 troops, most between the ages of 16 and 21 – are under the command of Somalia’s military chief of staff, Maslah Mohamed Siad, the president’s son.
Most Western analysts said it is unlikely that Siad Barre ordered the killings himself. If anything, they said, the violence underscored the lack of control that the octogenarian ruler has over his armed forces, which have been accused of many recent acts of murder and banditry. Three weeks ago, allegations reached Mogadishu that more than 230 civilians suspected of rebel sympathies had been executed over the past two months near the central city of Galcaio.
“Gesira Beach is one incident we know about for certain,” said one Somali here. “I am afraid there are many more.”