We go to Somalia this week, for a remarkable story about a group of young Irish women surviving in the world’s most dangerous place
This week Documentary on Newstalk travels to Somalia, in 1992, to hear a remarkable story about the courage of a group of young Irish women, surviving in the world’s most dangerous place.
Recorded on location in Mogadishu, by producer Eoin Brennan, ‘Summer In Somalia’ brings interviews from Irish and Somali aid workers who worked in the crisis, bringing aid to thousands, often while under direct threat from armed militias roaming the streets.
The programme also explores the roots of the conflict, and the legacy of a disaster that saw 300,000 people die.
Listen to the Summer in Somalia promo clip below – ‘Summer in Somalia’ airs on Sunday, May 17 at 10 am
A Summer in Somalia
In the summer of 1992 Somalia was in the grip of a brutal civil war and famine. Mogadishu, at the epicentre of the conflict, had become the world’s most dangerous place.
Anne O’ Mahony, while on her Summer holidays from university, arrived in Mogadishu as part of a small group of Irish women.
With just four in the group initially, they were the Concern team charged with starting a feeding programme.
Arriving with little knowledge of the situation, what these women found in Somalia would be far darker and more dangerous than anything they had expected or previously encountered in their careers as aid workers.
Working with a group of Somalis, the team’s actions over the next few months would play a critical role in sparking an international response to a problem the outside world had ignored as hundreds of thousands died. This culminated in the famous visit to the country of President Mary Robinson, when her emotional speech in a Nairobi hotel in October 1992 commanded the world’s attention, and its action in Somalia.
The Pan Afrique feeding centre, Mogadishu, where the Concern teams started their feeding cennre in Somalia Image: Concern
Civil war in Somalia
In early 1992 a coalition of clans overthrew military dictator Siad Barre. An armada of technicals – pick-up trucks with heavy artillery mounted in the bed – rode towards Mogadishu, taking the capital quickly as Barre’s army fled, ransacking towns as the crossed the plains. As they fled the military abandoned mass arms depots – left over from the Cold War days when the United States and Soviet Union had, at various times, allied themselves with the country in the strategic gateway between the Arabian Peninsula and Africa.
The coalition of clans soon collapsed however, leading to the outbreak of a brutal civil war.
Barre had long engineered animosity between the five major clans in Somalia, as part of his system of control. When the government fell a power vacuum arose and in the clamour for influence and territory the animosities beneath the surface erupted, dragging Somalia into an attrition war.
A Concern jeep in Somalia, 1992 Image credit: Concern
When drought came in 1991 the conflict and destruction of infrastructure and much of the agricultural system in the country combined to create a famine that would eventually leave 300,000 dead.
In early 1992 little was known of the disaster as just a handful of aid agencies had begun operations in the country and all embassies had left following the outbreak of the civil war. As the first Gulf War, and the Yugoslav war, filled headlines and TV reports, the conflict and growing crisis in Somalia was left to the back pages at best, with little by way of a foreign media presence in the country – and then almost exclusively within the capital city, Mogadishu.
As told in ‘Summer in Somalia’, in late April Concern sent a small team of aid workers to found an aid programme. At the time Somalia was still far from the front pages, and it would not be until late July that the world would finally begin to react in any meaningful way. The US began Operation Restore Hope, supplying food aid, but did not provide the necessary protection for shipments, meaning warlords, who by now had carved up Mogadishu and much of the rest of Somalia, to hijack shipments, using food as both currency and a weapon.
In August of 1992 then Foreign Affairs Minister David Andrews travelled to Somalia, at the request of Irish aid agencies, including Concern. He was then the highest ranking foreign official to visit Somalia since the start of the civil-war. What Andrews saw shocked him deeply, telling a reporter upon his return that he had spent “three of the worst days” of his life in the war torn country.
In response to the Andrews visit, attention in Ireland grew rapidly and aid money flowed in – yet, globally Somalia remained far down the list of priorities.
Mary Robinson’s Intervention
On October 3 then President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, visited Somalia – the first head of state to do so following the civil-war. Dozens of international media agencies followed her trip – clamouring to observe the first truly high profile visit to the country since the crisis began.
She travelled to Mogadishu, Afgoye and Baidoa – all towns where Concern had set up feeding centres – and met with Irish aid workers, as well as meeting with the leaders of the warring factions. Mrs Robinson maintained a reserved but compassionate manner throughout her visit. Upon reaching Nairobi however, safely removed from the horror of Somalia – the facade slipped, and the usually stoic President lost control before the world’s media. Speaking of her “shame” at the hopelessness of the situation, those few moments in a Nairobi hotel would bring about profound change.
The sights of suffering in Baidoa, in central Somalia, and particularly the suffering children, had a deep effect on Mary Robinson during her October 1993 visit Image: Leslie Doyle
Following the meeting Mrs Robinson travelled, along with Mr Andrews, to the United Nations in New York to meet with Mr Boutros Boutros Ghali – then United Nations secretary-general – to raise the issue of Somalia.
Although Mr Boutros-Ghali told Robinson he agreed with her, he reminded the Irish president that there were many areas that badly needed the aid, and funding, of the wider world.
However, global opinions on Somalia were amplified and soon political action would follow. In December the United States would send ground forces, to protect food shipments. While this mission did achieve some successes it ultimately ended in disaster, marked forever as the mission of ‘Black Hawk Down’ or ‘The Battle of Mogadishu’, on October 3-4 1993, in which 18 US Army Rangers and up to 1000 Somalis were killed in one afternoon’s brutal fighting in Mogadishu that followed the shooting down of a US Black Hawk helicopter.
Concern’s work in Somalia would also end marred by tragedy and loss. On February 22 1993 the Dublin nurse, then just 23, was killed while travelling on the road from Mogadishu to Baidoa when armed ambushed the convoy in which Valerie was travelling.
Concern founder Father Aengus Finucane said of Valerie Place: “The short life of Valerie Place had its influence for good here in Ireland…in her home town and far beyond it…Her life had influence on those who were her colleagues and on the children on whom, as a Concern volunteer, she lavished her love in Somalia…We are not here to renew our sadness, but to thank God for giving us Valerie – a person we can remember with joy.”
‘Summer In Somalia’ airs on Newstalk on Saturday, May 15th at 7am, and again on Sunday May 16th at 10am.
The Concern team travel through Somalia’s rural interior. The roads between major towns were considered so dangerous, due to bandits and roving militias, that travel was often not an option Image credit: Concern
‘Summer in Somalia’ was narrated by Siobhán Walls, edited by Eoin Brennan and Neil Kavanagh, and produced by Eoin Brennan.
The programme was supported by a grant from the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, under the Sound and Vision scheme.
Archive audio for Summer in Somalia was provided by RTE, including original recordings from the documentary ‘River of Hope’.
About the documentary maker:
Eoin Brennan’s previous documentary ‘Never Ignored, Ollie’s Reds’ has been named a finalist at this year’s New York Festivals, and was nominated in the Best Radio Sports category at this year’s Celtic Media Festival.