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Somalia's Black Hawk Down Twenty Years On

                                                                                   PAUL WATSON / TORONTO STAR


Before my first trip to Mogadishu, my image of Somalia was the dusty, broken torso of U.S. Staff Sergeant William Cleveland.

That image hangs with other famous photographs taken by Toronto Star photographers in the corridor our newsroom.

Paul Watson risked his life to take that photo of the American soldier's corpse as it was dragged through the streets of Mogadishu by a frenzied mob Oct. 3, 1993. That photo changed the course of U.S. foreign policy in Africa and has haunted Paul, and Somalia, since.

"In less time than it took to breathe, I had to decide whether to steal a dead man's last shred of dignity," Watson wrote in his memoir, Where War Lives. "The moment of choice, in the swirl of dust and sweat, hatred and fear, is still trapped in my mind, denying me peace: just as I was about to press the shutter on my camera, the world went quiet, everything around me melted into a slow-motion blur and I heard the voice: 'If you do this, I will own you forever.' "

He said he "winced with each blow," while watching the crowd whip Cleveland's body: "I had no idea who the corpse was, and after weeks of looking at dead and maimed Somali women and children, I despised men like him who killed from the sky. Until now. Here we were on the same ground, in blowing dirt and sour stench of fetid trash, on this nameless Somali side street where neither of us belonged, and for the first time, it felt like it was us against them. And there was nothing I could do to help him."

It is hard to believe that photo was taken 20 years ago - two decades since the horror that has become known in the West simply as "Black Hawk Down" thanks to the popularity of Mark Bowden's book and movie of the same name. Hundreds of Somalis were killed along with 18 elite U.S. Rangers.

Paul won the Pulitzer for that photo and the Star marked the event by creating a commemorative pewter coin, about the diameter of a hockey puck, which depicted Paul with a disproportionately enormous forehead. I remember when I joined the paper as a summer student in 1995, the coins were pretty much thrown in desk drawers.

During the 1990s and early 2000's, as the fighting continued and thousands died of starvation and disease, Somalia largely fell off the radar. The little humanitarian help Somalia did receive came from Arab states, Saudi Arabia in particular, which helped fund schools and mosques. The West was reluctant to get involved in Africa again, turning a blind eye to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda until it was too late.

Canada withdrew from Somalia as well in 1993 - in disgrace - following revelations that members of the Canadian Airborne Regiment beat to death Somali teenager Shidane Arone. Canada held an inquiry into the affair and disbanded the unit after accounts emerged not just of Arone's death but of a culture of violence and racism within the regiment.

In many ways it has taken those two decades for these images to fade. To Westerners, the sight of savage Somali mobs. To Somalis, the site of savage Western troops. 

Somalia's president issued a statement Thursday to mark the anniversary. "Unfortunately, far too many lives were lost during Operation Restore Hope in Mogadishu," President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud wrote, referring to the U.S. mission.

“On the other hand, 20 years later, the United States was the first government to recognize our new government after the end of the transition and today our two great countries stand together as friends and allies. As we celebrate our recovery we also mark with sadness and respect the lives lost on both sides in the madness of that conflict and we say firmly, never again.”

Today there is a shaky sense of stability in Somalia and while enormous challenges remain ahead, there is also a chance that the country could vacate the number one spot on Foreign Policy Magazine's annual Failed State Index.

Over the years of traveling to Somalia, it has become one of my favourite places to cover. Somalis are survivors and among the most gracious hosts and best storytellers I've met. There are also Somalis all over the world, in countries where they fled following the government's collapse in 1991. The Somali diaspora have been critical in rebuilding diplomatic and humanitarian ties between their adopted countries and their country of birth.

Despite hosting one of the world's largest Somali communities outside of Africa, Canada has been reluctant to build ties. But on Tuesday, Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird met with his Somali counterpart, Fawzia Yusuf Adam, pledging cooperation. Somalia is reportedly preparing to open an embassy in Ottawa.

"This is a new Somalia," Adam said after meeting Baird.

"A Somalia with hope. A lot of challenges. But these challenges are opportunities."

Michelle Shephard is the Star's National Security correspondent and author of "Decade of Fear: Reporting from Terrorism's Grey Zone." She is a three-time recipient of Canada's National Newspaper Award. Follow her on Twitter @shephardm


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