Somali human rights activist criticises intervention


By Moyiga Nduru

LONDON — During a short visit to her native Somalia recently, Rakiya Omaar was stunned to discover that she could not gain access to foreign relief offices. "It was a very painful experience", she recalled, "to see the invisibility of Somalis in their own country".

Omaar, a prominent human rights activist, who has just returned from Somalia following a five-week visit, says that "if you are a Somali, the guards will not allow you to enter the building" while non-Somalis have no problem gaining access to offices. The tight security, which Omaar feared would affect the relations between the Somalis and aid workers, was precipitated by the recent killings of aid workers by Somali armed gangs.

Omaar did see some aid workers, but not without further difficulty. "Sometimes I would wait for hours and when I was recognised by some white journalists or relief workers then my visit became possible", she says.

Omaar lost her job as executive director of the London-based human rights group Africa Watch in December, in a row over her opposition to the deployment of 30,000 US-led troops in Somalia. Always critical of foreign activities in her home country, Omaar came into conflict with Africa Watch's parent body, Human Rights Watch, in Washington, which instructed her not to speak out against the invasion. In the end, she was fired and her British deputy, Alex De Waal, resigned in protest.

Now free to speak, she has become ever more outspoken about the situation, criticising foreign reporters in Somalia for only interviewing foreign aid officials, while ignoring local non-governmental organisations and officials.

"I tried to encourage them to talk to Somalis who know more about Somalia than any foreigner would ever know", she said. Omaar's views were supported by Professor Ioan Lewis of the Department of Anthropology, at the London School of Economics. He accused the world's TV journalists for "humiliating" the Somali people by presenting them as "beggars". Omaar cited the frequent experience of Somalis with the US marines, who she said, believed that the roads of Somalia were littered with corpses and helpless starving people.

Rakiya Omaar had disputed US claims that up to 80% of all relief sent to Somalia was being stolen, which became the justification for sending the troops. She cited relief organisations such as Save the Children and the International Committee of the Red Cross as enduring a loss rate of only 5 to 10%, an average figure in all famine relief.

At the time of the US invasion Omaar said that Mogadishu, which was in the most desperate situation of all the Somalian cities and the focus of most US media attention, "is flooded with food" and rice; it's very cheap."

The mortality rate, she said, had dropped and the overall situation had been improving before the troops were sent. Omaar's views were supported by many relief workers in Somalia, complaining that their efforts are being hindered by the US military intervention: "We can't get to people we used to, and they are dying," said James Fennell of CARE.

Before the troops hit the beaches, relief agencies had hired guards "to ride shotgun on trucks, losing some supplies to looters but also reaching many thousands of people who were too weak to seek help in feeding centres. [But] the marines' first move in Baidoa was to disarm the airport security force, tough ex-soldiers CARE had hired as escorts." Tibebu Haile Selassie, deputy director of UNICEF in Mogadishu said, "the situation is worse than it was before".
[Somalia News Update via Pegasus]