A Good Samaritan for Somalia

CARE president Philip Johnston recounts the drive to provide relief

PHILIP JOHNSTON was maneuvering a United States Army bulldozer to fill in a military garbage pit in South Korea in 1955 when he suddenly spotted more than a dozen Koreans in his path. They were neck-deep in garbage, searching for discarded food.

It was a vivid first encounter with hunger that Dr. Johnston, now the president of CARE-USA, never forgot. He recalls the experience in his new book, ``Somalia Diary'' (Longstreet Press, 1994, 124 pp., $15 paperback), a personal account of the frustrations and rewards of his six months in Somalia as a United Nations relief volunteer.

In 30 years with CARE, he had served in the field from Greece to Sierra Leone. He had seen the effects of famine firsthand in India and Ethiopia. Yet, as he explained in a phone interview from CARE's base in Atlanta, he found the plight of the Somalis so unique and so haunting, after visits in August and September 1992, that he was determined to find a way to return.

Surmountable obstacles

Here was a nation with no government, no police, and no working telephones or mail service. Rival warlords with ``zero moral conscience,'' he says, were holding food aid hostage. Teens with guns provided the only security. Yet, in his view, none of the obstacles were insurmountable. ``I've always loved a challenge and the wonderful feeling of succeeding against great odds,'' he says.

He had heard that the UN was drafting an emergency aid plan. He asked UN officials in New York to consider naming him as manager. In October 1992 he returned to Somalia as coordinator of humanitarian assistance for the UN Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM). CARE gave him a paid leave of absence.

At the time, an estimated 3,000 Somalis were dying each day from the combined effects of drought and civil war. The Western media were beginning to pick up the story. Relief workers were insisting on more and better security. The UN had sent an advance team of 500 troops to Mogadishu, but it was no match for well-armed Somali militias there.

Convinced that more help was needed, Johnston and others on the scene began to lobby top leaders in Washington. On Dec. 4, following a UN Security Council vote, President George Bush said the US would send up to 30,000 troops to Somalia with the UN's endorsement.

``Phil felt strongly that something should be done, and he lobbied very hard for US military action,'' recalls Robert Oakley, former US special envoy to Somalia under both Bush and President Clinton. ``He was a big force in terms of helping shape US policy as well as policy on the ground out there.... He knew how to make things happen.''

Well before he took the UN job, Johnston had several run-ins with leading warlords Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed, who controlled southern Mogadishu, and Mohamed Ali Mahdi, whose base was in the northern part of the city. Both were cordial and full of promises, but ultimately untrustworthy, he says. ``I believe both want to be the president ... or the emperor of Somalia one day, but they just don't have enough clout to bring it off,'' he says.

Indeed, the great concern now among most Somalia-watchers is that after March 6, when all UN troops are scheduled to have been withdrawn, the fighting may begin anew. ``I think we are going to see an enormous conflict in Mogadishu the day the US marines leave,'' Johnston says. The United Shield task force, which includes 2,700 US marines, 500 Italian navy personnel, and 17 ships from France, Italy, Malaysia, Pakistan, and the US, will help evacuate UN troops. Ali Mahdi and Aideed may well battle fiercely to control the Mogadishu harbor and airport, he says.

Prospects for aid groups

Several aid agencies have left Somalia. Most of those staying, including CARE, are pulling out non-Somali workers until they are sure that foreigners will be safe.

``One lesson that has emerged from the experience in Mozambique, Angola, and Somalia is that voluntary agencies now have no hesitation about employing security guards to protect their assets and personnel,'' says Johnston. As recently as a decade ago, he says, most relief groups wanted no guards.

Repeated UN efforts to bring political order to Somalia are widely considered a failure. UN Undersecretary-General for Peacekeeping Kofi Annan, who bristles at that verdict, says Somali clan leaders signed both disarmament and political reconciliation accords. ``If they had lived up to their agreements, it might be a different story there,'' he says.

Most analysts give high marks to the UN humanitarian effort in Somalia. Yet Johnston rates UNOSOM's role as merely ``acceptable.'' Though UNICEF and the UN World Food Program were key players, he says, it was the voluntary agencies that carried ``most of the weight'' in funding, personnel, motivation, and commitment. UNOSOM was understaffed, disorganized, and bureaucratic, he says.

Johnston constantly urged the UN to do more in Somalia. He wanted it to administer the country, stabilize the currency, and pay public-sector employees. He was told that most such initiatives fell outside the narrow UNOSOM mandate.

``Phil was a real leader - he was in there pushing the process as much as he could,'' says Kevin Kennedy, a former US marine colonel who worked closely with Johnston from the start of US involvement. He says Johnston deserves particular credit for his success in persuading private relief agencies to work more closely with UNOSOM. ``It was helpful to have someone of Phil's stature and drive to bring the marriage together,'' Kennedy says. ``He understood both sides of the street.''

One of the most heartening parts of Johnston's book tells of individual Somalis' efforts to help their countrymen: a former teacher who walked several hours each day to the UNOSOM office to help design a program to reopen classrooms; a doctor who, after training abroad, returned to her Somali village to open a small hospital.

The message that runs deep in ``Somalia Diary'' is that individuals can and do make a difference. Even when Johnston first raised money for CARE as a student at Northeastern University in Boston, he says, he was convinced he wanted to participate rather than observe. Having made the effort he did in Somalia, he says, ``makes it easier to live with myself.''

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