Analysis: Somalia burns - but does anyone care?

By Andrew Cawthorne

NAIROBI, April 24 (Reuters) - The carnage and suffering in Somalia may be the worst in more than a decade -- but you'd hardly know it from your nightly news.

For a mix of reasons, from public fatigue at another African conflict to international diplomatic divisions and frustration, a war slaughtering civilians and creating a huge refugee crisis has failed to grab world attention or stir global players.

"There is a massive tragedy unfolding in Mogadishu, but from the world's silence, you would think it's Christmas," said the head of a Mogadishu political think-tank, who declined to be named because of the precarious security situation in Somalia.

Somalis caught up in Mogadishu's worst violence for 16 years are painfully aware of their place on the global agenda.

"Nobody cares about Somalia, even if we die in our millions," said Abdirahman Ali, a 29-year-old father-of-two who works as a security guard in Mogadishu.

Liban Ibrahim, a 30-year-old bus driver in the Somali capital, said: "The world does not care about our plight. The United Nations is busy issuing statements when innocent civilians are dying every day."

The latest flare-up followed a U.S.-backed Ethiopian-Somali government New Year offensive that ended the Islamists' six-month rule of Mogadishu.

In the past month, local officials and activists say nearly 1,300 people have died in fighting between government troops and their Ethiopian allies on the one side, and Islamists with disgruntled Hawiye clan fighters on the other.

Aid agencies have sounded the alarm over an exodus of 321,000 refugees from Mogadishu, and there have been appeals for calm from the United Nations and the Arab League. But nothing like the sort of global mobilisation or concern that would normally accompany events of such magnitude, analysts say.

"In Washington, of course, people are too tied up with Iraq and their own impending elections to pay any attention to yet more news of Somalis killing each other," said a Nairobi-based Western diplomat who asked not to be named.

"And if they do have a snippet of time for Africa, it's only Darfur because of the international dimensions that has taken and the power of the lobbyists," the diplomat added.


Media practicalities are playing their part.

Mogadishu is too dangerous for most Western journalists, while Arab broadcaster Al Jazeera has been shut down. So the news comes largely from a handful of brave locals filing to international news agencies.

Images to shock the conscience are everywhere -- corpses on the street, shattered buildings, wounded babies, refugees under trees, hospital corridors full of blood and screams.

But they are, in large, not getting out because of the dangers of capturing such footage and the few cameramen there.

"The world's media are far away. That's definitely part of the problem," Ali Iman Sharmarke, co-owner of Somali broadcaster HornAfrik, told Reuters.

"But also, the political actors just aren't talking about it. Maybe they believe Somalis have brought this on themselves and deserve it."

Rather than wilful disdain, however, it is splits over what to do with Somalia that are paralysing the world's response.

The West broadly supports the government, but is uneasy at its failure to reach out to Islamists and the Hawiye. There are tensions between the United States and Europe over the degree of support to the government and its Ethiopian backers.

Some Arab nations are accused of sending arms to the Islamists. And in the Horn, Eritrea has just pulled out of the regional body IGAD which it feels is bowing to Ethiopian interests over Somalia.


Michael Weinstein, a U.S. expert on Somalia at Purdue University, said the international community had tied itself up by backing a government without a broad national constituency.

President Abdullahi Yusuf's administration was set up at internationally endorsed peace talks in Kenya in 2004 in the 14th attempt to restore central rule so Somalia since 1991.

"For the major (world) leaders, there is a tremendous embarrassment over Somalia," he said. "They have committed themselves to supporting the interim government -- a government that has no broad legitimacy, a failing government.

"This is the heart of the problem. ... But Western leaders can't back out now, so of course they have 100 percent no interest in bringing global attention to Somalia.

"There is no doubt that Somalia has been shoved aside by major media outlets and global leaders, and the Somali diaspora is left crying in the wilderness."

(Additional reporting by Guled Mohamed, Jeremy Clarke)


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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