Right to the Point (4/30/09)

Resolving conflict is only the beginning

April 30, 2009

By Mike Benevento

These days, pirates are in the news. No, not Johnny Depp’s “Pirates of the Caribbean.” And not baseball’s Pittsburgh Pirates. The news-making pirates are from Somalia. They have been terrorizing shipping off the Horn of Africa for years. The United Nations is now searching for ways to combat the problem.

Four Somali pirates recently took Vermonter Richard Phillips hostage after failing to hijack the Maersk Alabama cargo ship. Three were killed during Phillips’ rescue. The United States has charged the sole-surviving teenager, Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse, with piracy and hostage-taking.

According to USA Today, Muse’s mother believes he was outwitted into becoming a pirate. His father said the pirates lied to his son, telling him they were going to get money. Like most Somali families, Muse’s family is extremely poor.

Why do nations become breeding grounds for piracy, terrorism and criminal activities? Can the United Nations get to the root cause and avoid future occurrences? Answering these and many other questions may be nearly impossible. However, because so many people throughout the world live in poverty, the issues deserve closer examination.

The world — especially Africa — is full of poor countries. Somalia is one in a long list of nations where violence rules. Rwanda, Sudan and Chad are others. If America withdraws from Iraq and Afghanistan before they are rebuilt, they too could turn poor and extremely violent.

In the early 1990s, the Somali Civil War killed tens of thousands and led to widespread famine. The United Nations sent food supplies, but local clan militias stole 80 percent of it. As a result, 300,000 people starved to death between 1991 and 1992.

U.N. peacekeepers arrived and provided security for humanitarian operations. However, the violence continued to rise as various Somali militias attacked U.N. personnel.

As chronicled in the book and movie “Black Hawk Down,” vastly outnumbered American soldiers fought thousands of Somali militia during a raid in Mogadishu in 1993. Not long afterwards, U.S. military forces withdrew from Somalia.

According to USAID, a complex emergency exists in Somalia. It is one of the world’s poorest and most violent nations. A quarter of Somali children die before age 5 and 43 percent of the population needs humanitarian assistance.

Countries like Somalia — ravaged by war for decades — usually lack a strong central government. Thus, there is no law except that of the gun. Various clans, warlords and drug cartels hire their own militia and terrorize locals through intimidation and outright force. Without police or military backing, the people are helpless.

This breeds a culture of violence. Children grow up with war and poverty being the only two constants in their lives. Generations become accustomed to depravation and are desensitized to violence.

Many families lack fathers, who are either away fighting or dead. This results in mothers raising children all by themselves. These single parent families constantly battle malnutrition, poor health, diseases like HIV/AIDS and extreme poverty. Their future is dismal.

Conditions are ripe for recruiting warriors. For boys and young men, it seems like the only way out is to turn to violence.

For families lucky enough to have fathers return from war, conditions may not dramatically improve. Often, the men return traumatized and lack civilian job skills. Besides, employment is scarce. Therefore, the men tend to fall back into becoming guns for hire and the cycle of violence continues.

To successfully transition from war to a civil society, survival basics must be available for everyone in the nation. Food security, health and nutrition, and shelter are good starting points for the international community. A stable infrastructure of roads and bridges, plentiful energy, clean water and sanitation are important. The monetary system needs shoring up and laws need to be enforced. Jobs with steady and reliable paychecks need creating.

The young must attend school and learn viable trades. Most warriors dropped out of school during their pre-teen years. Instead of an education, they trained to fight. They never held a civilian job. They need to be re-educated and integrated into society.

One of the criticisms of the United Nations is that after it helps end a conflict it quickly leaves.

The military crisis is resolved when the fighting stops. A humanitarian crisis, however, remains. The country, devastated by war, is unable to function on its own and provide for its people. Chaos develops.

When the guns stop is not the time for the United Nations to be packing up and heading home. The United Nations’ hardest task — rebuilding a society — is just beginning. It needs to stay until the job is finished.

Michael Benevento is a former Air Force fighter jet weapon systems officer. He has a bachelor’s degree in Military History and a master’s in International Relations. Mike resides in Williston with his wife Kristine and their two sons, Matthew and Calvin.