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African Atrocities and the "Rest of the World"

Thursday, June 1, 2000

WESTERN JOURNALISTS FACE an occupational hazard working in Africa, particularly those who bypass the more stable and peaceful parts of the continent in their rush to war, genocide, and famine. Conflict, massacre, and starvation command attention, and newspaper correspondents scramble to bear witness. It isn’t always easy, and it is almost always dangerous. Sordid transactions at borders, stealth in avoiding roadblocks, at times simply waiting (and praying) out the whims of some officious 14-year-old with a machine gun at an arbitrary checkpoint: All are part of the glamour of the profession.

Our demand for stories from these hot spots has created a small band of intrepid, vagabond war watchers, most of them photographers and cameramen who know the market is always ripe for mayhem. One of the best of them is Scott Peterson, whose new and highly disturbing book is Me Against My Brother (Routledge). Peterson writes that he is not a "war junkie," and yet acknowledges having become "hooked on war" on his first trip to Africa in 1988 — "on the emotions it inspired and forced me to confront." He does not wish to be seen as a "bluebottle fly, to feast on the gore of war," but rather as someone who feels obliged as much as enlivened by experiencing conflict close at hand.

He need not be defensive about it. Daring reporters who bring back stories from the world’s riskiest places perform an important public service. Peterson found his calling early, and in the 12 years since that first visit the continent has provided plenty of conflict to record. Anyone who lives like this over a period of years experiences one of two things: he becomes numb to it all; or he feels a mounting sense of loathing for the cruelty encountered, for the tinpot tyrants and casual genocidaires, and an equal sense of outrage that no one in the more privileged regions of the world seems able, or willing, to stop them.

Those emotions are the driving force behind Peterson’s book, a spirited examination of three of the most recent of Africa’s bloody zones — the Sudan, Somalia, and Rwanda, all of which he has visited repeatedly as a correspondent for various American and British newspapers. It makes for powerful reading, and provides a useful occasion to revisit not only the horrendous facts of the slaughter, but the often elusive causes behind it as well.

"The rest of the world"

PETERSON MELDS HIS EYEWITNESS accounts with considerable research into the convoluted recent histories of human tragedy (besides Chechnya and Kosovo, there are few major bloodlettings he has not attended). Judging by some of the accounts in Me Against My Brother, he is lucky to be alive, and accounts of his brushes with death bring a vivid immediacy to the conflicts he describes. This is not a book, however, of "cowboy tales of the front lines and then how I retired to the bar every night to better my colleagues at the telling of war stories. . . . Instead, in its essence, this book is about war crimes, and how people come to commit them."

Peterson calls it a "spiritual journey," but in truth the book does not lead to any deeper understanding of self or the human spirit. There is very little introspection in Peterson’s writing or thinking. As a journalist he is primarily political, not philosophical. He is less a pilgrim than an activist, bringing misery to the attention of power. His instinct when confronted with a catastrophe is not to reflect, but to report, as when he encounters a feeding camp overrun with starving Somalis:

I was so shocked that I did not waste time taking notes. Instead I shot frame after frame with my cameras, seven rolls of film in less than a half hour, 250 images, one every six seconds, the details of misery etching themselves onto my mind irreversibly like acid on steel, details that are almost always the exclusive realm of the photographer.

What reflection there is here leads to a familiar place. He is angry at Africans for killing each other so wantonly, and angry at the rest of the world for not caring enough, for not doing more, and for waiting too long and not doing the right things when it does choose to act.

By "the rest of the world," he means the United States, Western Europe, the United Nations, and international relief agencies, all of which come in for a pasting in this book. Peterson set out on his adventures after graduating from Yale, naively confident in reporting as a humanitarian tool, confident that his urgent daily stories and striking photographs, apart from satisfying his own considerable itch for adventure, would help spur the mighty nations of the world to act. "Back then," as he puts it, "I was still a believer in the goodwill of institutions and governments, and was convinced that if they knew that bad things were happening in Africa, they would try to intervene."

To that end, he sold freelance stories to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, was eventually hired by the London Daily Telegraph, and later joined the staff of the Christian Science Monitor. What he found was that the appetite for news from Africa, even of the most appalling kind, was strictly limited. Where he saw starving Somalis in 1992, the Telegraph was more interested in a story about political developments, and when he tried to peddle the photos he found so shocking, "the final edit remained in an envelope on a desk in New York at a major American newsmagazine: the editors meant to use the pictures, but didn’t." When the press’s interest was captured, Peterson writes that the enthusiasm was strictly, to use his coinage, "Warholian." In newsrooms, he notes angrily, there is:

this well-known algebra for headlines: "One dead American is equal to a handful of dead Europeans." Hundreds of Asians might die to "rate" the same treatment. And bottom of the list, shamefully, are the thousands of Africans who must die before their tragedy will measure up at all.

Still, though mainstream journalism takes such occasional lumps here, overall Me Against My Brother is concerned only slightly with the profession. The real target, for Peterson as for almost all those who share his reportorial perspective — and most particularly those who have borne witness to the worst in contemporary Africa — is not the newsroom, but "the rest of the world."

Curse of the strongman

PETERSON’S STORIES, like most other reports born in the blood and gore of these places, are meant to indict the Western world; but what they actually illustrate is how hard it is for outsiders to make a lasting difference. By his own account, in Somalia "we" did too much, in Rwanda "we" did too little, and in the Sudan, where only enough aid has been given to keep the warring factions from mass starvation, "we" are guilty of having "prolonged the war by feeding the inhabitants." He doesn’t reflect much on the all-important question of how to help, nor give nearly enough credit to the world’s powerful nations and charitable institutions for trying. Similarly, though he does not believe that the continent’s problems stem from vestiges of colonialism, his wrath toward "the rest of the world" amounts to a new kind of White Man’s Burden. The old imperialists believed Africans were too backward to govern themselves, whereas today we are often unwilling to assign them full moral culpability for their evil deeds.

But culpable they are. Somalia’s descent into anarchy was caused primarily by competing warlords who refused to unite or compromise in the public’s interest, even when a massive U.N. intervention backed by American troops offered a bonanza of incentives. Rwanda’s nightmarish slaughter was carefully plotted by Hutu leaders from all walks of life, and carried out with a unanimity of purpose that is bewildering even to the participants. The Sudan is in the grip of three warring factions, two of which are led by men who see themselves as instruments of divine purpose. To be sure: Colonial attitudes may have had a historical hand in shaping notions of Hutu superiority, international aid may have inadvertently contributed to the destruction of traditional Somali nomadic culture, and American and Israeli opposition to the spread of Islamic fundamentalism has no doubt bolstered the factions warring against the mullah-backed regime in Khartoum; but such external influences are not the primary causes of the conflicts in these countries. They suffer, as much of modern Africa does, the curse of the strongman — all those ruthless, well-armed individuals who form private armies strictly to further their own ambitions for wealth and power. Following the example of Mobuto Sese Seko and others, these men prey upon ignorance, superstition, and old tribal fears to prop up their kleptocracies, and too often find support from Western governments whose interests have little to do with the common African good.

Competing strongmen are behind the seemingly endless war in the Sudan. Peterson is one of very few reporters to have visited this desert land in recent years, and he does a good job of sorting through the shifting complexities of its obscure, bloody, and interminable conflict. His reporting is fresh with colorful observation. He pictures Sudan President Lt. Gen. Omar Hassan el-Bashir exhorting jihad before a formal parade of robed and turbaned cavalry, holding aloft in one hand the Koran and in the other a Kalishnikov, with "a bright paperclip incongruously holding the tongue of his belt to his wide belly." He finds southern rebels dressed in cast-offs from American and European charity bins, "in bright children’s ski jackets with crude designs; polyester powder blue flare-bottom trousers, thrown away by some American in the late 1970s, when Saturday Night Fever style quietly gave way to Levis 501 jeans; flannel pajamas with childlike teddy bears and sometimes even bathroom slippers."

This 45-year-old civil war became overtly religious only with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the 1990s. Peterson estimates that 1.5 million people have perished in it, or one of five Sudanese. In the north, Bashir ran a police state in the early ’90s, one that the U.N. Human Rights Commission accused of routinely employing torture and execution to enforce his Islamic regime, a place where abandoning the faith was punishable by death. It has since mellowed, in part because of external pressure and in part by a decided lack of popular enthusiasm, but the war against the south continues, as does support from Iran and Islamic fundamentalists in the region.

In the south, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), led by the hard-drinking "Colonel" John Garang de Mabior, patrols an ever-shifting front line against the government mujahideen. Years of war have destroyed the south, where there is no manufacturing and not enough agriculture to feed its 4.5 million people. The SPLA fares little better than Bashir in the eyes of the world’s humanitarian organizations, and over the years has come to be dominated by Garang’s Dinka tribe. Garang was educated in the United States, at Grinnell College in Iowa and at Iowa State University, where he earned a doctorate in economics. He went on to attend the U.S. Army’s Infantry Officers Advanced Course at Fort Benning, Ga. Peterson describes him as a fat man with a thin graying beard, full of Maoist bluster when they first met in 1992 — boasting that his rebels were "swimming in a friendly sea" in southern Sudan. He claimed then to be fighting for a secular, united Sudan. But in the early 1990s his friendly sea began to flow north, fleeing spla murder, rape, and looting, according to the organization African Rights, and arriving in huge refugee encampments around the northern capital of Khartoum. Garang has earned the nickname "Pol Pot" in the region he purports to represent in this ongoing struggle. Military aid continues to arrive, however, funneled through Uganda. Peterson claims the true source of the assistance is likely "the U.S. and Israel, fearing that a Khartoum victory . . . would create an unstoppable Islamic movement in Africa." Perhaps, but there is no evidence offered here. And one strains to think that either the United States or Israel cares enough about the outcome in this forsaken place to get involved.

Complicating matters for Garang, however, is a new movement of the Nuer tribe, traditional rivals of the Dinka. Led by Riek Machar, a "gap-toothed" man supposedly descended from Nuer divinity, these forces attacked Dinka tribesmen at Bor and Kongor in 1991 and slaughtered thousands. In the words of an Amnesty International report: "People were speared and shot, bound with ragged belts and knotted cord, strangled and burned. Three boys were tied to a tree and clubbed to death. Men were castrated and disemboweled."

Machar’s followers claim he is a long-awaited messiah who will lead his people to victory over the hated Dinka. Machar, who has his own Ph.D. (from Bradford University in England), denies to Peterson that he is a messiah, but embraces the symbolism and goals of the tribal prophesy. He denounces tribalism, but adds that he "has not seen a Nuer who doesn’t support me." In practical terms, Machar is fighting to secede from northern Sudan, which makes him an enemy of both Garang and Basir, but he is also shrewd. And even though his announced intention is to secede, he has formed a cynical alliance with Khartoum that in recent years has driven Garang from nearly two-thirds of his region of the south.

Having met all three leaders, Peterson can find little explanation for the ongoing conflict beyond their personal ambitions, and sees no solution to the conflict, observing only that "I am disgusted at the unaccountability of these ‘leaders’ for the curses they have brought on their own people. And I am not even Sudanese."

Somalia: fiasco and crime

THE KEY WORD here is "unaccountability." Peterson, like most Westerners who visit these blasted zones in Africa, longs for some greater force to step in and try to make things right. What if "the world" could just intervene, enforce a cease-fire, disarm the factions, arrest the warlords and allow peace-loving civilians to start over?

Yet that’s pretty much what the U.N. and the U.S. tried to do in Somalia, with disastrous results. This ambitious and unprecedented attempt at nation-building is Peterson’s major case study. He sees the ill-fated intervention there as a prime example of "the rest of the world’s" ineptitude. It came on the heels of the Western allies’ swift victory against Saddam Hussein. In Peterson’s telling, "expectations were high for an aid mission to Somalia — an infinitely lesser problem than the oil-import Gulf — and it should have been easy. Instead, on the American watch, the Mogadishu Line was drawn and crossed; the humanitarian mission — ‘God’s work,’ as President Bush liked to say — chose sides in a local battle and became Somalia’s chief warlord."

The problems in Somalia may have been "infinitely lesser" in the sense that the Horn of Africa was of less importance to the world than the Persian Gulf, but the crisis in Mogadishu was far more complex than the classic military challenge of sweeping Saddam Hussein’s meager forces from Kuwait. The most remarkable thing about President Bush’s decision to send Marines to Mogadishu, as Peterson shows, was that it was purely humanitarian. Somalia is a land with no known natural resources vital to the Western world, and it is without significant strategic importance. Americans went to Somalia to end a famine, and then stayed to wrestle with political problems that even most Somalis have a hard time understanding on a day-to-day basis.

Ever since the overthrow of the dictator Siad Barre in 1991, the country, and the capital, have been caught up in a multi-sided civil war that can no longer be defined by traditional rivalries between clans, regions, or ideological interests. It is a moving mosaic of alliances and hostilities, with everyone in the contest for no better reason than to enrich himself. Somalia is a well-armed capitalist nightmare. Instead of competing in a marketplace regulated by law, the Somali warlords compete with technicals (heavy machine guns mounted on pickup trucks), ak-47s, and rocket-propelled grenades. For those rich, powerful, and ruthless enough, as one Somali businessman told me when I was in Mogadishu in 1997, "Anarchy is good for business."

So in this sense, Somalia was by no means a "lesser problem" for the U.S. and U.N. officials who arrived in December 1992. The easy part of the problem was ending the famine. Since it was strictly man-made, a function of warlords looting food as it arrived at the port or stealing it from convoys as it moved inland, the arrival of 20,000 U.S. Marines in December was enough to free up food at the ports and promptly deliver it where it needed to go — albeit too late, as Peterson points out, for many of the most vulnerable Somalis, mostly children. In the port city of Baidoa alone, the number of recorded burials had risen from 687 in the second week of August to 1,780 in the second week of September, according to the U.N. official report on Somalia (The United Nations and Somalia, 1992-1996). But freeing ports from the warlords and opening up roads for delivery were only part of the problem. Now that the world had made Somalia a project, how much sense did it make to feed the starving for a few months and then sail away?

The decision to choose sides in Somalia came a long way down the well-intentioned path. It made perfect sense at the beginning of 1993, with the food lines open and city streets policed by the new "Mayor of Mogadishu," U.S. Marine Corps 2nd Division commander Gen. Buck Bedard, to attempt a solution that would preserve stability once American forces moved out in the spring — as President Bush had promised. Former U.S. Ambassador to Somalia Robert Oakley felt he had made substantial progress toward negotiating a coalition government with the competing warlords when that pull-out came. Oakley left with the American forces, and the effort was passed to former U.S. Adm. Jonathan Howe, who took over as chief U.N. administrator in Mogadishu. The same coalition that Oakley regarded as hopeful, Howe quickly saw as hopeless. Mohammed Farrah Aidid, the most powerful of the local warlords, had never intended to take part in such a coalition. As Howe saw it, the warlord had merely been biding his time, humoring Oakley and Bedard’s Marines, until the U.S. forces withdrew and U.N. policing fell to a far less well-trained and armed Pakistani force. Keeping the Marines in Mogadishu would most likely just have postponed the inevitable. In any event, the day after the Americans left, Aidid began his murderous offensive.

Peterson faults the U.S. for choosing sides in the local conflict, and he’s right that it was a mistake. But it also wasn’t a decision made on the spur of the moment by a roomful of dunderheads in Washington. When Aidid was declared an outlaw by the U.N. in the summer of 1993, it was for good reason. The warlord’s forces had killed dozens of peacekeepers, mostly Pakistanis and Americans. Once the shooting war started there were murderous excesses on both sides, as there always are in war. The decision by U.S. forces to simply open fire on a meeting of Habr Gidr clan leaders in a Mogadishu home on July 12 (at the behest of Howe and the U.N. but with the full complicity of the American command), pumping tow missiles into the building and killing 50 or more clan elders, was a monumental misjudgment, to say the least. Peterson devotes a whole chapter of his book to "Bloody Monday," which he remembers, "through a haze, steeped in memories that roil with anger." Four of his colleagues were killed by enraged Somali mobs when they rushed to the scene of the attack to take pictures. Peterson himself narrowly escaped with his life shortly before his friends were killed. His anger over this particular event is rightly directed at Howe and the other U.N. and U.S. leaders who launched the attack. He writes: "We were steered away from calling the Bloody Monday attack a massacre or a slaughter, but it was difficult not to reach the conclusion that this was murder on a grand scale. It was a war crime, pure and simple. Though witnesses were plenty, the perpetrators made no apologies."

The Abdi House attack was not a deliberate attack on innocents, so I do not share Peterson’s belief that it was a war crime. There were among the clan leaders assembled that day men who had plotted attacks on U.N. peacekeepers. But there were also moderate clan leaders opposed to Aidid’s belligerent posture. The attack was a tragic mistake.* It resulted from poor intelligence and the frustration and impatience of bloodied U.N. and U.S. forces who had been unable to bring Aidid to heel. It had the effect of firmly uniting the southern half of Mogadishu behind Aidid. Peterson writes, correctly I think, "For them Bloody Monday became the turning point — the day that Somalis turned almost unanimously against the UN missteps."

By the time Task Force Ranger arrived in late August, ordered to dismantle Aidid’s military force, America’s humanitarian mission to Somalia had devolved into a shooting war. A large majority of Somalia’s population was at war with the "peacekeepers," as the men of Task Force Ranger would unhappily discover when their seventh mission into the city on October 3, to arrest two of Aidid’s henchmen, turned into what one Ranger would later call "Kill an American Day." The deaths of 18 American soldiers in that fight led to an immediate cessation of hostilities against Aidid and an eventual withdrawal of all American forces.

I outline this sequence of events to show how American policy evolved into "choosing sides" down a very rational path. At any point along the way it would have been hard to reverse direction. Should the U.S. have pulled out without trying to ensure lasting stability in Mogadishu? Should the U.N. have ignored Aidid’s bloody raids on its peacekeeping forces? Should President Clinton have abandoned the U.N. effort when Aidid started killing American soldiers?

Peterson does a good job of explaining this mess, and lays much of the blame for it on Howe. In retrospect, though, the admiral is an easy target. The fact is that things worked out badly in Somalia. No one was prepared for the extent of American losses on October 3, and the immediate about-face of the Clinton administration was less a calculated policy decision than an expression of horror. No one had ever sold the Somalia intervention as a potential shooting war, and these sudden losses of American lives were politically unacceptable. Clinton had little choice but to withdraw. Howe and many of the military leaders still feel betrayed by this decision. They believe the effort to take down Aidid was fully justified and could have succeeded, more so after the heavy losses inflicted on Aidid October 3 — conservative estimates claimed 500 Somali deaths. Had Task Force Ranger stayed to complete its mission, either by capturing Aidid or by crippling his organization, the U.N. might have successfully concluded a peace agreement between the other competing warlords, and Somalia today might have a government, peace, and a promising future. I think this is unlikely, but it was possible. On the other hand, American forces could have gotten bogged down in more fruitless months of searching for Aidid and his men, suffering even more shocking casualties — and inflicting even worse.

We will never know the answer. The point is that every step along the course to this fiasco made sense to very bright, well-intentioned people. As Peterson’s own detailed account of its unfolding makes clear, nothing about Somalia was ever "easy."

Rwanda: inexhaustible horror

THE STRONGEST CASE AGAINST "the rest of the world," by now well documented, is the indefensible indifference that greeted the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Peterson is on the same ground here that Philip Gourevitch covered so brilliantly in We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families (1998), and he adds many more compelling stories of this unbelievable nationwide slaughter. One presumes reporters could scour Rwanda for two generations and not exhaust its store of horror. Peterson tells us about a man who stood behind a door trying not to move or make a sound for 21 days, his legs swelling and stiffening, as each day he heard the "crunch of machete into bone, the pop of heavy clubs bursting each human skull," expecting at any moment for one of his Tutsi neighbors to peer behind the door and dispatch him similarly. He tells of Tutsi parents throwing babies into rushing rivers in order to spare them the machete. The spasm of killing in Rwanda, with neighbors turning on neighbors, pastors turning on congregations, schoolteachers turning on students, and the sheer, gory industry of the genocide, with most victims being hacked, stabbed, and clubbed to death, stands as one of the most frightful and bizarre episodes in recorded history. Peterson struggles to comprehend its scale, noting that while the Third Reich, Stalin, and the Khmer Rouge may have left many, many more dead:

A mathematical calculation of Rwanda’s national suicide makes the speed of any other recorded catastrophe or single act of war pale by comparison.

No system of genocide ever devised has been more efficient: The daily kill rate was five times that of the Nazi death camps. . . . The daily death rate averaged well more than 11,500 for two months, with surges as high as 45,000. During this peak, one murder was committed every two seconds of every minute, of every hour, for days: an affliction befitting the Apocalypse. Transfixed and aghast, the rest of the world watched, fiddled, then hid its eyes and did nothing.

Peterson and a few other war reporters actually managed to find a way into Rwanda right as this slaughter began, just when anyone with normal concerns for personal safety and the means to flee was on the way out. Traveling in Kigali with French soldiers rounding up stranded countrymen, Peterson caught only glimpses of the actual mayhem, but what he records is chilling nevertheless:

From a distance, through a humid vapor to the next hill in Kigali, I saw some of the murder. Two men with machetes. One man with a machete hacked the neck of another man, who was on his knees and fell among several bodies — the magnified footage of the TV camera next to me showed gore sticking to the machete from that first strike, then it flinging off in the upswing.

Yet for all his observation and passion, Peterson doesn’t spend much time trying to arrive at a deeper understanding of the country’s afflictions. Gourevitch’s book on Rwanda was remarkable because he captured the experience of the genocide through the eyes of Rwandans. His writing lets us walk around inside the nightmare, and while he is doomed ultimately to fail at his efforts to understand, he manages the remarkable and disturbing task of humanizing it. Similarly, one of the most important themes of Holocaust literature is the shocking normalcy of the Third Reich’s murderous efforts, showing exactly how ordinary German soldiers and bureaucrats methodically enacted the genocide. By demonizing the Nazis, we deny the capacity for such cruelty in ourselves. By recognizing how normal human passions were enlisted in the effort, we accept the possibility of its happening again. Gourevitch in We Wish To Inform You performs this same service in Rwanda, connecting the terrible spasm of murder there to such events throughout history:

The pygmy in Gikongoro said that humanity is part of nature and that we must go against nature to get along and have peace. But mass violence, too, must be organized; it does not occur aimlessly. Even mobs and riots have a design, and great and sustained destruction requires great ambition. It must be conceived as the means toward achieving a new order, and although the idea behind that order may be criminal and objectively very stupid, it must also be collectively simple and at the same time absolute. The ideology of genocide is all of those things, and in Rwanda it went by the bald name of Hutu power.

Peterson is a different kind of reporter. Though he aspires to a "spiritual journey," we view the events he writes about always from a distance, as if through the lens of his camera. The images he records can tell us only so much, and we find ourselves, with the author, falling back on the more familiar and easier path of dehumanizing the Africans he writes about. We see this attitude expressed again and again in Me Against My Brother, as when he quotes a Somali about the apparent senselessness of the violence there, "This is the way we think. You can’t change that. It is us." Likewise, after watching a Somali child die of hunger, Peterson draws meaning from the seeming attitudes of the armed young Somalis who escort him:

They didn’t say anything. They knew what I had seen behind those whitewashed walls, what dereliction of life haunted the starving behind so many high walls in Mogadishu. Some of those who were dying were their family members. But they didn’t seem to care. As we drove off, safe for a moment in our protected cocoon, we were immediately so far from Shukri’s dusty new grave that I began to grasp the hopelessness that caused such apparent uncaring among Somalis. How otherwise can I explain the rabid looting by militiamen of 8,000 tons of food from a warehouse near the port? Gunmen fought pitched hand-to-hand battles for two days to win a share, and celebrated this windfall by charging through the streets, white as ghosts with the dust of their loot. Relief workers dubbed such an event as "spontaneous distribution," but if distributed properly, it was enough food to feed the capital for two months.

But it is possible to explain all this otherwise. Somalis, Rwandans, and the Sudanese are no more inherently prone to acts of senseless violence and revenge than anyone else. Even Somali gunmen are no less caring than such men are anywhere. In a country where all vestiges of traditional culture have broken down, where there is no law and no government, where survival depends upon loyalty to the smallest of social units — families, kin, subclans — then people become ruthlessly selective in their caring.

What had happened in Somalia during the years of war was nothing short of a complete societal breakdown, one detailed among other places in the U.N. report on Somalia:

Before the large population displacements caused by the war, about one quarter of Somalia’s people were settled farmers, growing sorghum, maize, sugar cane and bananas; twice as many were nomadic pastoralists, who moved with their cattle as they grazed the dry rangelands. . . . The civil war that preceded and followed the fall of the Siad Barre government uprooted an estimated 1.7 million people, about one fifth of the total population. . . . This huge displacement of people from their homes led to a massive disruption in food production. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the area of cultivated land fell by almost half between 1989 and 1991. During the same period production of grains also declined dramatically. In the inter-riverine areas, the armed militias laid waste to the richest farmland in Somalia, plundering grain and feed stocks, damaging irrigation systems, killing livestock and polluting the wells of competing clans — all to deny their opponents food and water. . . . Furthermore, all the services and institutions that allow society to function and to protect its members collapsed as Somalia slid into chaos.

Social organization doesn’t completely collapse under such circumstances; it merely fragments into smaller and smaller groups. When I was in Somalia, all the people I met first identified themselves to me as a member of this or that family, with loyalties to particular clan leaders. Factionalism defines where a person lives, works, and what and when and how much they eat. The looters Peterson observed almost certainly acted at the behest of warlords bent on hoarding scarce resources for their own group and denying them to their enemies. With no other sources of food than international shipments, you have a city where one well-fed subclan will fight to steal warehoused food while children from another, less powerful subclan are starving to death. The same "uncaring" gunman who steals from the starving one day will fight to the death to preserve the honor and position of his own subclan, and will join with rival subclans when there is a perceived threat to the clan as a whole — as would be amply demonstrated on October 3, 1993, when the enemy was a trapped force of American soldiers, and Somali militiamen threw themselves almost suicidally into the fight. So the reasons for Somalia’s anarchic impasse are not rooted in nature; they are rooted, here as elsewhere, in their particular history and circumstances.

One thing the rest of the world can do is avoid broad, simplistic answers — if only because all of the most obvious explanations fail. We can blame the ease of killing afforded by modern weaponry, but most of the slaughter in Rwanda was done by hand, one on one. We can blame superstition and the lack of education, but Mogadishu boasts a highly sophisticated intellectual class: Many residents are fluent in several languages, educated in universities around the world. We can blame ethnic hatreds, until we see the shifting alliances that make it so difficult to keep track of who is killing whom in the Sudan, or the confusion in Rwanda over who exactly is Hutu and who is Tutsi. Nor is the answer some essential flaw in African character. The reasons for the killing vary from place to place, and grow from the peculiar history of each region. The ineptitude of foreign intervention that Peterson documents in Somalia, the Sudan, and Rwanda stems from the greater world’s ignorance of local matters.

To a certain extent this ignorance is unavoidable. By definition, the Muhamed Farrah Aidids and Reik Machars — the strongmen in their worlds — know better how to maneuver in their local circumstances than any foreign ambassador or general ever will. So we need to recognize the limitations of military intervention, and to become better at predicting when humanitarian aid is worsening or prolonging a problem. This will mean occasionally making a hard choice not to intervene, even when the images and reports broadcast by reporters like Peterson make it wrenchingly difficult.

We must also respect the political difficulties in mounting missions like the one to Somalia. The American public and its leaders have every right to be cautious about committing troops to distant local conflicts. Wars have traditionally been fought to protect national borders and vital strategic interests, and it hasn’t always been easy to rally public support for them. There is something substantially different about hazarding American lives for purely humanitarian reasons, where nothing vital to the United States is remotely at stake. There will always be saints — like the dogged volunteers who work for international relief agencies willing to wade into hell to do good, like such war correspondents as Peterson who brave death to bring us news of unfolding tragedy — but it is unrealistic to expect a majority of ordinary Americans to support sending their sons and daughters, husbands and wives, in with them. Somalia pointedly demonstrated the risks. The question of how and when to use military force remains one of the most difficult ones we face.

The answer will involve weighing risk against the likelihood of achieving more than some momentary, "Warholian" success. The problems in Africa must ultimately be solved by Africans, not because the rest of the world shouldn’t care, but because only Africans can. We owe a lot of help, but must take care that it doesn’t do more harm than good. Perhaps one criterion for intervention in dangerous places ought to be the existence of some indigenous power capable of maintaining stability once it is restored. No matter what the calculation, there will be times when the heart says yes but the head says no. One of the consequences of global communications, and the efforts of courageous reporters like Peterson, is that we will have to witness the consequences in living, or dying, color.

Mark Bowden is the author of Black Hawk Down (Atlantic Monthly Press).