Dr. Omar was conducting an exploratory laparotomy on a female patient with a bullet wound in her abdomen when the entire hospital shook with the sound of explosions. Windows were shattering and a light and plaster fell from the ceiling. A nurse ran in to say that a missile had been fired through the wall of another operating theater, that three patients had been killed, and staff and patients were rushing to take shelter in the basement. Dr. Omar stayed with his patient, stitching her up even while the building reverberated with the assault.

This was June 17, 1993, in Mogadishu. Digfer hospital, the largest in the Somali capital, was attacked by U.S. helicopters and Moroccan armored units, as part of a United Nations force. In a separate incident, a missile was fired into a compound of Médecins Sans Frontières.

Sound familiar? The recent attack by U.S.-led NATO forces in Afghanistan on a hospital run by MSF prompted the BBC to ask, “is it ever legal to bomb a hospital?

Armed with a copy of the Geneva Conventions (with Somali banknotes as bookmarks), and handwritten interview notes from my inquiries at Digfer hospital and elsewhere, I asked exactly the same question 22 years ago in Mogadishu. The answer I got from the U.S. military attorney was that the intervening forces in Somalia were not bound by the Geneva Conventions, only by the UN Security Council resolution that authorized “all necessary force.” I gasped in incredulity. After I left the U.N. compound, an order was issued that I was to be detained, on the grounds of “supporting the propaganda efforts of the USC [United Somali Congress, Aideed’s forces].”

The U.S. and the U.N. forces in Somalia in 1993 committed war crimes. With a few exceptions (notably the inquiry into the killings committed by Canadian special forces) these were never investigated and charges were not brought against those responsible.

This was a shame—not only a deep stain on the record of the U.N. and the countries that contributed troops—but also a terrible precedent for the behavior of intervening forces. To those who dreamed that “Operation Restore Hope” would usher in a new world order, “humanitarian intervention” was a moral flag under which all acts could be justified, all errors forgiven. For the residents of Mogadishu, it was just another war.

In the battle of Mogadishu in the summer of 1993, new military doctrines of overwhelming force were tested in a densely-populated urban area, causing thousands of civilian casualties, with near-total impunity. The most advanced military targeting technologies of the day malfunctioned, causing (among other things) the house next door to the headquarters of General Mohamed Farah Aideed to be neatly flattened, and a meeting of clan elders discussing a peace proposal to be destroyed, with over fifty fatalities. Many of the calamitous errors and crimes committed by the intervening forces in Iraq and Afghanistan were prefigured in the Somali intervention.

Mogadishu made a mockery of the idea of a “humanitarian war”. How many times do we need to re-learn this rather obvious truth?

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