The Last Word: John Holmes on Somalia

Few foreign officials dare to go into Mogadishu. But as Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs for the United Nations, John Holmes felt compelled to visit Somalia's capital last week after the government and Ethiopian forces claimed that their four-month long campaign against Islamist insurgents had finally pacified the city. During the fighting, 2,000 Somalis were killed, and 365,000 people fled the capital—making it the worst violence in Somalia's 16 years of war and turmoil. Also the U.N.'s top emergency-relief coordinator, Holmes entered Mogadishu to assess aid efforts, which many U.N. agencies say have been hampered by the U.S.-backed transitional government and Ethiopian troops. But Holmes's May 12 visit was cut short after a series of bombs exploded along his planned route through the capital. Mere minutes after Holmes arrived, one bomb hit government positions 300 meters from a U.N. building, killing three Somali civilians. NEWSWEEK's Rod Nordland spoke with Holmes—by then in Uganda—by telephone to get a sense of the state of Somalia. Excerpts:

NORDLAND: You were brave to go into Mogadishu.
HOLMES: It's improved in the past two weeks. Shooting in the capital has eased.

Yes, I understand the transitional government is claiming there's nothing to worry about now, that the city is completely under control.
Obviously when three bombs go off in one day, it's not nothing. The situation is not absolutely normal. And when more than 300,000 internally displaced people are still out in the bush without access to shelter, food and medical care, it's a very serious humanitarian situation.

From what you could see, is the aid effort reaching those newly displaced people?
We've reached some people. But only in the past two weeks, and not with enough. This is the worst single displacement of people this year anywhere in the world.

And I understand that most of the aid community blames the Transitional Federal Government [TFG] and the Ethiopian Army, rather than Islamist insurgents, for blocking aid deliveries.
They're not blocking it as such, it's a question of how cooperative they've been, closing airports, demanding visas for aid workers, levying "taxes" at checkpoints. But the last couple weeks the TFG has been cooperating more. We want to persuade them to be as helpful as they could be.

They even deny there is any major number of people who have fled Mogadishu, putting the number at only 40,000 or less—while the U.N. and aid communities say it's clearly ten times higher. How helpful is that?
When they say they feel the international humanitarian community is exaggerating the numbers, there's a question about how helpful they are being.

It's well known by now that the United States encouraged the Ethiopians to invade Somalia in support of the TFG against the Islamic Courts Union. Are the Americans still dealing with Somalia as a terrorist problem?
When I talk to the Americans, they are sending messages to the TFG about the need to have dialogue with all forces, and work with all forces, including Islamic forces. At the moment, the TFG labels its opponents as terrorists, and that's not going to encourage reconciliation.

How important is the national reconciliation process, which is now stalled? Can they pacify Mogadishu without a political settlement?
That's absolutely fundamental. They need an outreach to their opponents, to everyone except the few hardline—what you might call Qaeda-style—elements. Everyone is urging them to move in that direction—the United Nations, the international community, all sides.

Are the Ethiopians stuck in Somalia?
Ethiopian troops want to withdraw, but it's difficult to withdraw if there isn't stability in Mogadishu, and that requires the political [reconciliation] process to go forward. That's why it's important to support the African Union force.

The Ethiopians seem to be in a similar position to that of the Americans in Iraq, unable to leave without the transitional government collapsing into the hands of the extremists, and unable to stay without arousing more enmity and creating more terrorists. Now we see Al Qaeda-style roadside bombings, which never happened before in Somalia.
It's difficult to draw parallels between different countries, but we are seeing some of the tactics in Somalia that insurgents in Iraq used against the Americans. But there's one important difference, there is the presence of the African Union force to take the place of Ethiopia.

But the other contributing countries have so far reneged on pledges to send troops. Surely the recent killing of four Ugandan peacekeepers won't help change minds.
I haven't heard any suggestion [the Ugandans are] about to leave. Obviously it will increase the pressure on them.

The bombs that went off on your visit were uncomfortably close. Do you think you were a target?
I don't think it was targeting me or the United Nations. My belief is it was targeting my visit, the mission ... The opposition was trying to show that Mogadishu is still not safe and it is not over.