A scene from the 2001 movie ‘Black Hawk Down’ depicting the downing of two Black Hawk helicopters during a battle in Mogadishu between US special forces and Somali militia

Slightly Bemused writes:

Demons. We all have them. And they are different for us all, although some carry similar faces.

Reading my journal I am reminded that a few years ago one of our neighbours organised a block party where she invited all of the residents of our apartment complex to a ‘brunch’ where we could all get together. It was really enjoyable, with free-flowing conversations and wonderful food, from fresh cooked focaccia to pancakes and fruit salad, to pizza and Chinese dumplings. A couple of bottles of wine, beer, and spiced rum also helped the convivial conversation flow. It was truly a pleasant time.

Then I went back to my apartment, and a certain film was on the television. This film portrayed events that occurred during my first mission as a humanitarian actor, albeit wrongly and inaccurately (the film, not my actions). The film also fails to show the efforts, sadly both futile and fatal, of other actors to help those the movie depicts as heroes. In its climax, it uses actual media footage that includes colleagues of mine in a manner I find appalling, implying they were implicit in the events depicted.

That film is Black Hawk Down (2001).

That film depicts events in 1993 when US special forces tried to capture one of the main supporters of the warlord Muhammed Aidid. While the book is very accurate, and outlines what happened well, the film is ‘Holywood takes on terrorists’ and downplays many mistakes of the US forces, and impugns the other UN-led countries there. It is inaccurate and wrong.

How do I know? I was there. I watched the initial helicopter attacks from the flat roof of the accommodation I was staying in, and was the first person of my organisation to send the alert. There is much I cannot say (I am bound by confidentiality agreements ) but much is in the media. Most wrong.

This started late of an afternoon: the next day, my car (being from the organisation I then worked for) was the only one moving in Mogadishu until I could get clearance for the others. I was shadowed by two US military attack helicopters the whole time (Cobras, in case anyone is curious). Based on my organisations mandate, we arranged for medical support for those affected, and over the following days repatriation of the bodies of the fallen. Everyone else stayed in their accommodation or compounds – and I do not in any way criticise them. This was what we, and no one else, did.

What has this to do with our block party? Well, it came into focus for several reason, but one being an attendee did not know about the events of Black Hawk Down: he had not been born at the time. Others were too young, and did not remember, while one told me she had learned about it in her studying.

It made me realise that I am old, not necessarily in years but in experience. People now study in university what I and others lived through in real life. When I started to do this, there were no courses: now you can get a Masters out of school without ever setting foot in a humanitarian response. Are my mistakes now essential reading for the next generation of humanitarians?

We learn by mistakes, but this just seemed a little extreme. Are universities around the world examining my failures? Will they be looking at our work, and judging in the cold light of classroom projectors?

What will their judgement be?

Slightly Bemused’s column appears here every Wednesday.

Pic: Sony

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10 thoughts on “Being There

  1. Clampers Outside

    I don’t know what there judgement will be Slightly. I enjoyed the piece but I don’t know what mistakes you may or may not have made, so, from what I’ve read, ‘no’, no one is judging you… I think.

    I will say this though… Fair play to you! That is one helluva life experience.

  2. Janet, dreams of an alternate universe

    thanks for this Slightly, my guess is that you were x army from a few other things you had said, it sounds like you have had a really rich life,
    I don’t know about you but to have a lot of experience under your belt, to have lived also makes the lockdowns easier, itches that have been scratched and memories to if not enjoy at least ponder,
    imo it’s a beautiful thing to have been out in the world mistakes and all, I’m sure you brought kindness to many.

  3. Broadbag

    It’s a terrible pro-American propaganda film which if I remember correctly is borderline racist and implies if a soldier fears for his life he’s allowed shoot any ‘foreigners’ aka locals on sight (from his magical near-infinite ammo pistol).

  4. Daisy Chainsaw

    Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.

    Unless you ordered the mission, which I doubt, I can’t see what you did as “mistakes”. Be kinder to yourself in the memory of this event, because you were a helper.

  5. Praetorian

    I served with No’ 1 Transport Company UNOSOM based in Baidoa in ’93.
    Our convoy arrived in Mogadishu at 06.30 on Monday Oct 4th…we where directed to the Indian UN base for safety.
    Such was the tension at the time we where directed to change from our US issued ‘chocolate chip’ DPM’s to French issued bush greens.
    It was certainly the toughest but most rewarding of my seven tours overseas.

  6. Slightly Bemused

    I am coming back to this late, I know, but it did awaken a few demons, and memories. I was not in the army, but my Dad was, my Grandfather was, a couple of my cousins, my Great Uncle who, in his own right, is a saga.
    So I guess I am what the Americans would call an army brat.
    But Dad just called me son, and sat beside me in the pub on far too many occasions to make sure I did not descend into madness. My grandfather taught me about whiskey over a lino topped table, and told stories from an age we should not forget, and events we should possibly not remember. Instead I descended into whimsy.
    But one thing they all said, and my Dad was a military engineer, and trained people how to blow things up, although his passion was building. Bridges as it happens. @Praetorian, you may know of one of his. Coolmooney camp, across the lake. We all the rest of us were there on holiday, he was building a bridge

    They said keep your head down. The local Somalis called them ‘Jusufs’, the sound a bullet made when it went past you. My Dad told me of a test of a new style of Claymore mine. He described a very similar sound.
    A member of the Irish army stationed in JSOC said if you hear one, get down, and stay down. That one missed. The next may not. I later met him at the UN school on the Curragh. HIs comment was something along the lines of ‘So you did keep your head down’

    But my Grandfather said one thing once. You tell war stories to the people who were not there. It is a validation that you survived. But when you meet people who were there, wherever there might have been, you sort of just nod, a weird sort of smile, and move on.

    My catharsis is not quite done, so there may be other stories

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