Lt. Roy Hollan’s machine-gun platoon was backing up a French Foreign Legion reconnaissance mission in a bombed-out neighborhood here a few days ago when his U.S. Marine unit spotted snipers on a rooftop. The Americans raised their weapons, girding for a firefight, until the French commander quickly informed them that the snipers were Legionnaires providing cover for the mission.
“Seeing those snipers gave us a start,” said Hollan, of Mission Viejo. “We didn’t know they (the snipers) were French. But I must admit it was smart of the French to put them there.”
So it goes daily in Somalia, where the U.S. military force leading Operation Restore Hope already has been joined by almost 1,000 soldiers from eight countries, part of a non-American international force that is expected to exceed 10,000 troops from 30 countries.
The large number of countries volunteering to send forces, in units ranging in size from 20 to 4,000, has taken the operation’s American commanders by surprise. And Gen. Joseph P. Hoar, commander in chief of the U.S. Central Command, said the large number of combat troops from other countries may mean an early ticket home for some Americans.
The significant foreign participation in the military operation improves chances that, within months, American commanders will be able to hand over the peacekeeping process to a multinational force under U.N. control.
“There are far more countries that want to participate,” Hoar said.
Although the allies call it by different names, from the French “Operation Oryx” to the Canadian “Operation Deliverance,” their U.S.-led mission is the same--to provide security for relief supplies to reach the 2 million Somalis at risk of starvation.
The arrival of so many foreign armies in Somalia has created a cultural and linguistic polyglot on the ragged streets of Somalia’s cities. There are Kuwaitis and Moroccans, Italians and Belgians, Egyptians and Zimbabweans.
Each force exhibits its own particular military style and national heritage.
For example, heavily armed troops from the French Foreign Legion and French army rolled out of their downtown garrison this week on a national mission to retake the seaside embassy that their ambassador had fled two years ago. In front of the compound, looted and destroyed by artillery fire during Somalia’s recent civil war, the French flag was raised to salutes and the sounds of a bugle. Then, as several dozen curious Somalis watched from outside the compound, the French officers popped the corks on half a dozen bottles of 1984 Paul Bertholet champagne.
Language has been a barrier between the forces, though each contingent has at least one liaison officer who speaks English. But evidence of a nonverbal cultural exchange abounds.
“We have to be sensitive to some of the ethnic histories of the troops,” said Maj. Bob Meade, a Marine officer assigned to handle liaison with the various contingents. “You want to make sure not to put people who have a history of conflict in a situation where there’s the stress of the mission at hand.”
But, he added, “We’ve not had any major cultural clashes.”
At the U.S. military headquarters here Friday, an enlisted Marine was sitting on a stairway step, sharing his breakfast MRE (Meals, Ready to Eat) with a Turkish officer.
French troops and U.S. Marines have been spotted patrolling the streets here together, often in the same Humvee.
Some roadblocks in Mogadishu are manned by French and Americans; one was the scene of the worst casualties in the military operation so far: A Somali driving a vehicle filled with passengers burst through the roadblock; the French opened fire, joined shortly thereafter by Marines, killing two civilians and injuring seven.
The peculiar mix of cultures is evident even in the military camps. One day this week, in a hangar shared by Belgians and Americans, the Belgians were sweeping out their side with brooms, while the Americans were using a water hose on their side.
Some American troops have come to admire their counterparts in other forces.
The Marines, in particular, have been impressed by the French Foreign Legion. “They will fight to the last man, those Legionnaires will,” said Hollan. But, he admitted, “They are a little more forceful than we are.
“When we’re trying to get some Somalians to move, we usually do it verbally,” he added. “Those (French) guys have no qualms about going up and pushing them. I don’t think the Somalians appreciate that.”
In fact, while most Somalis are delighted to have the Americans around, they are suspicious of many of the other foreigners. Every day, U.S. Marines can be seen on the streets, joking with clutches of children who regularly gather around them. But the 320 tight-lipped French troops, for example, mostly ignore Somalis.
A recent editorial cartoon in a local newspaper showed a Somali getting his hair cut at a barbershop. “How do you want your hair cut?” the barber asks. “Just like the Marines,” the man responds. Another man, waiting on a bench with a rifle, adds: “If you cut my hair like the French, I will kill you.”
And a Somali woman who was seen chatting with French troops was set upon by a mob of angry Somalis.
“The French troops are very aggressive,” said Abdulahi Mohame Weyne, a 31-year-old father of two who lives near the volatile Green Line that has separated Mogadishu’s warring factions. He said most Somalis blame the roadblock shooting on the French, even though Americans also were involved. “The French troops are very aggressive,” Weyne added. “We are very sorry to see it. But it’s only the French we worry about. The Americans have not been mean to us.”
But French Lt. Col. Jean Vautrey counters that the Legionnaires, based in neighboring Djibouti, have a particular affinity for Somalis. “Basically these are the same people as in Djibouti,” he said. “We know how to behave with these people, to respect this country.”
Some Somalis also dislike the Italians, whose 100-man force will swell to 2,400 by Christmas. Italy colonized this country until 1960, leaving many Italian speakers but not many fans. When the Italians retook their embassy compound, few Somalis were pleased.
But the Italian envoy, Enrico Augelli, contends that Somalis “appreciate in a good way the colonial experience.” He acknowledged, however, that relations were strained when Italy supported Mohamed Siad Barre, who took power in a coup in 1969. “Some people think we’re going to try to bring back Siad Barre,” he said. “But that’s just paranoid.”
Sending Troops to Somalia
These are the countries contributing to the U.S.-led military mission to Somalia:
UNITED STATES: Sending 28,000 soldiers and Marines; nearly 11,000 are in Somalia area. Has provided more than 200,000 tons of food to Somalia and refugee areas in Kenya. U.S. aircraft also carried in 550 Pakistani peacekeepers.
FRANCE: Pledged 2,100 soldiers; 320 there now and all should be in place by Christmas. About 4,000 tons of rice collected by French schoolchildren sent, with 5,000 tons more to come.
ITALY: Sending 2,400 soldiers, including 2,000 paratroopers, paramilitary police, 300 marines, with armored vehicles, transport helicopters, engineering, communications and logistic specialists.
BELGIUM: 550 paratroopers.
CANADA: 1,300 soldiers, with armored personnel carriers and Lynx armored fighting vehicles; 420 are in Somalia. Pledged $20 million in aid, and three planes have helped airlifts.
GERMANY: Sending 1,500 armed troops to arrive in about two months. First troop deployment outside NATO area. $61 million in supplies.
INDIA: Promised 2,500 soldiers and two naval vessels.
BRITAIN: Offered four transport aircraft and $7 million. About $49 million given this year for humanitarian aid.
SWEDEN: Sending a mobile army hospital with 134 medical personnel.
EGYPT: Pledged 750 soldiers, ready to leave as early as this week.
SAUDI ARABIA: Sending about 800 soldiers; also expected to contribute four medical evacuation helicopters and a C-130 Hercules transport.
TUNISIA: Will send army unit and medical team.
BOTSWANA: Plans to send 320 soldiers. Will be first time Botswanan troops have served outside the southern African nation.
NIGERIA: Considering troop contribution.
ZIMBABWE: Offering 1,000 soldiers but needs transport for them.
AUSTRALIA: Sending 900 soldiers.
JAPAN: Considering donating unspecified “logistic support” for troops. Pledged $100 million to aid effort.
ARGENTINA: Pledged to send military doctors, nutritionists, paramedics and 4,000 tons of food and medical supplies.
NEW ZEALAND: Offered either small military force or air transport.