Skip to comments.The Quiet War in the Horn of Africa
Posted on 01/28/2007 1:05:44 AM PST by csvset
|Air Force Col. Dan Shoor listens to a young Somali refugees cough at a Djiboutian clinic, stretched to its limits because of an influx of 5,000 refugees. Malnutrition is a widespread problem, as are sanitation woes and influenza. About five children in the community of 12,000 die each day, one Army sergeant estimates.
CHRIS TYREE PHOTOS / THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT
|PART 1 OF 2|
In faraway desert villages and city slums, U.S. military men and women stationed in the Horn of Africa are healing children, digging water wells and building schools. It's part of a unique approach by a Navy-led task force to fight terrorism in a region where Islamic extremists are trying to gain a foothold.
Today: What the U.S. is doing
Slide shows, videos, graphics: Waging Peace
ALI ADDÉ, Djibouti A curious crowd of women and men in billowing skirts streamed toward the landing zone as two U.S. Marine helicopters touched down on rocky African desert.
The Marines had pistols strapped to their legs, but the choppers from New River Marine Corps Air Station in North Carolina were doves, not hawks.
Inside were an Air Force doctor and a team of Army civil affairs specialists on a mission to bring help and hope to 12,000 Somali refugees.
The forbidding landscape is a 20-minute flight but seems a world apart from Djiboutis capital city, where the U.S. military has established a base, Camp Lemonier.
U.S. air strikes on suspected terrorists in Somalia this month called the worlds attention to the region.
However, the U.S. military has been quietly engaged in the Horn of Africa since 2002, using about 1,500 troops to build schools and medical clinics, dig wells, treat sick people and inoculate livestock. Dozens of Navy sailors and officers from Hampton Roads are part of the force, and more are preparing to head to Djibouti in early February.
With its mission to win hearts and minds through goodwill, this unorthodox military
operation looks more like the Peace Corps than the Marine Corps. But the effort is primarily to deter al-Qaida and Muslim extremists from spreading throughout a region rife with poverty and despair.
Our mission is not capture and kill, said Rear Adm. Timothy Moon , deputy commander of the Navy-led task force.
Moon, a reservist from Suffolk, calls it an experiment. I hope it works.
Theres reason for the United States to worry about terrorists in Africa.
In three of the eight countries where the task force labors, al-Qaida has orchestrated anti-American attacks. U.S. embassies were bombed in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, killing 250 people. And 17 Norfolk-based sailors died in a blast that crippled the destroyer Cole in Yemens Gulf of Aden in 2000.
Here in Ali Addé, the military visitors toured a newly refurbished health clinic about the size of a gas station. Renovated by the U.S. Agency for International Development, the tidy facility had a closet-sized pharmacy and a few exam rooms.
About 75 women gathered on the porch, ailing children in their arms. The wait was long. One toddler played with a discarded surgical glove blown up into a hand-shaped balloon.
Sgt. 1st Class Charles Parnell, a broad, balding Army reservist and a police officer and paramedic in Cleveland in his other life said a recent influx of about 5,000 refugees from war-torn Somalia had taxed the resources of this clinic and another nearby, which ran out of medicine.
Hungry people boil the bark of scrubby trees and bushes to soften it, then eat it. Chronic malnutrition, influenza and poor sanitation are the main scourges, said Parnell, his face and voice filled with distress.
He estimated that one to two women in this community die each week from diarrhea, pneumonia, tuberculosis, malaria or asthma. Children perish, about five a day, Parnell said.
Fatouma Ali desperately hoped her son would not become one of them.
Ali held her toothless, feverish 2-year-old beneath the bright orange shawl she wore. She didnt know her own age she guessed 45. She gave birth to her first child 11 years ago; five more children followed.
Through a translator, Ali said her family fled Somalia at the beginning of Ramadan last fall, coming to Djibouti in a car loaded with as many possessions as they could fit.
Here is a peaceful country, and everybody wants to live in a peaceful area, Ali said.
Somalia hasnt had an effective central government since 1991, when warlords toppled dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and then began battling among themselves. Al-Qaida has moved in, prompting the U.S. airstrikes this month.
The clinic is another way to keep al-Qaida at bay. Here, a volunteer nurse and a local physician typically see as many as 50 patients a day. Air Force Col. Dan Shoor, dispatched here from Alaska, sometimes helps.
In an exam room with unscreened windows overlooking craggy mountain peaks, Shoor diagnosed a 3-year-old Somali child with pneumonia and an underlying case of tuberculosis.
Back home, Shoor would have prescribed antibiotics for the pneumonia, as well as a nine-month regimen of drugs for the TB. Active cases of TB often require at least four different drugs administered simultaneously.
Shoor said the child would get antibiotic treatment, and the clinic nurse also would try to treat the boys relatives, who probably have latent cases of TB.
He viewed the childs odds of survival as even.
About 800,000 people in the region suffer from the infectious lung disease, Shoor said. Some are infected with strains resistant to multiple drugs. Sometimes, there is little doctors can do.
A former goalie on Stanfords soccer team, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Wendy Halsey, left, had relatives and former teammates send her soccer balls to distribute at Djiboutian schools.
Children are often the focus of military missions in the Horn of Africa. Besides receiving medical care and new schools, they are the subject of sports diplomacy.
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Wendy Halsey said that everywhere she went during her six months in Africa, she got the brightest smiles when she handed out soccer balls.
Halsey, a Navy Seabee and former goalie on Stanford Universitys soccer team, took that as a cue and asked former teammates, relatives and friends to send balls in lieu of the usual care packages.
On a recent trip, Halsey and a three-car caravan of military officers and translators headed into downtown Djibouti.
The neighborhood around the first school was like many in the capital city, population 400,000. Goats meandered through dirt streets; barefoot children wandered amid shacks made from scraps of wood and metal. No grass, no yards, no electricity or running water, but plenty of garbage along every street and lot.
Halsey and her colleagues stopped first at Ecole de Tour- Ousbo Primaire Publique, which serves 1,200 students. Half attend class in the morning, the other half after lunch typical in Djibouti, where there are too few schools to accommodate everyone at once.
The camouflage-clad Americans filed into the one-room library. Its simple wooden shelves held books in French, the official language of Djibouti since its days as a French colony.
In the middle of the room, on child-sized desks, were five personal computers donated by the Chinese government . China also is vying for influence in the Horn of Africa, parts of which have ample oil supplies.
After exchanging pleasantries, sipping sodas and sampling fried dumplings, the group got down to business.
I have, like, 15 soccer balls, Halsey told the principal through a translator. Whats the best way to hand them out?
The principal decided the balls would stay at the school for everyone to use. Teachers brought one class of second-graders 52 in all into a dirt courtyard next to a crumbling concrete building.
Excited chatter filled the air.
Halsey handed balls to some students and kicked shiny new ones toward others, making sure not to overlook the girls.
When this tall, vigorous woman with dark braids looked directly at the shy girls, their faces flickered with smiles. Then their lips would reclaim their teeth, and they would look away.
For another Seabee on the outing, Lt. Cmdr. Ra Yoeun, the goodwill outing held extra meaning.
As a 10-year-old orphan in a Cambodian refugee camp on the Thai border in the early 1980s, Yoeun remembers similar gifts from United Nations officials.
Its kind of coming full circle, he said.
Members of an Army Reserve unit from Montgomery, Ala., fix a well in a tiny village in November. The wells chain had been rusted through by corrosive water, rendering the pump useless for several months.
Youen and Halsey represent the changing face of the Horn of Africa task force.
After nearly four years of war in Iraq and five in Afghanistan, the Army and Marine Corps are spread thin. Last spring , the Navy took control of the African peace-waging mission from the Marines.
The land-based effort is led by Rear Adm. Richard Hunt , who once commanded an aircraft carrier strike group.
The next wave of Navy brass many from the Norfolk-based Second Fleet head to Djibouti next week . Many spent four months prepping at the Joint Forces Command in Suffolk.
The Combined Joint Task Force joint because it involves all branches of the U.S. military and combined because about a dozen military advisers from Europe and Africa help plan the missions is at heart a civil affairs undertaking.
The occupation of post-war Europe and Japan in the 1940s and 1950s is a prime example of military civil affairs, as the services oversaw the rebuilding of gutted cities, the drafting of new laws and instituting of local governments.
Since then, civil affairs has been an oft-overlooked specialty. Until Djibouti, the Navy has had no such job.
C ivil affairs troops at Camp Lemonier, the only U.S. military base in sub-Saharan Africa, are the equivalent of infantry troops in a war zone: Theyre the ones who go out and do the work.
We studied about this kind of nation-building when I was going through initial training, and now were actually doing it, said Army Sgt. Roberto Fernandez , a high school history teacher in Lauderdale Lakes, Fla. What were doing out here is completely different.
He is encouraged by little things, such as a comment from a man in the village of Dorali, where Fernandez worked on a project last year.
One of the villagers said, 'You guys have been here only six months and youve already done more for us than the French have done in 100 years.
On the same day Parnell and Fernandez flew to Ali Addé , an Army Reserve unit from Montgomery, Ala., finished a project in a village outside the mountain town of Arta.
The 334th Engineer Detachment had been repairing a well drilled by a U.S. unit in 2003. It was a simple contraption a hand pump brought up water from about 120 feet, serving both the nomadic herders and, through a separate trough, their goats and sheep.
But after three years, Army Capt. Rachel Honderd said, corrosive water and a broken chain had rendered the pump useless. For five months, the community hadnt gotten a drop from the well, forcing villagers to move their animals elsewhere.
Water is one of the most important things we deal with in the Horn of Africa, Honderd said. When we show up, they get very excited.
In less than two days, the Army unit found a fix and got water flowing again. The engineers planned to return to convert the hand pump into a solar pump that will require less maintenance and serve a larger population.
The military also is compiling a hydro geological database, so incoming units can more easily determine where to sink new wells. Sixteen more wells already have been approved for Djibouti and Kenya, Honderd said.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Jared Woodall shows Ahmeed Med Ali, 15, how to lift weights. A native of Oxford, Miss., Woodall's six-month tour in Africa made him curious about his heritage. "Now, I want to know where my roots come from," he said.
Sometimes the targets of U.S. outreach are accidental or at least unscripted.
On the eastern edge of the city of Tadjoura, next to a broad, dusty soccer field, a unit of Navy Seabees is building a middle school.
The sailors are accompanied by an Army National Guard unit from the U.S. territory of Guam. The soldiers dont do much patrolling; instead, they mentor teenagers. They usually cant speak the same tongue, but their body language needs no translation.
Spc. Joevince San Nicolas taught himself enough of the Afar language to make the children giggle when he barks it out.
He taught them to march to military cadence.
He had them clear rocks off the schools dirt basketball court.
He makes them run sprints when they quit listening to him but they dont run alone.
Whatever they do, I do with them, San Nicolas said. Whoever does it best, I give them money to go buy ice cream.
The airborne soldier he parachuted into Iraq with the 173rd Airborne Brigade at the beginning of that war, when he was on active duty much prefers serving here.
You can see how youre helping, and people are appreciative, he said. Its not that you give today and they attack tomorrow.
Others mentor in different ways.
Jeramie Chew , a Navy corpsman from Portland, Ore., noticed that Djiboutian children are more aggressive toward one another than their American counterparts. Older kids regularly gang up on younger, weaker ones.
Within arms reach of Chew hovered a deaf boy, his bright orange T-shirt contrasting with Chews bland uniform.
Hes picked on a lot, Chew said of the boy he knows as Adida a name hes not sure how to spell. I stand up for him.
Hes trying to teach Adida not to throw rocks at his tormentors.
Chew and Adida bond using hand signals and cold sips of Coca-Cola out of glass bottles.
I think half the time we dont know what were saying to each other, but its all in good fun, Chew said.
Staff Sgt. Tifani Kent, an Air Force nurse, cradles a child in late November at the Sisters of the Nativity Convent Orphanage in Djiboutis capital city. About 50 children live at the orphanage at any time.
A few days after the school visit, Yoeun joined Halsey and a group of enlisted personnel on a biweekly trip to play soccer and kickball with the residents of a nearby boys orphanage.
It shares space with a trade school, and the wide-open area behind the decrepit buildings sits in view of Camp Lemoniers guard tower.
The orphanage, housing 25 to 30 boys, had been adopted by the chaplains at Lemonier and received money from a base pie-in-the-face contest.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Gregory Bennett , a religious program specialist from Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach, took visitors toward a putrid bathroom thick with stink and flies.
The base E-5 club Navy petty officers second class or Army sergeants had raised $13,000 to renovate the bathroom and install running water and flush toilets.
Other projects also were in the works.
The facility had no beds, just a few grungy mattresses on the floor. Bennett shepherded a small group of military members into a room where long, cardboard boxes containing new beds were waiting to be assembled. Blankets and pillows were on order from the camps exchange.
Bennetts group headed toward the shrieks and shouts near the basketball court. There, about 20 soldiers, sailors and airmen in T-shirts and shorts, looking like the American 20-somethings they are, played kickball, basketball and soccer with whoops of glee.
Halsey hadnt had time to change out of her uniform and boots, but the Navy officer and mother of three played energetically anyway, running and grinning in the desert dusk.
She was one of many people who would finish their day marveling about this military mission few Americans have ever heard of, working in ways shed never dreamed.
What none of them could know and probably wont for decades is whether this experiment to stop the spread of terrorism in the Horn of Africa worked.
Coming Monday: Judging the success of the Africa effort.
Hearts and Minds program in Africa.
Very nice post!
Some have it so hard ... this is heart warming!
I used to post about this on my Daily Terrorist Round-ups. A very similar mission is also underway in the western African region known as the Sahel.
The US military has tried to get into these areas that have a great potential for trouble before trouble actually begins.
This is a wonderful article.
More of this should be reported about our troops.
And I can't help but think about who ordered them there to serve on this mission. A much needed breath in light of all the recent concerns in the middle east.
US Aid and other charitable organizations have been also quietly educating Africa's youth in many countries.
But there is no "MSM Blood message" to stir people's interest.
God bless America. There has never been such a great country, ever, in the history of civilization.
|PART 2 OF 2|
The mission is unorthodox: Prevent the spread of terrorism by bringing humanitarian aid to Africa. The outcome is uncertain, but U.S. military officials say their work already is proving effective.
Sunday: What the U.S. is doing
Slide shows, videos, graphics: Waging Peace
DJIBOUTI - As a Norfolk agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, Rod Budd tracks down sailors suspected of crimes. Now, a continent away, he hunts bigger prey: terrorists.
Budd is gathering intelligence as the United States, already engaged in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, tries to keep the Horn of Africa from becoming the next conflict. The Navy, which plays a largely supporting role in the current wars, is leading the military effort on the ground in the Horn of Africa.
One of Budd's main tasks is to create relationships with local chiefs and ask them to look out for strangers - or weapons - passing through their desert villages. Somalia is just a dozen miles away, and refugees flow freely across that unstable country's border.
Budd, who expected the investigative service to send him to Iraq or Afghanistan, acknowledged he's winging it in Djibouti, relying on instincts cultivated throughout almost 20 years in law enforcement.
"Our job in Iraq and Afghanistan - albeit much more dangerous - it's inside the wire," Budd said, meaning agents toil on bases behind security checkpoints. "Here in Djibouti, you have a chance to actually go outside the wire and maybe - maybe - stumble upon a golden nugget. The potential to actually do something is a lot higher here than in the other places."
His task is to get to know the people around him, observe suspicious behavior and encourage them to contact him if they see something strange.
"This is the same thing as a cop on the beat who wants to know what's going on," Budd said. "He makes friends with people, and they tell him things. It's just a unique place to do it."
One day in November, he took a short drive from the well-guarded fences surrounding Camp Lemonier, the U.S. military base, to visit a village elder.
Chief Ali Waberi sat on a cot draped in mosquito netting and told Budd how much the United States is needed in Djibouti.
"Our only hope is God, and you guys," he said through the interpreter, Jafar Jama.
Sunlight streamed through gaps in the wooden boards. Flies were so thick that the old man handed his visitor a homemade fan to chase them off.
Then the chief expressed his disappointment.
"When the U.S. arrived here, we had big expectations. For 100 years, we've been praying for Americans to come over here," Waberi said. "Fortunately, they're here today."
But, Waberi said, "it looks like the benefits are going toward the urban people rather than the villagers."
Budd listened politely to the chief's complaint, but making lives better for the local people isn't his primary mission.
Still, sometimes he'll bring a case or two of bottled water; other times, soccer balls for the village children.
Another means of currying favor for the American anti-terrorism effort: arriving with a military doctor to treat sick villagers. On this visit, the first question Waberi asked was: "Where is the doctor?"
A week or two earlier, the agent had brought along a physician to examine the chief, who dealt with chronic knee pain by thrusting a stick heated in a fire into his knee to release endorphins and mute the underlying ache.
The doctor had cleaned out the wounds around his knee and given him ibuprofen for pain.
No doctor this time, but Budd had a drop of good news: The chief and other elders from surrounding villages would soon meet with Camp Lemonier's commanding officer, who would hear their concerns and pleas for jobs, a critical issue.
The same day he visited Waberi, Budd made a stop in the village of Nagad. On his way back to the car, a young man he'd never met approached Budd. He told the agent the village needed to corral its goats and sheep. Could he help with that?
Budd introduced himself to the man, then offered a question instead of an answer.
"Do you understand what my role is?" he asked.
He had Jama, the interpreter, explain that he didn't have the authority to carry out favors like that, but he would appreciate residents staying alert and getting in touch if they saw suspicious activity.
Budd delivered the message gently, with a handshake. "We'll see you again," he said.
To the head of the U.S. Central Command, which oversees the African task force, the military engagement in the Horn could be a model for strengthening a country and building relationships to prevent the spread of terrorism.
"Dollar for dollar and person for person, our return on investment out here is better than it is anywhere" in the vast command, Army Gen. John Abizaid said during a visit to Camp Lemonier in May.
Yasser Toube, above center, has a college degree and speaks four languages Arabic, French, English and a tribal tongue. He and other young men in class see English as the key to their countrys future, and they say they are glad the U.S. military has established a base in their capital.
Humanitarian work makes strategic sense, according to the theory behind the task force.
Lt. Cmdr. Robert Kearney, a member of the task force's core staff in Djibouti, said the military hopes to reach people who are poor, hopeless and have no one looking out for them. It's important to get to them before they are recruited by terrorists.
"They found out in Iraq and Afghanistan that for every insurgent, it takes 20 soldiers" to control the area where a guerrilla operates, Kearney said. "And as you know, we're running out."
It's tough to tell whether the United States is winning this quiet war and preventing a full-blown conflict. Sometimes, the victories are small.
Mouusi Abi is an example.
Like half the working-age population of Djibouti, the 29-year-old father of two is unemployed. He lost his job with an oil company in March, but since September, he has stayed busy helping a group of Navy Seabees construct a school bathroom in his neighborhood.
Abi simply showed up one day, with passable English that allowed him to converse with the 10-man crew from Port Hueneme, Calif. He totes heavy bags of cement and mortar and shoos away children who ask the Americans for water or throw pebbles over the fence.
It isn't a paying gig, but Abi hopes his help might lead to a job on base. For the U.S. military, Abi is a success - for his loyalty, not his lifting.
Abi has become a fan - and defender - of the Seabees.
Motioning to the prayer tower of a nearby mosque, Abi said the imam there doesn't like Americans working in the area, and he made those feelings public.
So Abi and fellow members of the neighborhood council visited the imam.
"They help us, and they help our children," Abi said they told the Muslim cleric. They asked him to keep his opinions to himself, and it seems to have worked: Abi said they haven't heard anything from the imam since.
That kind of intervention is exactly what top brass wants from the Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa.
"We like to think that the activities we've done in these various nations have prevented terrorist activities," said Rear Adm. Timothy Moon, the task force's deputy commander. "Could we point to single ones we have stopped as a result of our efforts? No, we can't. I'm sure we have prevented something, but I couldn't put my finger on it."
Gains are gradual and can result from something as simple as helping Djibouti's young people connect with American culture through a language class.
Mouusi Abi, right, befriended the Seabees building a school bathroom in his neighborhood. Abi, an unemployed father of two, helps the Americans, hoping that his volunteer work and passable English lead to a paying job on the U.S. base at Camp Lemonier.
For Yasser Toube, that connection comes on Sunday nights, when a van full of Camp Lemonier personnel drives down a narrow, garbage-strewn street to the Horn of Africa School of Languages, where Toube goes to improve his English.
He is the kind of man terrorists would be lucky to recruit - young, unmarried, bright. He speaks French, Arabic and English besides his tribal tongue. He, too, is unemployed, with a widowed mother to care for.
In a room about the size of an American bedroom, 12 students - two of them female - squeezed onto bright blue wooden benches on a hot November night.
The hallway smelled of urine. A fan hanging from a buckled, wooden ceiling whirred slowly, but the room was muggy and hot. The window was shut to stop curious children from peering in and giggling.
Five service members in civilian clothes came this night, including a Navy petty officer, an Air Force senior master sergeant and an Army major.
The discussion topic: a l-Jazeera's recent foray into English-language news programs and whether such programs are accurate and fair.
Their comments - about Western news outlets covering Africa from only a European or U.S. perspective, and criticizing al-Jazeera's grisly footage of Muslim casualties in Iraq and Palestinian territories - offered the American visitors some understanding of moderate Muslims who don't hate the United States but question the war in Iraq.
The students agree that English is the key to their nation's future - not French, taught in schools even since Djibouti gained its independence from France in 1977. T hey agree that the U.S. presence - in the form of Camp Lemonier - is helping Djibouti progress.
"Before the Americans came to Djibouti, it was like a dead zone," Toube said. "People were living in a very critical condition. But now there's two or three weddings every night."
"People are very happy.... They've begun building houses. They've begun to plan for their life and their future."
Still, this country has far to go.
At least in this classroom of Muslim students, Western ideals - not Islamic fundamentalism - have taken root.
"For Djibouti to be a free and prosperous nation," Toube said, "we need this kind of culture that teaches people freedom, teaches people to be open, teaches people to be democratic."
Young girls in Djibouti face a difficult path to their schooling. Only about 40 percent of girls attend primary school, and after that, many are forced to drop out because their parents dont want them traveling farther to middle schools, which are limited
It's not just the military spreading that message in Africa.
The U.S. diplomatic corps is helping. That's why career diplomat Stuart Symington spent a year in Norfolk training top military officers to work hand in hand with U.S. embassies overseas.
Symington taught at the Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk last year before being named ambassador to Djibouti, where he's putting those lessons into action.
He summarized the mission of both the military and the foreign service officers at the U.S. Embassy, first in French and then again in English: "We can give you walls, and we can redo the roof and the air conditioning and paint the walls, but the only thing that really matters in this country is you, the parents and the students," he told local teachers at a continuing-education seminar in the capital.
"On peut ouvrir la porte, mais c'est vous de passer. "
"We can open the door, but you have to go through it."
The same November day, Symington traveled to the town of Goubeto to bestow middle school scholarships on 18 young girls - part of an effort to give 1,000 scholarships to girls across the country. Girls are often forced to quit school by families unwilling to have them travel f arther to middle schools.
"May the bright light that I see in your eyes today shine in your hearts and in your country," Symington told the girls after shaking each one's hand.
Despite hopeful words, there is no certainty American efforts will ultimately raise this struggling nation out of the hopelessness and poverty that attract terrorists.
Budd, the agent with the Navy's investigative service, worries that his friendly village visits spread false hope rather than defuse terrorism.
"Sometimes it gives you an empty feeling," Budd said while driving away from Nagad. "But you do what you can do. Everybody does their little part."
Budd, who will resume his job in Norfolk next month, believes in his mission. But he's unsure how the American effort will turn out.
"This is kind of like throwing a ball out there and seeing if anybody catches it," Budd said.
"There's no magic to it, just a matter of maybe - someday - it will pay off."
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