Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

Evacuating Somalia


somalia fighters -p-so-d-00009-19Codename: Operation Eastern Exit.  In January 1991, violence due to the Somali Civil War had escalated so much that Ambassador James K. Bishop requested military assistance in an evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Mogadishu. This evacuation had more than its share of unexpected challenges, in no small part because the Pentagon was totally focused on Desert Shield in Iraq. In addition to the violence and looters, Bishop was faced with breakdowns with the rescue helicopters, a missing golf course, a wandering Russian diplomat, and a rescue mission that was nearly sent to the wrong location. He was interviewed beginning in November 1991 by Charles Stuart Kennedy.

“The situation was deteriorating by the minute”

Somalia map_evac_1991BISHOP:  At the end of the year artillery and aircraft were being used, the rebel army was moving towards Mogadishu, and the government was likely, if it evacuated Mogadishu, to leave via the road which ran outside our compound placing us in the line of fire from the government forces as they retreated as well as rebel forces that might be pursuing their enemy. The situation presented a strong argument for leaving Somalia as soon as possible.

On January 2, 1991, when it was clear that we couldn’t reach the airport because of the violence even though Somali Airlines had one flight per day, I talked to the Italians. They were discussing the possibility of sending military aircraft to evacuate their citizens; they offered to take us along if Washington approved.

However, my recommendation to Washington was that we manage our own evacuation. That was agreed to. C-130s were sent to Mombasa to be available to fly us out — if we could reach the airport. The Navy also dispatched two ships — the Guam, a helicopter carrier and the Trenton, an escort ship with helicopters and additional Marines. When those ships reached Mogadishu, they would be able to airlift us out of the compound, if we couldn’t reach the airport.

By this time, stray shells were falling into the compound. The Defense Attaché had been authorized the night before to go to a function at the Italian Embassy. He took a couple of rounds when a Somali fired an AK-47 at his vehicle; a couple of the shells traveled between sheets of armored plate surrounding the car and cut across the car an inch from his backbone. The car was put on display in the compound when he returned. New Year’s Eve night, Lt. Colonel Youngman, who was the deputy in the Security Assistance mission, while driving back to Staley’s compound from the Embassy, was confronted by a nervous soldier; he fired an AK-47 burst into the front of the car, deflating the tires. Youngman made it back to the compound on the rims. Fortunately, he was not hurt either.

Obviously, the situation was deteriorating by the minute. Non-Americans were beginning to come into the compound looking for protection; some diplomats sought refuge. I mentioned the Kenyans earlier; the Nigerian Ambassador was sleeping on a couch outside of my room. We had all the junior staff of the British embassy. There were a number of NGO representatives, private business people, as well as some of our local employees and their families. We were housing and feeding a substantial number of people. We had organized ourselves to do this by putting some of the staff in unconventional roles. The head of the Joint Administrative Office seemed to be more interested in acting as a spotter than administrative tasks.

We could only move across the street when it was clear of armed elements; if there were armed elements, one could expect an exchange of fire because by this time the violence had crept into the neighborhoods surrounding the compound. Several military posts had been set up near us which fired away at opponents nearby. The JAO Director became the spotter on the roof top and there kept track of the violence around us. He was responsible for signaling the all clear to open the main gate and permit additional folks to take refuge. When there were people with guns around, we kept the gate closed as some wanted to force their way into the compound….

On the same day, we had to evacuate the apartment building across the street whose roof was serving as our look-out point. Some Somali soldiers had arrived and broken into the building, robbing the vehicles we had parked there. So we had an army invading diplomatic premises and looters who were coming over the wall shooting at us.

I sent a message to the Department pointing out that matters were clearly getting out of hand and requesting the immediate dispatch of two platoons of parachutists from Saudi Arabia. The response was disingenuous; it said that no airborne soldiers were available, which was hardly consistent with what we knew to be our force deployment for “Desert Storm.”…

The Marines’ Impending Arrival

Somalia BW 01_largeOn the January 3, we were told that the ships were underway and would arrive off-shore earlier than anticipated. Then the Marines on board would be available to land in the compound. I might note that the ships originally had been dispatched under orders to travel at a rate that would conserve fuel, so they did not come at flank speed.

But sometime after they had sailed, they were instructed to travel at maximum speed, which was the reason why they were going to arrive off-shore earlier than expected. In the meantime, we were taking more flak, hitting close to some of our staff. One of fellows had an AK-47 burst go through a wall just over his head. A rocket-propelled grenade went through one of the buildings.

The French sent a ship off shore and they tried to load some of their Embassy people on a number of small boats on the beach. But that plan went awry when the Admiral commanding the Somali Navy threatened to sink the French ship for having intruded into sovereign waters. The Italians, who were going to evacuate through the Mogadishu airport, had their planes on the ground along with ours at Mombasa, unable to land at Mogadishu for the same reasons that we were unable to use that airport. The Germans were in a similar situation; they too had some aircraft not too far away, which were also not able to use the Mogadishu airport because the violence around the airport prevented their people as well as all foreigners from reaching it….

We had to withdraw from the most exposed parts of the compound which meant taking everyone out of the Residence, which had become a dormitory with all furniture and floors occupied by sleeping staff and the Nigerian Ambassador…. The Marine House was also evacuated.

By January 4, we had several hundred foreigners in the compound to whom we were providing refuge and food and some medical care. Some had arrived wounded; one was nine months pregnant. I had insisted that anyone staying in the compound be disarmed, including the Turkish Ambassador’s bodyguards. I didn’t want anyone to have arms who was not under my direct control.

We had allowed a number of vehicles to be brought into the compound, but I insisted that the keys be left in the cars so that if looters managed to scale our walls at night, they could just drive off with the vehicles without trying to enter the safe haven with guns drawn to get the keys by force. I left instructions at the JAO building that one of our staff members who was an expert in weapon use would be stationed inside the entrance with an UZI, a sub-machine gun; he was to use it only if there was an effort made at forced entry into the building.

Somalis loot unLooters who might roam the compound were not to be challenged and could take with them anything they could. We had a large warehouse filled with all sorts of goodies; we hoped that if the looters did climb over the wall they would be so attracted by the warehouse that they would leave those safe havened alone.

I used some money to buy additional weapons to supplement the arms that the Marines had. I issued those to Embassy staff who had military training and whom I felt would use the weapons with discretion….

On the night of January 4, we slept as best we could in the expectation that the first Marines would come in at daybreak….

The helicopters took off for a 450-mile trip over the ocean. Their navigation system failed; the helicopters had not been exercised for months for a rescue mission since they certainly did not expect to be used for this purpose. They had to make contact with the C-130 twice over the ocean in the middle of the night for refueling. In the course of the refueling, one of the lines broke, drenching Marines with jet fuel. A crew chief managed to seal the pipe break allowing the helicopter to finish its flight rather than return to its ship.

“The Marines were preparing to rescue us from the old Embassy; we were six miles away”

Before leaving the Guam, the Marines had of course prepared a plan of action. Someone suggested that a check be made whether there were any Marines on board who might have served in Mogadishu, who could provide first-hand knowledge of the area. In fact, an NCO was found who had left Mogadishu about a year earlier. He looked at the plan and said that he thought it looked pretty good, but that unfortunately it appeared that the Marines would be put down in the wrong place.

The plan had been developed on the assumption that the Embassy was still in its old location; the NCO said he thought the Embassy had moved about six months earlier. So despite the visit by the DELTA team and all of our E&E [Emergency and Evacuation] plans, the Marines were preparing to rescue us from the old Embassy, which was by the sea; in fact we were six miles away. A potential catastrophe was avoided….The intelligence people, from whom our location should have been transmitted accurately, were focusing on “Desert Shield”; Mogadishu was just a side-show.

When the Marines flew in at dawn, they were told to look for a golf course. They expected an American course with greens and flags; our course featured cows, camels, manure and some trees and sand. The greens were black oiled; so the Marines could not recognize the course. We had a strobe light on the southern part of the water tower, which was the highest feature on the compound. The helicopters flew so low that they went under the light and since it was dawn they didn’t see the flashing light nor the American flag. So they flew back out to sea and then returned and found us….

During the day, we prepared ourselves for evacuation. We sent some people out to rescue the British Ambassador and the German Chargé. A Somali military officer, who had a previous relationship with us, agreed to take a car and negotiate a cease-fire by the government troops so that he could extract the two. That was a brave act.

Flag_of_the_Soviet_UnionThe Soviets had come on the air the day before reporting that their compound had been looted and that they were pretty uncomfortable. Vladimir, the Ambassador, was my tennis partner and an very interesting person:  a real Africanist who spoke Swahili and had served in every East Africa country. He came on the radio and he asked for “Yankee.”

So I talked to him; he wanted to know whether we could evacuate him and his staff. I said that we would be glad to have him come with us, but that we couldn’t send anyone to their compound to rescue them; they would have to make their own way to ours. I wasn’t going to risk any of our people to rescue Russians.

When he saw our first helicopters come in the next morning, he knew that we would not stay in Mogadishu much longer. I told him that I would see whether Major Siad, the Somali officer, would be willing to undertake another rescue mission. The Major was willing to try, if he was paid enough. So we gave him some more money. And indeed, he brought a big group of Soviets to our compound–something like 36 or 37 of them. I invited Vladimir into my office; I offered him and his wife the use of my shower. They accepted my offer.

The next thing I found out was that Vladimir had disappeared; he just left the bathroom and was walking around the Chancery. I had to remind him that our hospitality had its limits. We sent both him and his wife downstairs into the air conditioned part of the Chancery where they waited until the rescue helicopters arrived….

Evacuating the Americans but leaving local Embassy employees behind

Somalia embassy mogadishuThe helicopters started to come in at midnight and began to take people out. They landed in groups of five. I got a message from Bob Noble at the main gate saying that Major Siad was there with a grenade in one hand and a radio in the other; he was threatening to bring artillery fire on the compound because we were violating Somali sovereignty, i.e., landing helicopters without government permission. He wanted to talk to me about it.

I told Noble to send him in and I met Siad outside the Chancery building. He came with an interpreter, but the grenade had been removed as the price of admission into the compound. He had said that he would give up his grenade if Noble took the clip out of his machine gun. Noble chambered a round and then took out the clip and brought Siad to the Chancery, which was surrounded by Marines in their camouflage and SEALs in grease paint standing in the shadows beyond the lights.

The Major first objected to the rescue operation; then he wanted us to take out his family. I told the Major that he was being very foolish trying to interfere with the operation because Somalia would eventually have to recover from the ongoing bedlam and would need the assistance of all the countries represented in the compound. If the diplomats and citizens were shot, those countries certainly would not be helpful. Finally, he agreed to let the rescue operation proceed; he did not use his radio to call in artillery fire.

Our conversation continued for another hour while the helicopters came in and lifted people out. Finally, there was no one left except Bob Noble, the SEALs, the Marines and myself. There were just two helicopters on the ground waiting for us. So I told Siad that I did not have authority to allow him to get on board because command had now been transferred to the Admiral on board the Guam, but I told Siad that I would ask the Admiral if it were possible to send another helicopter back for Siad and his family. By this time, Siad had given up his radio; he asked me whether he could have my car, an armored Oldsmobile.

I went to find the keys and gave them to him; the car was obviously not going to be of much further use to the U.S. government. So Siad left; Noble and I looked at each other and headed for the last helicopter. We took a seat in the back; then a Marine officer came in and squeezed in. He looked at me and said: “My God, sir, you are the Ambassador; you can’t sit back here!” I told him I was quite comfortable, but that didn’t dissuade him. So I had to leave the helicopter, re-board and sit behind the waste gunner, which was even an even more exposed area. But I did get a chance to watch our lift-off and see where we were flying. That was January 6, 1991….

One of the most painful aspects of our evacuation was leaving our local employees behind. I had asked Washington for authority to use the helicopters to move them to safer areas in Somalia; we had been told that our ships were supposed to land us in Kenya and knew the Kenyans didn’t want Somali refugees. So evacuating our local employees with us was out of the question. But I thought we might be able to help them a little by moving them to safer areas. Washington did not approve my request.

I called a meeting of our local employees — held under a tree in the compound — during a lull in the fighting. I explained that we couldn’t take them out with us, but I did tell them that we would turn over to the elders among them the keys to the commissary and that they would be welcome to all the provisions that were still there and in the warehouse. Banks had been closed for sometime; so that we had not been able to pay our employees. I promised that we would try to get someone back into Mogadishu as soon as possible to pay them the wages they were due. They were very understanding; we had no major outcry even though we knew that someone would very much like to have come with us….

The Long Journey Home

somalia uss guamWe landed on the ship about 3 a.m. and were sort of tired….[General Norman] Schwarzkopf did not want the ship to go to Mombasa. He insisted it return to Oman because he wanted it back in the combat zone as soon as possible. So instead of a quick trip to Mombasa, we were on board for five days en route to Oman….

Our Ambassador in Oman was kind enough to invite me to come out to his residence for lunch after getting our people off the ships, into a holding area, and arranging for them to have some cold beer…. The evacuation plane came late in the afternoon; we got on board and were flown to Frankfurt…. We then went to a nearby hotel and just crashed. When I got up, I had to face a small problem with the commercial airline that was supposed to take us back to the U.S. We ended up spending a fair amount of time at the airport before we finally boarded. Then it was off to New York, where arrangements had been made to whisk us through customs — I am not sure we even saw a customs officer.

On Monday, we were asked to meet in the Department. The only debriefing that ever took place was with a psychiatrist who asked how we had survived our ordeal.

Somalia letter thanksSCAN0300

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Evacuating Somalia

by Chris Sibilla time to read: 12 min
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