I signed into Twitter to be met with a flurry of tweets about a French soldier’s death in Somalia. Somalia was suddenly trending but clearly not for good reasons. Curious, I started investigating the story, trying to piece together a coherent narrative. As the details began to unfold I became increasingly disturbed.
On January 11th of this year, French military forces conducted a rescue mission to free Denis Allex (apparently an alias), a French Intelligence agent who was held hostage for 3 years by Al-Shabaab, the armed Islamist group vying for power in Somalia. The rescue mission was a failure leading to the deaths of two French soldiers. Al-Shabaab subsequently announced its execution of Denis Allex.
The telling facts of this event were often added as an afterthought on most of the articles I read. The frenzied focus of the global media was on the deaths and executions of the French. Rarely was there an equal emphasis on the deaths that accrued to the Somali side. A very significant detail of this fiasco was that the Somali government, headed by President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, was not informed of the raid by the French. It is dumbfounding that the French did not consider the sovereignty of a nation they planned to, essentially, invade. Imagine the repercussions if this were to have happened to France. It’s almost unthinkable. In defense of the botched operation, the French defense minister claimed that it would have been “strictly impossible and completely unrealistic” to try and negotiate for Allex’s freedom. In light of the destruction and death that followed the raid, one cannot help wonder how differently things could have turned out if the Somali government was treated as an equal and an ally rather than a nuisance. Ironically, this raid happened around the same time as France’s other military entanglements in Africa necessitating a statement from the defense minister that there was no connection with the Mali intervention.
And what of the 17 who died on the side of Al-Shabaab? Is it because they are not soldiers, as the French were, but ‘Islamist militants’ that they are not counted as casualties? I abhor the Shabaab for their excessive violence but fail to see the difference between them and the French in this specific raid. Are both sides not in battle for dubious reasons? Are not the power hungry aims of the French and the Shabaab equally harmful for the Somali people? What kind of Intelligence was Denis Allex gathering in Somalia? I think a bit more impartiality is in order. This is a conflict that cannot be construed as having good and evil sides. To the everyday Somali people whose lives have been shattered by ceaseless war, foreign forces and external interventions have been just as devastating as the succession of warlords, transitional governments, and Islamists.
Finally, and most importantly, 8 civilians were killed in the crossfire, among them women and children. What were their names? How exactly did they die? Do their deaths matter? The last question is painful to ask, but I ask it because from what I gathered from my twitter timeline and from the ensuing media frenzy, their deaths did not, and still do not, seize the imagination as profoundly as the deaths of the French agents. It was like watching an epic drama, there was something fantastical and inconceivable about the mighty Western army faltering at the resistance of barbaric, ragtag Africans. In this ideologically tinged neo-colonial saga, what gets lost is the suffering of the innocents and the unnecessary loss of civilian life.
The dehumanization and silence around the lives and deaths of the weak is nothing new. Across the myriad conflicts, disasters, and wars that have happened and are happening in the world, only a few are graced with recognition and commemoration. Only a few are worthy of grief. The suffering and victimhood of the rest of the brown and black skinned, poor and disadvantaged and powerless and afraid are relegated to the dustbin of history. They are expendable.