Somalia’s peril and promise: A reporter returns after 30 years

The U.S. Navy SEALs were ready for battle on Dec. 9, 1992, leaping from their inflatable Zodiacs and wading through the warm Indian Ocean waters toward the Mogadishu airport beach. Coming ashore under a brilliant moon, their mission was clear: feed legions of starving Somalis and control the dual crises of hunger and chronic insecurity that had afflicted the country for more than a year.  

It was a historic moment – one I witnessed up close that night, my boots sloshing and trousers soaked to the knees, as I jockeyed with other reporters tipped off by military brass to record the landing. Our TV lights and strobe flashes lit up the sand – and the tempers of the SEALs. 

They were forced to dodge our unexpected phalanx instead of slipping into the night, their faces smeared in camouflage paint and bodies laden to buckling with gear and guns.

Why We Wrote This

Decades of drought and famine, amplified by clan warfare and Islamist militants, have made safety elusive in Somalia. Yet progress toward greater stability persists.

It was a bizarre opening scene of what would become one of the most surreal military deployments in modern American history. Operation Restore Hope was billed as the first purely benevolent use of the strongest military ever created. And indeed, the American arrival did bring hope of disarmament, nourishment, and peace. 

But over the next 15 months, the humanitarian effort – which then-President George H.W. Bush declared to be “God’s work” at which Americans “cannot fail” – devolved into a deeply flawed search that seared images of a great power’s humiliation into the American consciousness.