By Robert Brown and Jared Funk
On July 12, 1993, international journalists covering the United Nations raid in the capital city of Mogadishu, Somalia, were attacked by a mob as they attempted to cover the arrest of Somali warlord Mohamed Aidid.
CNN producer Tom Fenton was in Somalia and recounted what he calls the biggest story in the 1990’s.
“Somalia was going through civil war, there was no electricity, no running water, no stores to buy food,” he said. “Everything including the copper wires on telephone poles had been looted and stolen.”
By December 1992, more than 300,000 Somalis had starved to death in a country wracked by famine and clans fighting over food. The U.S. ordered troops to the country as part of a humanitarian mission. CNN sent 30 journalists to Somalia to prepare to cover the troops arrival. The network’s crews broadcast live from the beach with cameras and bright lights blaring, as U.S. special forces landed on the coast under the cover of darkness. According to Fenton, it was the first time a military invasion was broadcast live by a network.
“Looking back, that was probably not the greatest idea,” Fenton said. “We didn’t consider that we would blow their cover.”
To get to Somalia, Fenton and the CNN crew took a C130 airplane from Nairobi, Kenya.
“We approached a dirt airstrip outside of Mogadishu,” Fenton said. “The pilot panicked and thought we were coming under fire so he did a touch and go landing while we were still in the plane. But it was too low and we clipped a hill, cracking the fuselage. He refused to make an emergency landing in Somalia. It was a four-hour flight back to Nairobi. We didn’t know if we would make it so we tried to get rid of everything that wasn’t essential and tied the rest down.”
Fenton says they never came under fire but landed safely in Nairobi. The CNN crew flew back to Mogadishu the next day, this time landing at the city’s old airport.
“Everything had to be brought in,” Fenton told student journalists in our War Reporting class. “We had to have medical supplies, all of our own food, which was mostly cans of tuna and military rations, and plenty of cash to buy whatever we needed. We brought two mobile uplinks and generators to transmit a signal to get our story out. We bought gasoline on the black market to run the generators and move teams around.”
The CNN journalists were exposed to harsh living conditions but were initially welcomed by the Somali people.
“There were quite a few cases of cholera and dysentery,” Fenton said. “We were sleeping five to six to a room, and the cockroaches were the size of my fist.”
After six months, the operation in Somalia became much more dangerous, and it became important to stick together. Fenton said if someone in his crew didn’t feel comfortable going to a particular location, they would stay put.
“If one person felt uncomfortable, we would all pull out,” Fenton said. “There is a moral obligation to not force someone to go someplace they don’t want to go.”
In June 1993, Aidid’s National Alliance fighters ambushed U.N. forces killing 24 Pakistani soldiers. Hostilities increased.
“The troops went from being peacekeepers to part of the conflict,” Fenton said. “Once that happened the locals started to see the U.N. as an occupier.”
Four journalists, including British photojournalist Dan Eldon, went to cover the raid. On the way, they were dragged from their car, beaten and stoned to death by an angry mob.
In October 1993, the U.S. military sent ground and air troops after Aidid and suffered a devastating loss. During the operation, a U.S. Black Hawk helicopter was shot down, and ground troops were also attacked. Eighteen U.S. soldiers were killed. The incident became the inspiration for the movie, “Black Hawk Down.”
The United States soon pulled out of Somalia. Without military forces, journalists were even more vulnerable than before.
“Being in Somalia had a profound effect on me,” Fenton said. “I felt the need to go back. But any foreign person was targeted and killed on the spot. When the U.N. left, everybody left.”
The U.N. pulled its remaining troops out of Mogadishu in 1994.
“It was an odd experience because we went in in a blaze of hope,” Fenton said. “Then we left in the middle of the night with our tails between our legs.”