In 2011 Somalia was ranked as the world’s most troubled state. Over twenty years of war between clan-based militia have led to chronic levels of refugees and internally displaced people, widespread lawlessness due to the virtual non-existence of either the rule of law or legitimate security apparatus, and the progressive deterioration of public services and economic infrastructure. Twenty years ago, what began as a United Nations mission to monitor a ceasefire between warring militias, soon became a desperate battle to prevent an imminent humanitarian disaster—the Australian Army’s 1st Battalion Royal Australian Regiment found itself part of this battle.
The Australian Army’s 1st Battalion Royal Australian Regiment (1 RAR) were deployed to the town of Baidoa about 240 km north-west of Mogadishu in January 1993. As the centre of non-government organisation (NGO) operations for the area, banditry and warlord intimidation were rife, with the area becoming known as the ‘city of death’. The lessons the Australian Army learnt from its successful experience in working with NGOs, building local security infrastructure and enabling local community governance continue to inform humanitarian and counterinsurgency operations today.
The deployment of a battalion was a massive undertaking that required the ability and cooperation of all Services—Army, Navy and Air Force. As current Chief of Defence Force, Lieutenant General David Hurley, then 1st Battalion’s commanding officer, explains: ‘It was the first time we’d put a battalion offshore since Vietnam so there were a lot of lessons there we learnt about our ability to sustain it.’
Almost 1500 Australians served in Somalia from 1992-94, four were wounded or injured and one Australian soldier, Lance Corporal Shannon McAliney of the Royal Australian Infantry, was killed during patrol on 2 April 1993
What is today known as Somalia was once divided into British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland. In 1960 these areas combined to become the independent Somalia. In 1969 Major General Siad Barre seized control in a military coup and instituted a socialist state in 1970. Towards the end of Barre’s period of control, several resistance groups sprang up and eventually Barre was ousted. He fled the country in January 1991 leaving a power vacuum that led to civil war and the split of rival factions along clan lines.
Civil war and drought coincided—the pressures of thousands of internally displaced peoples exacerbated the already catastrophic effects of poor harvests and food shortages. But after the unsuccessful distribution of international aid airlifted by the United Nations, it quickly became clear that the international community would need to intervene in a more direct way to prevent a humanitarian disaster. Forming the United Nations Operations in Somalia (UNOSOM), the first UN personnel deployed to Somalia’s capital of Mogadishu in July 1992. In October 1992 the Australian Government sent a 30-person Movement Control Unit commanded by Major Greg Jackson and made up of members of the three Services to coordinate air traffic control other services.
UNOSOM had few resources to ensure the security of humanitarian aid and after the death of over 300,000 people due to starvation, the United Nations Security Council authorised the creation of the Unified Task Force–Somalia (UNITAF), led by the United States. US troops began arriving in Mogadishu on 9 December.
The United States Marine Corps’ 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit arrived in Baidoa on 16 December 1992 and had secured the area by 22 December. 950 troops of the 1st Battalion Royal Australian Regiment (1 RAR), under battalion commander (commanding officer) Lieutenant Colonel David Hurley, took formal control over the Baidoa Humanitarian Relief Sector on 19 January 1993 (Operation SOLACE).
In addition to 1 RAR, the Australian contingent included a civil and military operations team based on the 107th Field Battery, engineers from the 17th Field Troop of the 3rd Combat Engineering Regiment, signalers from the 103rd Signals Squadron, intelligence personnel, the 7th Electronic Warfare Squadron, a support unit based on the 3rd Brigade Administrative Support Battalion, and an Australian Headquarters with public relations and support staff. The contingent commander (Commander Australian Forces Somalia), Colonel William Mellor, was located in Mogadishu and worked directly with UNITAF’s American Commander.
Australian soldiers faced challenges in Somalia that developed many of the capabilities that the Australian Army still values today. Australian troops not only provided security for NGO food convoys, compounds and food distribution points, they also became involved in formative nation-building exercises among the people. By supporting the development of a committee of elders respected within the community, contributing to the re-establishment of a viable police force (the Auxiliary Security Force), and restoring the judiciary and the rule of pre-civil war law they encouraged Somali participation in their own regional political process once they felt secure.