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Christians in the Muslim World

Somalia: a People in Research of a Real State

Interview with H.E. Msgr. Giorgio Bertin, Bishop of Djibouti and Apostolic Administrator of Mogadiscio, by Martino Diez

Excellency, what events have led to the famine in Somalia, what is happening and what are the prospects for the next months?



The famine is the direct consequence of the lack of rain. According to statistics a similar situation had not been recorded for 60 years. All the countries of the Horn of Africa live off nomad livestock-raising and agriculture; it is enough for one or two seasons of rain to be ‘missed’ to make the populations extremely vulnerable, considering that they live on support, day by day. Jokingly I say that they have not yet reflected well on the story of Joseph in Egypt and the period of the fat cows and the lean cows! It is a question of mentality, without forgetting the international macroeconomic system which in fact punishes the weakest. For the next six months, even of the October-November rains come, supplies will continue to have to be sent to the populations hit by famine.



Is this situation limited to Somalia or does it concern the whole of the Horn of Africa? In particular, what is the situation like in Djibouti where you live?



The famine in fact does not concern only Somalia but the whole of the Horn of Africa: Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti and parts of Kenya and Uganda. Somalia, and in particular south central Somalia, is the worst hit region as added to the natural calamity there is also the ‘human’ calamity, that is, a country that has been living for twenty years without a state, without a real authority and often in continuous armed conflict: all these factors combined explain the dramatic situation.


Even Djibouti has been hit by drought: they say that the people in absolute need of ‘external’ aid are at least 120,000 out of a population of about 800,000 inhabitants. In Djibouti though there is a state that can organise the aid and foresee the answers for development in the future too. Moreover, while south central Somalia lives mainly off livestock-raising and agriculture, Djibouti lives off services: agriculture is practically inexistent as it is impossible and maybe one sixth of the population is involved in semi-nomad animal rearing.



What are the principal humanitarian organisations involved and what are the difficulties that they have to face? Can the Church and the Catholic NGOs operate in the area?



As far as Somalia is concerned, the most important humanitarian organisations are involved: Red Cross, Oxfam, Caritas, Diakonia, MSF, Islamic Relief ...without forgetting the various UN agencies which in terms of quantity are the most important. The Church, through Caritas, is not able to work in too direct a way: generally we do it through ‘friendships’ and local organisations. A more direct and open presence on our part in a stateless country in the grip of a conflict instigated by radical religious movements is neither opportune nor possible. For this reason I have advised the various Caritas centres to work on behalf of the Somalis in the refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia besides continuing what they already do in northern Somalia (‘Republic Somaliland’ and ‘Puntland’). There are NGOs of Catholic inspiration, above all the Italian ones, which owing to a ‘lesser representativeness’ can operate with greater agility and with more possibilities: they must be supported!



Somalia only appears in the international media occasionally. The result is that we have plenty of news and little analysis. According to you, as the bishop of Mogadishu since 1990 and as a first time visitor to the country in the years from 1969 to 1971 and then permanently from 1978, is it possible to identify any constants in recent Somali history?



I remember the title of a book written by a Somali professor, who I think is still alive in the US: Somalia: a nation searching for a state. If I understand this rightly it means that Somalia is made up of an essentially nomadic people which during the colonial occupation found itself within state structures. Following independence and the unification between the Italian and British parts in 1960, there was a first ‘republican’ period until 1969 followed by a ‘socialist-revolutionary’ one, which did not succeed in forming a modern state and creating a mentality that went beyond private interests or the clans. In my opinion this explains the typically ‘nomad’ difficulty in creating a state which is able to serve a national community. According to me, this difficulty does not mean impossibility. Perhaps the bitter experiences of these twenty years of civil war and now of famine could help the Somali mentality to evolve and give rise to a state which takes into account the typically Somali tradition and at the same time is open to the values shared by today’s world.



Siad Barre’s regime fell in 1991. Can the international intervention of 1992, presented from a humanitarian point of view, be seen as the first large scale operation against the fundamentalist groups of Islamic origin? If it can, what were the reasons for its failure?



To tell you the truth, in 1992 there was no great threat from the Islamic fundamentalists, even if there was a hint of their presence: at that time it was the ‘clan system’ that ruled. The 1992 intervention helped to save millions of people from the catastrophe of hunger and in this sense it was positive. Unfortunately the impression that I still have is that there was no clear political will to recreate the state and to accompany the organisation for the years immediately following this: in this sense it was a failure.



At present Libya has a power gap which is reminiscent of what happened in the last days of the Somali regime. Furthermore, it is an artificial state, born at the time of colonialism, with a tribal structure. Do you think that Tripoli could evolve in a similar way to Somalia or does the enormous economic difference exclude any parallels between the two countries?



I am not an expert in Libyan affairs even if I spent two summers there in 1976 and 1977. However I think that there are many differences because the Libyan tribes are not as ‘nomadic’ as the Somali ones are. Moreover, culturally speaking the Libyan world was part of an Arab-Turkish tradition which in my opinion should facilitate the communal life of the various tribes in a modern state, which is influenced also by other cultural elements coming from the Mediterranean world…And naturally we must not forget the different economic wealth between Libya and Somalia.



Over the last decades the Somali church has been the victim of harsh persecution leading to the martyrdom of a number of priests, nuns and consecrated lives. What is left of the Christian presence in Somalia? And what does it mean for you to be Apostolic Administrator of Mogadishu?



For me persecution means something organised by power. For this reason I have rarely used this word when speaking of our martyrs of Somalia. It is the lack of state and therefore of an authority that has allowed fringe groups or individuals to use religion to kill various people. Let us not forget that other Somali Muslims have also been killed for similar reasons.



The physical Christian presence has been reduced to practically nothing, even if there is still a small number of Somali Christians, who are forced to practise their faith in secret. Our presence at this time is felt above all in humanitarian action: the Church accompanies the Somali people as far as it can and with what means it can at the moment. For me this means being a ‘shepherd’ who accompanies the Somali nomads and their flocks towards better pastures: life together, the sharing of resources, the respect for the rights of persons and the various human groups…Accompanying them in this way means not only giving material aid, but above all bringing this drama to the attention of the world. It is the Somalis in the first place, together with the international community, who must be more assiduously committed to finding a solution. The Pope has spoken on various occasions about this over the last five years, inviting men of good will not to leave Somalia alone.



Djibouti, 1.9.2011

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