Two decades after dead American soldiers were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, John Kerry on Tuesday became the first secretary of state to set foot in Somalia, a symbolic visit to show support for the African nation’s fledgling government and the United States’ readiness to move past a dark chapter in its history.
But as Kerry vowed to deepen America’s partnership with a new cadre of Somali leaders, the fact that he never left the airport underscored just how dangerous and unstable Somalia remains after a quarter-century of civil war.
Before returning to Kenya, the top U.S. diplomat stayed a little more than three hours, meeting with Somalia’s president and prime minister and several regional chiefs and civil society groups. It was enough time, he said, to see the resiliency of a people determined to reclaim their future from the terrorists and militias that plunged Somalia into what had seemed an endless cycle of conflict. He promised American help along the path of recovery.
“More than 20 years ago, the United States was forced to pull back from your country,” Kerry said, invoking the “Black Hawk Down” debacle when 18 servicemen died after Somali militiamen shot down two U.S. helicopters and a subsequent rescue mission failed. “Now we are returning.”
The trip was made under tight security. Somalia’s government only learned a day ago that Kerry would join the State Department’s top Africa official, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, on the trip. U.S. officials closely controlled access to the conference building where the discussions took place, an edifice encased by 6-foot high piles of sandbags and ringed by fencing wire.
“The next time I come, we have to be able to just walk downtown,” Kerry told Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. Downtown, Mohamud replied, “is very different now.”