United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM) 1992

Flanked by the Gulf of Aden in the north and the Indian Ocean, the east African country of Somalia shares its land borders with Djubouti, Ethiopia, and Kenya. During the nineteenth century Somalia’s land came under the colonial control of Ethiopia, Italy, France, and Britain. In 1960 the Italian and British colonies of Somaliland became independent Somalia. Nine years later Major General Mohamed Siad Barre seized power in a military coup and ruled the country for the next 31 years.

Courting the great super power during the Cold War, Siad Barre received Soviet military and economic aid in exchange for allowing them to build military bases. However, in 1977 the Soviets dropped their support of Barre’s military dictatorship in favour of a Marxist government in Ethiopia and during the 1980s the United States instead provided economic and military aid to Somalia. During this time Barre fought both external and internal enemies. In 1978 an attempt to seize traditional Somalia lands in Ethiopia failed while during the 1980s Barre fought a civil war against various clans in the country’s north. These clans were brutally repressed and in one incident in 1988 up to 50,000 people died when the town of Hargeisa was destroyed. As the country slid further into anarchy, Barre’s government was spending five times as much money on the military as it did on health and education. In 1989 the United States withdrew its aid and in October 1990 the main opposition groups in Somalia united to defeat Barre who fled the country in January 1991.

Barre’s departure left a power vacuum and Somalia broke down into clan-based militia warfare. This violence coincided with a drought that caused poor harvests and food shortages. In 1992 the international community attempted to provide some relief with an international campaign for aid and the United Nations (UN) authorised an emergency air lift of supplies. However, with no government or working system of law and order, violent gangs dominated the cities and the aid could not be distributed to those in need.

In July the first UN personnel were deployed to Somalia as part the United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM). UNOSOM was initially formed to monitor a ceasefire between the two main militia groups, one led by Ali Mahdi Mohamed and the other by Mohamed Farah Aidid, who were fighting for control of Mogadishu, the Somali capital. In October the Australian government decided to send a thirty-person Movement Control Unit (MCU), drawn from the three services, to Somalia to coordinate transport for the UN mission. The unit was commanded by Major Greg Jackson and troops began arriving in the country from the end of October.

UNOSOM was primarily a monitoring group and did not have the resources to establish stability in the country or even protect food distribution. Most of the supplies the aid agencies had flown into Somalia could not be distributed and few ships were able or willing to enter Mogadishu harbour. The food shortage became a famine in which about 300,000 people died.

In November the US government announced it would lead a force to Somalia to enable aid agencies to distribute humanitarian relief. The UN Security Council gave the force, the Unified Task Force - Somalia (UNITAF), the mandate to use “all necessary means” to carry out this task. At its peak UNITAF consisted of 37,000 personnel, 21,000 of whom were American and the rest from twenty other countries. The first American troops arrived in Mogadishu on 9 December.

Australia contributed an infantry battalion group to UNITAF. The group totalled 990 personnel and was based around 1RAR, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel David Hurley. In addition to troops from 1RAR, the group included the Armoured Personnel Carriers of B Squadron, 3rd/4th Cavalry Regiment; a civil and military operations teamed based on 107th Field Battery; engineers from the 17th Field Troop of the 3rd Combat Engineering Regiment; signallers from the 103rd Signals Squadron; Intelligence personnel; the 7th Electronic Warfare Squadron; and a support unit based on the 3rd Brigade Administrative Support Battalion. There was also an Australian headquarters, with public relations and support staff. Colonel William Mellor, Commander Australian Force Somalia, was located in Mogadishu. He was responsible for the safety of the Australian force and dealt directly with the task force’s American commander.

The Australians were based in Baidoa Humanitarian Relief Sector, west of Mogadishu. The Australian contingent in Baidoa had four main roles: maintain a secure environment in Baidoa; maintain a presence in the surrounding countryside; protect aid convoys; and assist in the equitable distribution of aid. Tasks were rotated between the four rifle companies every nine days. The troops also gathered intelligence by talking to the locals and used this knowledge to disarm aggressive groups. There were a number of skirmishes with bandits.

The RAN played an important part in the deployment, transporting the battalion group equipment, vehicles, and some troops, to Somalia on board the training ship HMAS Jervis Bay and the heavy landing ship HMAS Tobruk. Tobruk subsequently remained in the area in support, providing logistic support to the Australians and UNITAF, and conducted surveillance off the Somali coast. Its helicopter was used in ship-to-shore transport of personnel. Tobruk was also used by the land forces for rest and recreation.

With UNITAF’s strong military presence, humanitarian relief organisations were able to distribute food in safety, bringing an end to the Somali famine. Conditions had stabilised to such an extent that attention shifted to ending the conflict which had exacerbated the famine. On 4 May 1993 UNITAF was replaced by expanded UNOSOM II, which had an extensive mandate to rebuild the Somali state.

With the hand-over, the 1RAR battalion group was transferred to UNOSOM II until 13 May when it was withdrawn from Baidoa and returned to Australia the following week. The MCU remained in Somali with UNOSOM II and was joined by a group of air traffic controllers. UNOSOM II nation building mandate brought it into conflict was the militia leader Mohamed Farah Aidid. In October the situation further deteriorated after a team of US Army Rangers and Delta Force unsuccessfully tried to remove Aidid from power. This was a well publicised and embarrassing defeat and many countries subsequently began to withdraw their national contingents from UNOSOM II.

The Australians, however, stayed. In April 1994 a ten-man patrol from the SASR was flown to Mogadishu to protect the contingent, which by then was down to 67 people. The Australian contingent remained in Somalia for another seven months, finally withdrawn in November. After suffering significant casualties and unable to restore order or peace, the last UN troops were withdrawn from Somalia in March 1995.

Casualties

  • 1 killed
  • 3 wounded
  • 1 injured

For more information please see the Roll of Honour database.

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References

  • Breen, Bob, A little bit of hope : Australian Force-Somalia, (St Leonards, N.S.W.: Allen & Unwin, 1998)
  • Horner, David Murray, The Australian centenary history of defence. Vol. 4, The making of the Australian defence, (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2001)
  • Kuring, Ian; Australian Army History Unit, Red Coats to Cams : a history of Australian Infantry 1788 to 2001, (Loftus N.S.W.: Australian Military History Publications in association with the Australian Army History Unit, 2004)
  • Londey, Peter, Other people's wars: a history of Australian peacekeeping, (2003)
  • Parry, Bill (Winston Oliver), We were there in the R.A.R. / Bill Parry. We were there in the Royal Australian Regiment, (Mango Hill, Qld.: Winston Oliver Parry, 2005)
  • Ramage, Gary; Breen, Bob, Through Aussie eyes, (Canberra: Dept. of Defence, 1994)