Australians in Operation Iguana – Somalia
By David Sutton
On 20 October 1992 two Australian officers landed in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia and a city wracked by civil war. Lieutenant Colonel Bill Nagy and Captain Paul Angelatos were escorted from the runway, past burnt out wrecks of old vehicles and aircraft, and into a battered ute with a 30-calibre machine-gun mounted on its tray manned by a group of Somalis with AK-47 assault rifles and knives. Nagy later commented that the vehicle looked like something from a Mad Max film.
The two were in Mogadishu to conduct reconnaissance ahead of the arrival of Australian troops as part of Operation Iguana, Australia’s contribution to the United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM). Since becoming independent in 1960, Somalia had endured decades of political instability, brutal military dictatorship, famine and war. By the early 1990s more than 70 per cent of the population of Mogadishu lived in slums and squatter camps. Millions lived as refugees in neighbouring countries and as internally displaced people across the countryside, while four warlords vied for power in a brutal civil war. UNOSOM, with limited personnel, faced the daunting task of providing security for the distribution of humanitarian aid and monitoring a shaky ceasefire between competing warlords.
The Australian Defence Force initially assisted in Somalia by providing a 30-strong Movement Control Unit (MCU) to coordinate the movement of personnel and supplies. Those first Australians lived in spartan conditions in a dangerous environment. Unarmed, they were on occasion caught in firefights between warring Somali factions.
In December 1992, the US-led Unified Task Force (UNITAF) took over UNOSOM’s responsibilities in the face of a crumbling security environment. Australia contributed more than 1,000 personnel to UNITAF, deploying the 1RAR Battalion Group supported by HMA Ships Tobruk and Jervis Bay on Operation Solace.
Operation Solace was a 17-week long security operation intended to restore security to allow the distribution of emergency aid in the Baidoa Humanitarian Relief Sector in south-central Somalia.
The last Australians of Operation Solace left Somalia in May 1993, but it was not until November 1994 – more than a year later – that the bulk of the Australians attached to UNOSOM (now dubbed UNOSOM II) left the country. An Australian Federal Police officer, Superintendent Barry Carpenter, remained in the country until February 1995 in a frustrated attempt to train a Somali police force.
The Australians serving in UNOSOM II continued to coordinate the movement of personnel and thousands of tonnes of supplies, ran a busy airfield from a makeshift tower of stacked shipping containers, assisted in monitoring the ceasefire between warlords, and recovered bodies from hostile warlord strongholds in the aftermath of the Black Hawk Down incident of October 1993. As Somalia sunk back into cycles of violence and political instability, Australia was one of the last countries to leave.
Australia’s role in the US-led UNITAF operation tends to overshadow its role in UNOSOM I and II, but the nearly 200 Australians who served Australians acquitted themselves well against the odds and made a valuable contribution to a major peacekeeping operation in difficult and dangerous conditions.
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This article was originally posted on 18 October 2020.