Somalia Affair

In 1993, as part of a United Nations peacekeeping mission in Somalia, Canadian soldiers from the now-defunct Airborne Regiment tortured and killed a Somali teenager named Shidane Arone. These and other violent abuses during the mission shocked Canadians and damaged the country’s international reputation. They also led to a public inquiry that revealed serious failures of leadership at the highest levels of the Canadian Armed Forces, kick-starting reforms aimed a professionalizing the officer corps.



Somalia Affair

Canadian Airborne Regiment, Chaplain Capt. Mark Sargent stands behind a group of Somali children captured by the Airborne Regiment, who are bound and wearing signs that read Thief

Background

At the end of the 1980s, Canada was at the height of its reputation as one of the world’s leading peacekeeping nations. Over four decades, Canada had contributed 80,000 military personnel to a series of United Nations peacekeeping missions from Congo to Cyprus (see Peacekeeping: Timeline).

By the 1990s, however, the quiet, low-intensity peacekeeping efforts of the past were giving way to missions in countries troubled by civil wars and tribal conflicts more challenging and complex than what Canada had encountered before. In 1992, the Armed Forces began adjusting to that stark reality in the Balkans (see Battle of Medak Pocket), and they would soon face it again in Somalia.    

Somalia dissolved into civil war and lawlessness in the early 1990s. As tribal clans and warlords competed for power, suffering and famine gripped the country. The United Nations responded in 1992 by approving a multinational peacekeeping mission, led by the United States, to restore a degree of order in Somalia and to allow food and other relief supplies to reach the population.

In December 1992, a battalion-sized group of approximately 1,400 Canadian troops — made up mostly of the Canadian Airborne Regiment, the Army’s elite paratroop unit — arrived in the dusty desert town of Belet Huen. The regiment was tasked with bringing order to south-central Somalia and distributing relief supplies in the region.

Torture and Murder

Airborne troops were frequently harassed by locals as they attempted to reopen roads and hospitals, rebuild bridges and escort food convoys. The Canadian encampment in Belet Huen was repeatedly the target of Somali looters trying to break through the perimeter at night in search of food, or whatever they could find.

In response to the break-ins, the Canadian commander, Lt.-Col. Carol Mathieu, authorized his men to shoot looters in the legs if they ran from soldiers patrolling the compound. Another senior officer granted permission for thieves to be captured and abused.

On several occasions through January and February of 1993, Canadian soldiers fired at Somalis fleeing from the camp. In some cases, they had taken intruders into custody, beating them and taking trophy-style photographs of their captives. None of these actions led to any discipline against the troops who carried them out.

Then on the night of 4 March 1993, a small group of Canadian troops laid a trap for people trying to sneak into the compound: they left food and water as bait near a perimeter fence and waited in the dark. Two Somalis broke through the fence and grabbed the food. When the soldiers ordered the intruders to halt, the Somalis fled. The Canadians shot both in the back, killing a man named Achmed Aruush.

More than a week later, on the night of 16 March a 16-year-old named Shidane Arone, broke into the compound and was taken prisoner. Tied up and blindfolded in a holding area, the teenager was beaten and tortured for hours — punched and kicked, the soles of his feet burned with a cigarillo and his shins struck with a metal bar. Arone pleaded for the soldiers to stop, crying, “Canada, Canada, Canada.” Bruised and bleeding, he was dead by the morning. Much of his suffering was photographed by his abusers, including paratroopers Master-Cpl. Clayton Matchee and Private Kyle Brown. Other soldiers who did not take part in the beatings could hear Arone’s screams and pleas for mercy but did nothing to intervene.

Scandal

News of Shidane Arone’s murder only reached the Canadian public after Jim Day, a reporter with the Pembroke Observer, saw Matchee being carried on a stretcher to the medical facility in the compound. Matchee had been arrested by the military following Arone’s death, and three days later tried unsuccessfully to hang himself with shoelaces; he was left permanently brain damaged as a result. Day’s discovery developed into a scandal that would profoundly shock Canadians, tarnish the country’s international image, dominate national politics for five years, and harm the reputations of numerous high-ranking officers and defence officials. The scandal traumatized the Armed Forces and heralded what military historian David Bercuson has called “the darkest era in the history of the Canadian military” since the end of the Second World War.

The immediate result of the crimes in Somalia was the court-martial of Pvt. Kyle Brown. Convicted of manslaughter and torture, he was sentenced to five years and dismissed from the military (see Military Justice System). Brown was released from prison after less than two years. The brain-damaged Matchee was found unfit to stand trial and was never prosecuted. Another soldier who witnessed the beating pleaded guilty to negligent performance of duty and was briefly imprisoned and demoted. Only one officer was court-martialled, on minor charges related to inciting a culture of aggression in his unit that led to Arone’s death. Lt.-Col. Mathieu, the Airborne commander, was also charged with minor offences, but was acquitted. No-one else was convicted in relation to the deaths of Arone or of Achmed Aruush, the Somali man killed on the night of 4 March.

After serving his time in prison, Brown wrote a book called Scapegoat, claiming that he and other low-ranking soldiers were made to take the blame for crimes in Somalia that had been witnessed and condoned by senior officers.

Aruush’s death at the hands of Airborne troops came under further scrutiny in 1993. Maj. Barry Armstrong, a military doctor who served in Somalia, came forward with allegations that while Aruush had been wounded by shots in his back and buttocks while running away from soldiers, he was ultimately killed with an execution-style gunshot to the back of his head. That accusation was never resolved, and no one was ever convicted in Aruush’s death.

In November 1994, the Liberal government Prime Minister Jean Chrétien responded by disbanding the entire Canadian Airborne Regiment. Under mounting pressure to fully investigate the unit and its conduct in Somalia — and to examine media and political claims that the military was stonewalling information requests and had attempted to cover up the Army’s crimes and brutality there — the Liberals announced an independent public inquiry into the growing scandal.

In January 1995, a videotape surfaced showing Airborne soldiers taking part in disturbing and racist initiation rites.

Inquiry

The Commission of Inquiry into the Deployment of Canadian Forces to Somalia, headed by Gilles Letourneau, a Federal Court judge, held public hearings from late 1995 until the fall of 1996. Its proceedings were mostly televised, and the inquiry dominated news headlines for more than a year. The inquiry revealed that military officers had altered reports and documents relating to the scandal before they were released to the media, and that such tampering of information led all the way to Gen. Jean Boyle, the chief of the defence staff (see Jean Boyle). Several senior officers who were called to the witness stand also misled the inquiry with their testimony, or like Boyle himself, tried to shift blame for various failures onto more junior staff.

Boyle resigned within weeks of his appearance at the inquiry. The scandal also tainted the careers of other current or former high-ranking officials, including Kim Campbell, the Progressive Conservative (PC) defence minister at the time of the killings in Somalia. The then-Liberal opposition had accused Campbell of suppressing information about the deaths, because she was launching a bid for the leadership of the PC Party at the time. Campbell denied any personal involvement in the affair.

Ultimately, it was the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien, which succeeded the Conservatives, that absorbed much of the blame for the scandal and alleged cover-up. After calling the inquiry — and then enduring 16 months of scrutiny and bad news emanating from it — Chrétien abruptly shut the hearings down at the end of 1996, before the inquiry had a chance to complete its work, and ordered the commissioners to produce a report within a year. The prime minister argued that Canadians had lost interest in the Somalia affair (see Somalia Affair: Chronology).

Outcome

The Inquiry’s final report was made public in the summer of 1997. It was an incomplete accounting of the scandal, because the $25-million inquiry was shut down before it had even investigated the details of the actual atrocities in Somalia. As a result, the report focused mainly on what it considered the institutional failures of the Armed Forces that led to those crimes, and on what it described as a cover-up by military leaders ( see Somalia Inquiry’s Damning Report).

The 2,000-page report was a scathing critique of the Armed Forces’ senior leadership and chain of command — first, for allowing an indisciplined regiment with racist elements to undertake a difficult mission in Africa without adequate preparation; and second, for tampering with documents, stonewalling the search for information, and lying in testimony at the inquiry.

“Evasion and deception, which in our view were apparent with many of the senior officers who testified before us, reveal much about the poor state of leadership in our armed forces and the careerist mentality that prevails at the Department of National Defence,” the report said.

The report issued a sweeping set of 157 recommendations. Those were largely aimed at transforming the military justice system; better preparing soldiers for complex missions abroad; and overhauling the officer training and promotions system through a new focus on competence instead of seniority, plus higher educational standards for all officers. Many of the recommendations mirrored those made by several internal defence department advisory groups, created during the scandal to try to fix the problems within the military. In the years that followed, intense reform was imposed on the Canadian military, including increased accountability and a renewed professionalism — changes all stemming directly from the Somalia debacle.

Meanwhile, Canada’s accountability for the murder of two Somalis went no further than the criminal conviction of three soldiers (two on minor charges) and the payment of about US$15,000 to Shidane Arone’s village clan. Arone’s parents later tried to sue the federal government in the Canadian courts for compensation, who claimed not to have received money from the previous payment. The case was dismissed by a judge in 1999 and proceeded no further.