25th anniversary of Australia’s major peacekeeping involvement in Somalia

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This year marks the 25th anniversary of Australia’s involvement in Unified Task Force (Unitaf) peacekeeping operations in Somalia which built on the ongoing work by personnel deployed as part of United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM).

The deployment of Australian forces was in response to a call from the United Nations for assistance with its humanitarian operation in Somalia, where a catastrophic humanitarian disaster was being compounded by a complete breakdown in civil order.

After the Somalian President Abdirashid Ali Shermarke was assassinated in a military coup in 1969, the country’s chance at stability faded as the army seized control.

Over the next two decades, war with Ethiopia, civil unrest and the military dictatorship destroyed public services, economic infrastructure and peace within Somalia. By the early 1990s the country was in the hands of local warlords and bandit groups who dominated the civilian population through terror.

Australia responded by deploying forces from all three services.

The Australian contribution to peacekeeping operations was more than 1,500 personnel which involved personnel supporting the Unified Task Force (Unitaf) as well as personnel deployed as part of the United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM). The focus was to distribute humanitarian aid and establish order in a country riven by civil war and famine.

In the first offshore deployment of an Australian battalion group since Vietnam, 1RAR served as part of the United Nations mission to Baidoa, known to some soldiers as the ‘city of death’, in 1993, in an attempt to restore hope and order to the province.

Of the Australians who served in Somalia from 1992-94, four were wounded or injured and one Australian soldier, Lance Corporal Shannon McAliney, was accidentally killed during patrol on 2 April, 1993.

One of the Australian soldiers who deployed with the 1RAR in January 1993 was Corporal Lance Johnson. He shares his story below.

Q&A with Corporal Lance Johnson

Q. What was your role during your deployment in Somalia and how long were you deployed for?

I was deployed on Operation Solace from 15 Jan–13 May 1993. My role was the Rifle Company Medic (Combat Medic) attached to Charlie Company (comprised of approximately 120 personnel).

The role of a Combat Medic is to provide advanced life support and health advice to the company commander, maintain a healthy combat fighting force and treat wounded and injured Australian and Coalition personnel as well as civilians and Somali bandits, in the combat environment.

A young military medic treating a wounded African child

Q. What was the aim of 1RAR’s involvement?

The main role of 1RAR was to provide security in our allocated Humanitarian Relief Sector (HRS). The country was divided up amongst all of the participating countries. This security was to assist the Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) to safely distribute food, provide medical clinics, and assist in returning bandits back to the land (farming) etc. When I arrived in Baidoa there were approximately 1,000 people dying per day in our sector from starvation, sickness and gun battles.

Generally speaking, the Battalion had four rifle companies, and therefore we were on a constant rotation between long-range patrolling, food distribution, Baidoa city security and airfield security -quick reaction force.

Q. How did this deployment compare to others that you have been involved in?

I have deployed on six occasions and I think it was my hardest deployment from a physical endurance and conditions perspective. Due to limited water from the desalination plant in Mogadishu it was 10 weeks until I had my first shower, we existed on military rations with no fresh food, which resulted in massive weight loss (I lost 18 kg) and illness from dietary needs, such as the requirement for calcium, not being met.

These were the days of no mobile phones or internet. I think I wrote over one hundred letters and got plenty in return. We had an opportunity for a 10 minute phone call every two weeks (normally around two am). If no one picked up the phone in Australia that was it, until two weeks later.

In addition to these small issues, there were the general stresses of real combat and treating casualties on a daily basis. I treated a good deal of gunshot wounds and combat related trauma to both coalition soldiers and Somalis. Many of the things I saw and treated, I was not prepared for, but used all of my skills and clinical training to develop workable plans to achieve the best outcome for all of my patients.

An uniformed combat medic sitting in a army truck with a an automated gun in his hands

Q. Do you feel you made a difference? And what were the key achievements?

I think everyone that deployed made a difference. When we arrived, the town of Baidoa and all of the people were in a very bad state with daily gun battles, starvation, illness and no security. By the end of our deployment, electricity, water and sanitation had been restored, Australian trained Auxiliary Security Force (police) had control of the city, shops had reopened, children were back in school, mass vaccinations were occurring, food was streaming out through the towns safely and many of the gunmen had decided to return to the land or to their trades. So yes, I think we did an awesome job and left our mark there forever in that special Aussie way.

I actually had a Somali taxi driver in Canberra in mid-2017 who was a young teenager during my deployment to Somalia and he remembers the Australian Soldiers very well. It was one of the reasons that he actually came to Australia and was very thankful for what we did there to help his country. It was a real special moment and provided a certain amount of closure.

Q. Why is it important for Australians to observe military commemorations such as the 25th anniversary of the 1RAR task group in Somalia?

The 25th Anniversary of the arrival of the 1RAR group is extremely special as this was the first major deployment of a combat force since Vietnam.

One of my most special moments that I will never forget is the welcome home march through the streets of Townsville. As I turned down Flinders Street East there was this big banner from the Vietnam Veterans Association – It basically said that although they were never welcomed home they were there to welcome us home and that they were extremely proud of us. It was a surreal moment as until that time I did not even think of myself as a veteran and now everyone wanted to hear our stories – good and bad.

I think the spirit of Anzac is part of our nation’s fabric and when given an opportunity to recognise specific large deployments such as Operation Solace, it gives both closure to many of the veterans that are still suffering from this deployment and also gives Australians the opportunity to reflect on our exceptional Defence Force and the many milestones we have achieved to continually develop as a nation on the world stage.