The Somalia Affair refers to a scandal that occurred in the early 1990s involving the Canadian Airborne Regiment (CAR), an elite unit of the Canadian Armed Forces, during its peacekeeping mission in Somalia. The inciting incident occurred in March 1993 in Belet Heun, Somalia, when an unarmed Somali boy, Shidane Arone, was kidnapped as a prisoner and tortured by Canadian soldiers, resulting in his death. The events were widely publicized and led to a major scandal, resulting in the disbandment of the CAR, harm to the reputation of the Canadian military and peacekeeping operations (both domestically and internationally), significant changes to Canadian military policy and a re-evaluation of Canada’s role in international peacekeeping.
Siad Barre, the long-standing head of state of Somalia, was ousted from power in January 1991, and fled the capital city, Mogadishu. Lack of centralized authority in post-Barre Somalia led to fighting and general lawlessness, resulting in violent casualties and, worse, mass famine. In the fall of 1991, the UN estimated that 4.5 million Somalis were on the brink of starvation.
A large-scale humanitarian mission called Operation Provide was mounted by the United Nations in April 1992, of which Canada was a part. In a short time, however, the mission, initially predicated on providing food relief, was failing and changing in scope. Due to ongoing looting, food theft, and violence, the United States and Canada sent military support in December 1992, with 1,400 Canadian troops, predominantly from CAR, deployed to Belet Heun, a desert town in south-central Somalia.
In the early months of 1993, the CAR’s encampment was routinely subject to attempted break-ins and thefts by the Somali people, many of whom were dealing with dire levels of hunger and poverty. The Canadian soldiers were tasked with providing security for humanitarian aid convoys, protecting civilians, and assisting with the restoration of law and order. Canadian soldiers were authorized by senior officers to “shoot looters in the legs if they ran from soldiers patrolling the compound,” and to capture and “abuse” them. This occurred on a number of occasions, with soldiers either shooting at or capturing and beating intruders. On March 4, 1993, The two Somali men were shot in the back after they entered the Canadian compound, killing one of them—Achmed Aruush—when they took food “left as bait.”
On March 16, 1993 an unarmed Somali teenage, Shidane Arone, was taken as a prisoner as a response to being caught entering the compound. Shidane Arone was 16 years old when he was tied up, blindfolded, and tortured. He was “he was punched in the jaw, kicked with heavy military boots, struck with a baton, burned on the soles of his feet with a cigarillo and smashed in the shins with a metal bar.” Some of the perpetrators, including Private Elvin Kyle Brown, who kicked Arone a few times, and Master Corporal Clayton Matchee took photographs of the beatings, including in Matchee’s case, posing with Arone. His’s screams were heard by many other soldiers throughout the ordeal, but none intervened. He was dead by the morning.
Matchee was arrested right away, and in the subsequent days, he attempted suicide in his cell, “he suffered such serious brain damage that he was found unfit to stand trial.” Others were arrested at the same time, and in May, charges were laid against eight soldiers, with four convicted, including Private Brown, on charges of manslaughter and torture.
Between the time of Arone’s death, and the laying of charges, Major Barry Armstrong who was a military doctor in Somalia, came forward with allegations about the circumstances of Achmed Aruush’s death, as well as information that “senior military officers [had] ordered the destruction of photographs and evidence.” In November 1994, the Liberal government Prime Minister Jean Chrétien responded by disbanding the Canadian Airborne Regiment,and called for an inquiry into what had occurred.
Gilles Letourneau, a Federal judge and chairman of the inquiry into the deployment of armed forces in Somalia, presided over the Commission of Inquiry into the Deployment of Canadian Forces to Somalia, which met from late 1995 until the fall of 1996. The investigation dominated the headlines for over a year, revealing that military commanders tampered with reports and documents related to the incident. Jean Boyle, the chief of the defence staff, resigned only weeks after testifying at the investigation, taking responsibility, and emphasizing the institutional problems within the military that led to the affair. Despite Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s apparent support for the investigation, he unexpectedly shut it down at the end of 1996, before it could finish its work, and ordered the commissioners to deliver a report within a year. The final report of the inquiry, was published in 1997, but (despite it spanning 2,000 pages), because the Commission had not yet investigated the particularities of what occurred in Somalia, it does not detail the specific failures that occurred in Somalia, but rather, it focuses on broader shortcomings Armed Forces’ institutional shortcomings and the cover-up by military commanders, highlighting the corruption involved and the lack of inquiry.
The Somalia Affair was a dark chapter in Canadian military history, and had far-reaching consequences for the country’s military and its international reputation. The incident highlighted the importance of accountability and transparency in peacekeeping missions, and underscored the need for training and oversight to ensure that soldiers behave in a manner that is consistent with Canadian values and international law. In the words of Inquiry Chairman Gilles Létourneau, it was an “inevitable result of systematic organization and leadership failures, many occurring over long periods of time and ignored by our military leaders for just as long.”
- Sherene Razack’s book on the Somalia Affair, Dark Threats and White Knights
- The Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Deployment of Canadian Forces to Somalia
- A longform article by Ali Amad for Vice on the Somalia Affair
Contributors: Charlie Dickson, Lubna Pharaon, Anam Salman, Newal Ibrahim, Meghana Anthannagarin