It has been 20 years since the Somali Affair, a scandal that spread across Canada leaving a regiment disbanded, a military shamed and two soldiers taking the brunt of the punishment for the torture and killing of a Somali teen.
According to some, time has healed at least some of those wounds.
In 1968, Canadian Airborne Regiment (CAR) was formed in Edmonton, a beefing up of a Second World War parachute battalion that included in its achievements the allied forces landing in Normandy.
It continued its work, moving to Petawawa, Ont. in 1977.
In December 1992, as peacekeeping efforts were demanding more from the military, CAR sat idle in Petawawa. According to Scott Taylor, a former soldier who went on to found military magazine Esprit de Corps, the regiment’s quality was diminished.
Despite this, when civil war began to heat up in Somalia, CAR was sent in.
On Mar. 16, 1993, Somali teen Shidane Abukar Arone was tortured and beaten to death — two Canadian soldiers, Master Cpl. Clayton Matchee and Pvt. Kyle Brown were held responsible for the killing.
HANGING IN HIS CELL
A few days later, Matchee was found hanging in his military cell. The attempted suicide left him brain damaged.
But a few years later, when CAR was back in Petawawa, news of the horrific killing came to light in parliament and hit the media. It occurred as the military was dealing with the fallout after videos emerged of racist activity and hazing rituals amongst CAR.
Taylor said they were in the process of cleaning up the regiment and commanding officers had recommended against disbanding them.
This time, an inquiry was called, a move Taylor calls “an exercise in futility.”
“They announced the public inquiry and within 15 days of announcing it, suddenly they executed the prisoner. He hadn’t even stood in the dock yet. It’s like no matter what the inquiry finds, you’ve already passed judgement and executed the sentence. The regiment’s gone,” said Taylor.
As a result of the public spectacle, the regiment was disbanded, Brown having been sentenced already to five years for manslaughter.
“It was a challenge of the military brass in the eyes of the soldiers and the military brass failed them. It was kind of like the final nail in the coffin for the reputation of the brass of the time,” said Taylor, calling the regiment “scapegoats.”
POLITICS, NOT DUE PROCESS
One of those brass, Ret. Maj. Gen. Lewis MacKenzie, agrees that there was more to do with politics than due process in the years following the Somalia operation.
“There was no way they were going to let that be investigated at the (chief of defence staff) level. I hate to say that it wasn’t surprising but certainly the investigation was not completed, for sure,” MacKenzie said, adding suggestions that Matchee and Brown may have been suffering the side-effects of Apo-Mefloquine, an experimental malaria drug given to the forces staff during the Somali war, cannot be overlooked.
“I’ve had experience with that myself. I wouldn’t write it off because everyone reacts differently,” he said.
MacKenzie denies the scapegoat description, suggesting it implies the two charged were the only ones to face criticism, but admitted they were the ones most severely punished.
What both Taylor and MacKenzie agree on, however, is where the Canadian Forces have come since.
“In the long-term . . . we ended up with a much more robust army,” said Taylor. “For a decade of war in Afghanistan, we’ve definitely turned that corner.”
MacKenzie’s perspective is near identical.
In 2006, the Canadian Special Operations Regiment (CSOR) was formed, a smaller, battalion-sized version of CAR. MacKenzie called the formation of CSOR a “neat trick.”
“That was well done. It got back the capability we needed and could have used many, many times after the airborne regiment was disbanded. But we recreated the same capability if not better,” he explained.
BERETS NOW TAN
Taylor described CSOR as CAR with different berets — instead of maroon, they’re now tan.
For both of them, the impact is greatest within the forces.
“The public opinion can spin on the head of a pin,” said MacKenzie, adding support for troops has even been sustained in Quebec, where the largest dissent for the Afghan war was seen.
“Most importantly, they’ve regained (their reputation) amongst the troops,” said Taylor. “If you’ve got jump boots and a tan beret now, you stand a little bit taller.”
He added when Canadian General Rick Hillier wrote a 2008 memoir criticizing the Harper government, it was “refreshing” as it showed the troops that brass had regained some of its ability to stand up for its soldiers.
“That ended the decades of darkness,” he said.
Though the Canadian Forces have managed to bounce back from the Somali Affair in the past 20 years, the situation for Somalis is slower to rebound.
Katherine Houreld is a freelance journalist who has spent much of the past decade reporting on African conflicts, including the Somali civil war. Her description of the capital of Mogadishu paints a picture of a country with a lot of work ahead.
“Downtown is almost completely destroyed; when I went there the one house without a bullet hole was tourist attraction,” said Houreld, who explained that the 2011 famine did not hit the country as severely as the one in 1993, but it is hard to tell how much aid was received by recipients due to widespread looting.
There has been progress, though.
“The peacekeepers rumble by in huge columns of armoured vehicles, but the city of Mogadishu is far more busy these days, with new businesses opening up and the UN/AU moving many officials there,” she said.
NATIONAL ARMY STABILIZING
Added to that, the national army is more stable since the international community set up a system to ensure government soldiers get their $100 a month pay, making them less likely to leave their posts and prey on civilians when their commanders steal their money.
“Children play on the Lido beach, something that hasn’t happened for a long time.”
Houreld said the government still needs to make progress in areas of tax collection, service provision (including security), and justice for the fragile gains to be maintained. For now, the rebuilding of Somalia remains a huge job.
“Many still live in their gum-drop shaped shelters made out of sticks and plastic sheets emblazoned with the name of aid agencies,” said Houreld. “Houses half-destroyed by mortars slump into the street, spilling rubble like entrails.”