Where Soldiers Fear to Tread by John Burnett

Where Soldiers Fear to Tread is an extremely interesting and frightening account of Burnett's time working for the United Nations during the 1998 flood relief operations in Somalia. Whilst mostly a first person story about the difficulties and experiences he endures, Burnett also provides an indictment on how the UN treats those in the field, as well as the issue of Western aid that is sure to have you questioning the role of foreign intervention in third world countries.

Suffering from a "complex emergency" due to severe flooding, and in the midst of a civil war which began in 1988, the UN's World Food Program puts out a call for people with boating experience to undertake a humanitarian relief effort in Somalia.

A major problem is that Somalians view any foreign intervention with suspicion and animosity. This was most publically illustrated during the the UNOSOM disaster five years previously in which 18 US soldiers were killed in Mogadishu whilst protecting transportation routes to allow delivery of relief and food supplies. Mark Bowden's excellent book Black Hawk Down does a superb job of detailing this and is highly recommended. 

In the absence of a central government, the country is ruled by warlords and militia and one where the six predominant clans fight one another, and the subclans and sub-subclans also fight amongst themselves. With ethnic Somalis treating the Bantu and Bajuni peoples as either slaves or little more than animals and with one of the highest number of guns per capita, aid workers face working in one of the most dangerous places on earth.

Experiencing marital problems while travelling on their yacht in East Africa, Burnett decides he will take up the challenge as his wife flies back to the Netherlands. Hired as Acting Port Manager in the city of Kismayo in South Sudan, Burnett's role is to arrange emergency supplies to be brought in by boat before being delivered to refugees further up country. On arrival in Somali, however, shit gets real fast, as he is shot at by a crazed AK-47 wielding Somalian within minutes of getting off his flight. This serves as an introduction to a sick symbiotic-type relationship where the warlords get fat off UN-money and the UN agencies are enabled to build their empires.

Having previously been a political speech writer and investigative journalist and due to his unique position on the ground, Burnett attempts to try and understand why things are this way. Put simply, aid is big business. In 2003 WFP was feeding 104 million people in 81 countries at a cost of $3.3 billion and yet 24,000 people a day were still dying around the globe of starvation. Our Western arrogance assumes that we must help to assuage some form of our guilt or white man's burden or more likely, simply to keep the bureaucratic wheels turning. And yet, the questions that aren't being asked is whether or not this intervention is helping in the long-run.

Where Soldiers Fear to Tread is not a travel book in the truest sense of the term, but the book provides glimpses of life in Somalia during its civil war whilst also providing an insight into the competing rivalries of the diplomats, NGO's, donor groups and nations that are living off the aid gravy train.  It is also a book where corrupt officials needing to have their palms greased in order to allow any assistance to be undertaken will have you seething with frustration and wondering about the futility of it all. Yet it remains a compelling and easy to read book and one which is well worth reading.

3 and a half stars out of 5

Credit: Banner photo by AMISOM Public Information