LOOK BACK: 25 years since Somalia affair stained Canada’s reputation

There was a time when Canadian soldiers were universally viewed as the world’s peacekeepers.

But that reputation was badly smeared 25 years ago when some of this country’s elite soldiers, considered the best of the best, grossly violated human rights, beaten civilians to death and took the law into their own hands while serving to preserve the peace as part of a United Nations mission in war-torn Somalia, on the eastern horn of Africa.

The Somalia Affair, possibly the darkest period in Canada’s military history, resulted in the deaths of several Somali men, the charging of a handful of soldiers and, eventually, the disbandment of the Canadian Airborne Regiment, a rapid-reaction force of paratroopers created in 1968 that actually traced its lineage to the Second World War.

Additionally, it left the reputation of this country as a nation of peacekeepers in tatters and brought shame to the entire military.

WHAT HAPPENED

The Canadian Airborne Regiment was sent to Somalia, a hot and dusty nation wracked by famine, civil war and bloodshed, on Dec. 15, 1992, as part of a UN humanitarian mission.

Roughly 1,400 Canadian troops were airlifted into Belet Wein town in Somalia to preserve the peace while allowing food and other items to reach the native population, many of whom were starving.

In March, 1993, just weeks after Lt.-Col. Carol Mathieu gave verbal orders allowing his men to shoot at thieves; two Somalis were shot in the back by Canadian soldiers. One of the men, Achmed Aruush, died on the spot.

A week later, 16-year-old Shidane went into the Canadian compound and was captured. He was tied up and blindfolded then punched, beaten with a metal bar and burned with cigarillos for hours (he was later found to have burns on his penis), crying and pleading for the soldiers to stop. He was dead by morning, his last words being “Canada, Canada, Canada.”

Soldiers involved in the torture of Arone took “trophy” photos of the abuse, a horrific series of pictures similar to those that led to the American military scandal at Abu Ghrais in Iraq a decade later.

THE IMMEDIATE AFTERMATH

The story began to come to light just days after Arone’s death when one of the soldiers involved, Master Cpl. Clayton Matchee, tried to hang himself with shoelaces in his cell after being arrested for his part in the torture. Matchee suffered brain damage in the botched suicide attempt and was declared unfit to stand trial.

In May 1993, the first charges are laid against Canadian soldiers. A total of eight soldiers would eventually face court-martial — Matchee and Pte. Kyle Brown were the only ones charged with murder — but just four were convicted. Brown was found guilty of manslaughter and torture and sentenced to five years; he served just two years before being released.

Lt-Col. Mathieu, the most senior officer charged, was acquitted of negligent performance of duties.

On Jan. 23, 1995, then-defense minister David Collenette announced he was disbanding the Airborne regiment.

But the fallout didn’t end there.

In fact, it started a couple of months earlier when a publication ban on Brown’s photos of the torture was lifted. Publication of the photos in Canadian newspapers led to the Jean Chretien government to order an inquiry.

During the inquiry into the actions of the Canadian soldiers in Somalia, a series of videotapes showing members making racist comments or participating in hazing rituals came to light. That was the last straw and, effectively, the death knell for the Canadian Airborne Regiment.

The $25 million inquiry ran until 1997. It discovered that senior officers altered documents relating to the Somalia affair before giving them to radio reporters. Days later, the inquiry showed that papers and computer logs had been tampered with to eliminate important information about what happened.

Much of the blame, for the actions of the Canadian Airborne Regiment, was laid at the feet of the military’s senior leadership, with 157 recommendations made.

In the end, the disturbing chapter of Canadian military history ended with the conviction of four soldiers, mostly on minor charges, and a payout of $15,000 to Arone’s family.

January 20, 2020

 

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