Somalia After Black Hawk Down

Where Soldiers Fear to Tread: A Relief Workers Tale of Survival, John S. Burnett, Bantam.


John Burnett is making a pleasing habit of delivering eye-opening books that shed light on little-known events occurring in remote corners of the globe. In 2002 he unveiled “Dangerous Waters: Modern Piracy and Terror on the High Seas,” highlighting the recent resurgence in piracy, which quietly flourishes in shipping lanes around the world. Now this onetime investigative journalist brings us “Where Soldiers Fear To Tread,” a blow-by-blow account of his experience as a relief worker in notoriously chaotic Somalia. 

Of course, Somalia is best known to Americans as the country where American soldiers were once killed and dragged through the streets, a sequence of events that spawned the book and movie Black Hawk Down. Burnett begins by explaining what compelled him to volunteer for work in Somalia in 1997-98 (a period in which the country was ravaged by floods), but soon moves on to the challenges of providing aid to a war-torn Third World country. During his relatively brief tour, Burnett utilized his maritime experience to ferry food and supplies by motorboat. In the process, he had more than his share of harrowing encounters, including a tense confrontation with a pre-teen “soldier” who casually held a loaded gun at the author’s head at a roadside checkpoint. 

Although the book reads like an adventure story its underlying message is sobering. That is, humanitarian relief operations are not what the media makes them out to be and sometimes do more harm than good. For instance, Burnett highlights how warlords frequently manage to abscond with food and aid intended for victims, then sell the stolen goods for personal profit. On a micro level, the author recounts a horrifying incident where he carelessly tossed a scrap of food to a young boy, who was then savagely beaten to death by every other child that witnessed the gesture. “Where Soldiers Fear To Tread” might not dissuade an individual from contributing to relief organizations but it sure will make one think twice.