Tracing my father’s journey in Somalia — Happy 71st Birthday Dad!

My father was the UN’s first force commander in Somalia, this is an attempt to re-trace his journey using the Internet.

Isfandiyar Shaheen
8 min readDec 25, 2017
Dad in China — 2007ish

In the summer of 1992 I learned that my father will be going to this place called Somalia as a United Nations Peace Keeper. I recall that the then UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali had personally called my father to inform him about the risks involved. I also remember that my father volunteered to sign up for this task and that he had a choice to opt out.

I always thought my father will write a book about his experiences in Somalia, for some reason he never did and so today, on his 71st birthday, I figured I’d use good old internet to trace his journey and piece this post together as a birthday gift for my dad.

Aug 23 1992: In the grips of a poor man’s war — Newsweek

“Pakistan’s Brig. Gen. Imtiaz Shaheen, who heads a small team of unarmed U.N. observers, warns that nobody should underestimate Somalia’s fighters. The Somali “give life and take life with gay abandon,” says the general. “A man who is not afraid of being killed is a good fighter.” It will take equal courage from relief workers, as well as diplomatic skill, to rebuild a fractured nation. The challenge is to prevent a few shabby warlords from holding the entire country hostage.”

Sept 14 1992 : Armed U.N. Troops Arrive in Somalia — New York Times

“The 40 soldiers, all Pakistani, are the advance contingent for a battalion of 500 Pakistanis who are expected to arrive by next week, also on United States aircraft, United Nations officials said. The Bush Administration offered transportation for the troops as part of its aid package for the victims of famine in Somalia.

One of the most powerful Somali warlords, Gen. Mohammed Farrah Aidid, agreed to the 500 troops after weeks of negotiations with the United Nations special representative, Mohammed Sahnoun. But he has objected to the deployment of the 3,000 troops, arguing that his own men — who relief officials say do much of the looting — and a retrained police force could do the job.”

I have heard my dad say that Aidid was willing to accept a contingent only from Pakistan, to date I have not understood why. I do know that my father spent quite some time with Aidid trying to broker a peace agreement. My dad always believed and still does that peace cannot be manufactured or forced, it has to be maintained while keeping in view the “dynamics of the situation”. Over the years I’d pull my dad’s leg that he over uses “dynamics” but in hindsight I think he meant that cookie cutter solutions cannot be copy-pasted, especially in godforsaken places like Mogadishu.

October 13 1992:Gunmen disrupt Somali Aid Plans

“ General Imtiaz Shaheen, the UN’s military commander in Somalia, flew to Bardera, 300km (180 miles) west of Mogadishu, to evacuate four Somali aid staff, two US journalists and a US relief worker for the CARE agency. Sixteen other Somali and foreign aid workers were evacuated from a nearby village.”

November 28 1992: Securing equipment from aid agencies as opposed to the UN Military arm

“The 500 Pakistani troops sent by the United Nations in early October to secure the airport, port and goods out of the capital had little hope of success, United Nations officials said.

The troops were too few, their equipment inadequate and they were so underfinanced that their commander, Gen. Imtiaz Shaheen, had to beg aid agencies of the United Nations, rather than the military arm, for money to help supply them, the official said. The troops, based near the airport, have become so vulnerable that snipers fired at their tents this week, a United Nations official said.”

By November my father had convinced a faction leader Farah Aidid that international troops coming in will act as peace keepers and NOT as gung-ho, trigger happy cow boys. On this promise Aidid said that American troops will be permitted to land on Mogadishu Airport without any threat of violence.

Dec 2 1992: Facing an anti-aircraft gun and opening the gate of his compound

“The giant articulated truck carried a quadruple-barrel anti-aircraft gun and a dozen grinning Somali gunmen. It was blocking the gate of a villa.

Inside the villa, behind high walls topped with broken glass, was the field commander of the United Nations troops already in Somalia.

He wanted to go out and drive the few hundred yards to the international airport, which his men hold — over the objections of the area’s main warlord. He had to wait a few seconds until the Somali gunmen, with those atop the truck jeering and gesturing, maneuvered their vehicle out of the way.”

Perhaps the craziest story I learned from my dad many years later was how he and his colleagues were essentially “locked up” in a compound as that was the only place where their security was guaranteed. My father said at some point he had had enough and wanted to just “step out”. As he approached the gates of his compound an anti-aircraft gun was kept pointing at him and in that moment my father took a chance and opened the gate.

Dec 10 1992: Gunfire greets US Marines in Somalia

“ Two bound Somalis were freed when General Imtiaz Shaheen, commander of the 500-strong Pakistani UN force in Somalia who is enraged by the US refusal to consult the UN, strode over to the hangar and cut the men free with his penknife. Lieutenant-General Frank Libutti, head of the US operation in Somalia, said: “Anybody not appearing to be part of the Paki forces at the airport was to be taken under control. The Marines are permitted to take action to protect themselves and innocent civilians. Thus far the Marines and soldiers have done extremely well.”

It is around this period I recall first seeing that the US marines that landed on Somalia Airport ended up treating a number of Somalis in a “humiliating manner”. I cannot find a mention of this on CNN, but back then I do remember it was CNN that reported this.

A few weeks later I recall hearing a fiery interview of my father on BBC which unfortunately is not easily searchable, but the words he said have forever been imprinted in my brain, excuse his political correctness, but the message was awesome, especially considering my father was speaking to the United States government on a very public forum:

“It is very easy to say, bring in the marines and bash up the blackies, you name it you’ve been here, have you seen any civic structure over here? You don’t have a post office, you don’t have telephones, you don’t have hospitals and then you say you will bring in troops to bash them up — WRONG” — My father early 1993"

I recall my mother saying oh wow, and also, I’m sure they’re now going to put him on a plane and send him back! My mother was quite relieved because Somalia had been a hell-ish experience for her.


“Brig. Gen. Imtiaz Shaheen, commander of the United Nations peacekeeping force in Somalia, speaks these days with a combination of bitterness and vindication.

Six weeks ago, the arrival of U.S. Marines here shoved Shaheen’s 500-man force aside amid arguments that it was an old-style U.N. force whose passive rules of operation were unsuited to bringing order to this land of clan warlords. But with U.S. forces beginning to pull out of Somalia and hand the job back to the United Nations, Shaheen said today, “we’re still going to have the last laugh.”

The 24,000 Marines here came ashore aggressively, seizing the capital’s vital facilities and many of the firearms that had reduced this country to anarchy. They have forcefully patrolled the capital’s dangerous streets, and they have fought running gun battles with Somalia’s notorious armed thugs.”

UNOSOM I: Published by the UN — March 1997

“ On 3 March 1993, the Secretary-General submitted to the Security Council his recommendations for effecting the transition from UNITAF to UNOSOM II. He indicated that since the adoption of Council resolution 794 (1992) in December 1992, UNITAF had deployed approximately 37,000 troops in southern and central Somalia, covering approximately 40 per cent of the country’s territory. The presence and operations of UNITAF had a positive impact on the security situation in Somalia and on the effective delivery of humanitarian assistance. However, despite the improvement, a secure environment had not yet been established, and incidents of violence continued. There was still no effective functioning government in the country, no organized civilian police and no disciplined national army. The security threat to personnel of the United Nations and its agencies, UNITAF, ICRC and NGOs was still high in some areas of Mogadishu and other places in Somalia. Moreover, there was no deployment of UNITAF or UNOSOM troops to the north-east and north-west, or along the Kenyan-Somali border, where security continued to be a matter of grave concern.”

In the summer of 1993, my father was “moved” to the UN Headquarters in New York City to provide a de-brief on his experiences. Around this time a larger Somalia operation called UNOSOM II was put into action. I remember visiting my father with my mother in New York City for the first time in the summer of 1993.

October 3 1993: Blackhawk down

I remember that Somalia coverage was “always on” between 1992 and 1993, and then a big event happened, a helicopter was shot down. My father was no longer in Somalia at the time and I recall him saying that he saw it coming. I also remember him telling me never to get boorish or arrogant especially if I ever accumulated power and resources. Interestingly, after the winter of 1993, most of the media forgot about Somalia and all those horrific images of children dying of starvation left our TV screens. I never understood why.


My biggest lesson in talking to my dad about Somalia is that listening with the intent to understand and not with the intent to reply is perhaps the single most important trait in solving complex problems. My dad would often (and still does) get upset when solutions are over simplified. Observing Somalia from far away as a 10 year old was a pretty unnerving experience especially as I saw my mother glued to CNN all the time hoping to get a glimpse of my dad.

Looking back and reflecting even today on some of the most unfortunate places I stand even more convinced that people themselves are best equipped to solve their own problems. No outsider can empathize sufficiently with what’s happening “on ground”.