For the Somalis, a Manhunt Movie to Muse Over
By DONALD G. McNEIL Jr.
MOGADISHU, Somalia, Jan. 21 — Unbeknown to Hollywood, the blockbuster "Black Hawk Down" made its Mogadishu premiere tonight in the very neighborhood where the 1993 battle was fought, leaving 18 Americans and hundreds of Somalis dead.
Tensions between the United States and Somalia are once again raw, this time over the prospect that Somalia's chaos provides a haven for Al Qaeda terrorists, and that American troops may once again arrive on a violent manhunt.
So a sellout crowd of 200 who paid the equivalent of 10 cents swiftly packed the New Buujimo Shineemo (New Boxing Cinema) on 26th of June Street tonight — and barely demurred when the film began 40 minutes late because the distributor had to run off extra cassettes from the videodisc that had just arrived on a flight from Abu Dhabi. (As in many poor countries, the movie played on a disc pirated from discs or cassettes made at American theater showings.)
"All the cinemas in town were in competition to get this film," Khalif Ali Muhammad, the deputy manager, said proudly.
The film has been keenly awaited both by Somalis who remember with horror American soldiers scouring and strafing their neighborhoods, and by Somali warlords whose troops helped bring down the two Blackhawk helicopters on Oct. 3, 1993, and battled the Americans in the hours and days that followed.
Osman Ali Otto is a well-known warlord who had men in those battles. He had not seen the film himself, but said this morning he had heard from a friend in London that he was portrayed unflatteringly.
"When I have seen it, my colleagues and I may sue the producers," he said.
He was never interviewed for the film, he said, and never gave permission for it to portray him. It was correct in saying that he had been under arrest since Sept. 21, 1993, and was imprisoned on an island during the battle. But he was not blindfolded and handcuffed, and the Americans did not show that they had bombed the island's edges to keep his men from trying a rescue, he said.
In this ragged capital of a ravaged nation, suspicion toward Americans lingers. One unnerving aspect of tonight's premiere was the way several young men who noticed a reporter standing against the wall jerked their shirts over their faces.
"They do not want to be seen by an American," a security guard explained. "They are afraid of bombing. The last time Americans came here, first came the journalists, then the soldiers. In the beginning, it was peace. Then they began to kill us."
Since Sept. 11, the Bush administration has scrutinized Somalia for links to Al Qaeda. It has named Al Itihaad, a militant religious group based in Somalia, as a terrorist organization with ties to Al Qaeda and positioned ships off Somalia to prevent Al Qaeda fighters from getting in or out.
These actions have accentuated tensions that date back to 1993. Eighteen Rangers were killed in the 1993 battle, but hundreds of Somalis, many of them civilians, also died as the Americans fought their way in to try to rescue Rangers trapped by battle and to hunt for the warlord Gen. Muhammad Farah Aidid.
The G.I.s had arrived on a very public mission of mercy, making it mystifying for many here that American soldiers ended up killing so many people.
Some Somalis said they had heard in advance from relatives in America that the film makes Somalis seem brutish. The Somali Advocacy Center in St. Paul, Minn., has called for a boycott, saying the film makes Somalis look like "savage beasts shooting each other."
The closest thing Mogadishu has to a monument to the battle and subsequent American manhunt for General Aidid is a broken piece of the helicopter flown by Michael Durant, the pilot who was captured in the 1993 battle. The story of the helicopter, based on a book by Mark Bowden, lies at the heart of the movie.
The helicopter part now rests against the south wall of the house of Achmed Weheliya. To keep anyone from stealing it, the family has wrapped it with razor wire and planted cactuses, which now virtually cover it.
The Weheliyas are upset that any film was made. "Seven people in our family died," wailed Sahara Abdi Karim Weheliya, 35. "Four grown ones and three children. Since then, no one has come and asked what happened to us."
The family gets by with odd jobs. Some of its women buy tomatoes and potatoes from farmers and resell them in the streets.
"We are the place where this happened," said an elder relative, Marian Shire Kediye, 60. "But different people, who were not here, take the profit of this event."
Mrs. Weheliya showed where she said the spinning Blackhawk sheared off a piece of their roof before smashing the outhouse of their dusty compound and breaking up in the sand- blown alley outside their wall.
As she told it, American soldiers trying to rescue the downed pilot took her family hostage and told the Somali militias surrounding them that they would all be killed unless the militias backed off.
"We were clinging to each other," Mrs. Kediye said, pulling four children to herself for emphasis. "We were terrified."
Ibrahim Ali Sheikh, 20, who lives in the compound across the alley, had a different version of events. American soldiers smashed into his house, too, he said, but did not mistreat his family.
"We were scared, but they said `Don't be afraid, be patient,' " he said. "Some of them were doctors. They had white shirts. They gave us something to put in our ears in order not to hear the firing."
Copyright New York Times Co. 2002