The Frontline View

Despite these developments, both Petit and Hotz urged OCHA’s immediate return to Baidoa, preferably together with the other humanitarian agencies. Petit felt the Shabaab leadership did not understand why the humanitarian agencies had left. He feared their departure would be interpreted as retaliation for the expulsion of the political agencies, thus blurring the line between the UN’s humanitarian and political efforts and antagonizing the Somalis who had worked hard to allow them stay.

The UN had nurtured a special relationship with Shabaab leaders in Baidoa, and Petit did not want to jeopardize it. His recommendation to Bowden was to go back immediately with a security officer borrowed from one of the humanitarian agencies, and resume operations quickly—as Bowden had done in Hargeisa. Communications with al-Shabaab should remain open at all costs, Petit said. Hotz agreed they should return. One of her reasons was pragmatic: to preserve the local contacts that allowed the humanitarian work to go forward—relationships with elders, escorts, clinic operators, al-Shabaab, UN national staff, and NGO workers. “If we break off complete contact, then it becomes more and more difficult to reengage,” she says; to deliver humanitarian aid, the UN had to be there.

Hotz also stood on principle. “As humanitarians… we should be able to go everywhere because our main concern is not the politics. Our main concern is the people and their needs and getting access to them,” she says. “Theoretically, we should negotiate with whoever gives us access and guarantees for our security.”She had also long felt that OCHA and its humanitarian partners made a mistake in co-locating with other, non-humanitarian UN agencies. She elaborates:

This is not a really healthy marriage… Because people cannot differentiate, if it’s one compound. For them, it’s all UN, we are all together… Then it’s difficult to prove that you are independent and not taking sides.

Birgitt Hotz on co-locating with other agencies.

Bowden respected Hotz and Petit’s opinions. But he also recognized that field workers can become too close to the communities they serve to see problems in perspective. “Hotzi is totally wedded to the place, and that’s not always a good thing in terms of the decision making,” Bowden says.

Unexpectedly, Hotz and Petit gained support from the TFG. On Friday, July 24, the minister of humanitarian affairs and resettlement pleaded with the UN to return to Baidoa—and quickly. He wrote:

The Ministry appreciates to hear courageous statement from the UN that it will not halt its operations on the ground, the Ministry is also coaxing the UN agencies to re-double their assistance to the needy Somali people. We hence hope that this deplorable event will not hamper your industrious service for the deprived Somali people. [34]

Contacts . That same day, Petit made specific recommendations in a memo titled “Proposed reengagement options”. He suggested Bowden contact as many Al-Shabaab leaders in Baidoa as possible. In particular, he mentioned Derow, al-Shabaab’s regional head of security who had directed the raid in Baidoa, and one of the two signatories to the letters ousting the UN agencies. Petit also suggested contacting the other signatory—the new governor for the region, Sheikh Mahad Cumar Abdulkarim. Finally, Petit advised simultaneous contact with specific elders and members of Baidoa’s intellectual community. Contact with Sheikh Robow, however, he recommended be kept to a minimum in order to avoid putting the Shabaad leader in a difficult position.

[34] Based on an internal, unpublished document.