The Mysterious Death of Ilaria Alpi – part 1

Some people say she had information about the Italian military selling guns to the warlords.

Some say she had information about the torture and killing of Somali prisoners by Italian soldiers.

And now some people say she had information about al Qaeda in Somalia.

All I know is this:

by Michael Maren

Forty five minutes after I first met Ilaria Alpi, she was dead, slumped in a puddle of her own blood in the back seat of a white Toyota pickup truck.

We had spoken briefly inside the high-walled compound of the Sahafi hotel, the journalists' hotel, in Mogadishu. She told me she was a television correspondent from Italy and had just returned from a town in northern Somalia, a place she heard I knew well. But Ilaria had no need to introduce herself; I already knew of her. She stood out in Mogadishu. She was a small, serious 32-year old Italian reporter who fearlessly stuck her microphone in the faces of UN officials, military commanders and Somali warlords. While a lot of TV reporters spent more time fixing their hair than studying the country, Ilaria made her name by working the streets, using fluent Arabic and stubborn resolve to dig into places that few other journalists saw.

Ilaria asked me if I'd have a free moment to talk that evening. She seemed shy, almost apologetic about imposing on my time. I assured her that it was no problem, and that I'd be willing to talk with her whenever she wanted, even immediately if it would help. She couldn't talk right then, she said. There was someplace she needed to be.

I collected my crew, the driver and two armed bodyguards who shadowed me every moment I was outside the hotel compound, and we headed off to the northern part of the city. Ilaria and her cameraman, Miran Hrovatin, climbed into their Toyota pickup with a driver and gunman and also drove north. It was a quiet Sunday afternoon in Somalia, just after lunch when a blanket of midday heat keeps the sandy rubble-strewn streets of Mogadishu empty and menacing. I set off on my rounds, trolling for stories and information. To that end I dropped in at the home of a Somali friend, a young former guerrilla fighter who from time to time passed along some valuable intelligence. On this particular day he didn't have much to offer. His sister served us tea in the shade and we were relaxing, talking about nothing of consequence, when we heard the short bursts of gunfire. We kept silent for a moment, listening to hear if the shooting was going to escalate. But nothing more happened, and we didn't give it another thought.

It wasn't until early evening when I returned to the Sahafi that I heard the news. "It's Ilaria," my friend Carlos Mavroleon said to me as I walked into the lobby. "They've killed Ilaria."

Ilaria with cameraman Miram Hrovatin days before they where killed. (This photograph was taken by A.Raffaele Ciriello, who was himself killed on the West Bank several years later.)

Carlos, who was working as a cameraman for ABC News, had run to the scene as soon as he heard the gunfire. He learned that a Land Rover full of gunmen had cut in front of Ilaria's pickup in North Mogadishu. Someone started shooting. Their driver and bodyguard were unhurt. Carlos took me upstairs to his hotel room and showed me what he had videotaped at the scene. In the video, the bodies are being removed from the pickup truck and placed in a Land Cruiser owned by an Italian resident of Mogadishu, a man who was known to everyone by his first name, Giancarlo. Ilaria is wearing bright orange pants, and Birkenstock sandals. Her loose white shirt is stained with blood, and there is more blood smeared across her forehead and on her blond hair. In the back of the Land Cruiser Ilaria looks like she is sleeping. One of the Somalis who helped move the bodies hands Ilaria's notebook and a pair of two-way radios to Giancarlo. And Giancarlo says simply, that Ilaria and Miran were somewhere they shouldn't have been.

I knew what we were going to do later that night. I was used to the ritual by now. We gathered, about ten of us, in someone's hotel room and poured tall glasses of whiskey, the sickened pallor of our faces exaggerated by the wash of fluorescent light reflected off chalky white walls. We sat until morning exchanging bits of information that we hoped would add up to a reason, some determination about why our colleagues were dead. It was important that each of us believe that reasons existed. Ascribing a logic to death meant that measures could be taken to avoid it. We could convince ourselves that hiring the right security guards, driving on the right roads at the right times and saying the right things would keep us safe. But we knew better.

There was no mystery to death here. We spent our days with hired bodyguards traveling bombed out streets jammed with technicals - armed vehicles carrying hungry, glassy-eyed teenagers with automatic weapons. Any one of those kids could turn and pop you in a second, as easily as he could spit. Not even the walls of the hotel provided real protection. One reporter was shot in the leg during lunch. Another stepped from the shower just as a round sailed through the concrete outer wall and exploded through the porcelain stall.
But that didn't stop us from looking for reasons behind Ilaria's death. There was talk that she may have once fired a bodyguard who had then taken revenge. That sort of thing happened a lot in Mogadishu. There was no faster way to die here than to interfere with someone's livelihood. One of us even suggested that Ilaria could have uncovered some information that threatened one of the warlords or other powerful people. That was a nice thought. Given the choice, any of us would have picked assassination by evil international gunrunners to death at the whim of a bored teenager.

I participated in the discussion without ever believing her death was more than really bad luck. Ilaria wasn't the first journalist to die in Somalia and she wouldn't be the last. And after 15 years of covering stories in Africa I had lost what little patience I had for conspiracy theories. All it takes is a few missing pieces of information or inconsistencies in a large and complex story for someone to start talking about the CIA or Mossad or the hand of unnamed international forces.

Certainly there were mysteries surrounding Ilaria's death: Several of her notebooks disappeared after her body was loaded on a plane for Rome. A 35mm camera she had with her was also missing. But that alone was no reason to believe in a conspiracy. Things do get misplaced. Every loose end can't be tied up. And, after all, this was Somalia.

Somalia had been in a state of anarchy since 1991 when its dictator of two decades, Mohamed Siad Barre, was defeated by rebel armies led by Mohamed Farah Aidid. When Aidid's troops poured into Mogadishu, Barre's armies retreated south and west from Mogadishu toward the Kenya border. As they fled, they destroyed the country's food supply, burning fields and looting grain stores to slow the pursuit of Aidid's rebels. By the time they were done, there wasn't much food left in southern Somalia. The capital, Mogadishu, was reduced to rubble, and the country's grain producing area was overrun by unruly militias. The aid groups who came in from the West couldn't operate, and starvation began to spread. In the summer of 1992, people in Europe and the U.S. began seeing the pictures of starving Somali kids that resulted in Operation Restore Hope and the U.S. Marines landing on the beaches of Mogadishu in December of 1992.

By January of 1993, a multinational task force had pretty much put an end to what was left of the famine. But then they found themselves facing a much more difficult problem: the heavily armed and uncompromising militias of Somalia's warlords. A confrontation was inevitable. In June of 1993, the famous and ill-fated hunt for Aidid began. It ended four months later, on October 3, 1993, when 18 Americans were killed and the body of one of them was videotaped as it was hog-tied and dragged through the dusty streets of Mogadishu.

By March of 1994 Restore Hope was over. Western peacekeeping troops were packing their bags and leaving the unfinished job in the hands of darker-skinned soldiers from Malaysia, India, and Pakistan. The press came in to cover that retreat. Ilaria Alpi was among them. She was there to report on the withdrawal of Italian troops when she died on March 21, 1994.

Over the next few years I thought about Ilaria from time to time. Usually it was during a trip to Mogadishu when I would stop at the place on the road where she was killed. There were many such places scattered throughout Mogadishu, where friends and colleagues had lost their lives: the spot where photographer Dan Eldon was beaten to death by an angry mob; the intersection where Kai Lincoln, a young U.N. worker, was gunned down by bandits. I had only met Ilaria once, and briefly, and yet her death had stuck with me. I pointed out the spot where she died to several people who had never known her. In my mind I would trace the route of her pick-up down the hill. I would see the point where the blue Land Rover cut them off on the road, where the gunmen piled out. I almost thought I could see the tire marks left over when Ilaria's driver slammed the truck into reverse trying to back away.

In the Summer of 1997, I saw wire reports about photographs that were published in the Italian magazine Panorama. One photo shows Italian soldiers attaching electrodes to the testicles of a Somali prisoner who is tied to the ground. In another, a Somali woman is being raped with the end of a flare gun. The photos were taken by the Italian soldiers themselves, peacekeepers recording their triumph for posterity.

I began following the story. The publication of the photos forced the Italian government to launch an inquiry. And that inquiry led to a diary kept by an Italian policeman stationed in Somalia. (In Italy the police overlap with the military.) The policeman, Francisco Aloi, wrote of spending time with a young television journalist named Ilaria Alpi. He wrote about how Ilaria had discovered some of the abuses and had gone to the Italian commander in Somalia, General Bruno Loi and told him that she would expose the abuses if he didn't do something about it. The general reportedly told Ilaria that it was only a few isolated cases that he would investigate and pursue. Months later, as the last Italian troops were leaving Somalia, the crimes remained uninvestigated and perpetrators remained unpunished. And Ilaria was preparing to do her final report from Somalia.

I learned that the controversy about Ilaria's death had never quite died in Italy. In fact, the few loose ends that I was aware of had unraveled into a vast tangle of conspiracy theories. According to various scenarios, Ilaria was murdered because she had information about arms trafficking, toxic waste dumping, or the selling of Somali children into slavery. All of these conspiracy theories contained a common element: While the men who pulled the triggers were Somali, the people who paid them, the ones who wanted Ilaria dead, were Italian.

Chief among the conspiracy theorists was Georgio Alpi, Ilaria's father, a well-known doctor in Rome, and member of Italy's communist party. In the four years since Ilaria's death, he had appeared on Italian television, lobbied journalists, and had done everything he possibly could to keep stories of Ilaria alive.

In January of 1998, in an attempt to mollify Georgio Alpi and close the book on the rampant rumors, a group of Somalis were escorted to Rome to give depositions against soldiers who were accused of torture. And when one of those Somalis - a young man named Hashi Omar Hassan - showed up at the police station he was arrested, charged with Ilaria's murder. It appeared to me that the Italians had taken their two outstanding issues in Somalia and tied them up in one neat package which they were prepared to flush away. The complete saga was reduced to this: The young Somali, Hashi Omar Hassan, had been tortured by Italian troops and then gotten his revenge by participating in the killing an Italian reporter. End of story.

But none of that made much sense to me or fit with the facts I had collected right after Ilaria's killing or what I knew about Somalia. It looked very much like a coverup and, as in other well-known cases, the coverup was the most powerful explicit evidence of the existence of the crime. And so I went to Rome to take a closer look at the investigation and several things became clear to me for the first time: Ilaria's death was not an act of random violence on a Mogadishu street. Somebody wanted her dead. And she wasn't killed in midst of a wild gun battle. She was assassinated, killed by a single shot fired from point blank into the back of her head.

There are many details about his daughter's death that four years later continue to keep Georgio Alpi awake at night. There is the fact that no investigation was ever done at the crime scene. And then there was the Italian military's refusal to rush medical assistance to Ilaria after she was shot. And it breaks his heart that incompetent forensic work has required that her body be exhumed, twice. But the thing that angers him most is that he and his wife Luciana never really said goodbye to Ilaria. When her body arrived back in Rome the family was told that during the ambush she had been raked with automatic weapons fire. They decided they didn't want to see her like that. So they never viewed the body of their only child, never had the chance for that important rite of closure. It was only after she was buried that they learned the truth, learned that there was only a single, neat bullet hole in the back of Ilaria's head.
Why, her parents want to know, did the Italian government lie to them? There is no satisfactory answer for them other than the obvious one: The government and the military are covering up the real reasons for their daughter's death.

Georgio and Luciana sit side by side on the couch in their apartment on the outskirts of Rome. They hold hands, and smoke cigarettes. Georgio is a small, wiry 74 year-old with thick bushy eyebrows jet black hair and an intense chiseled face. His lower lip quivers uncontrollably when he starts telling stories about Ilaria. Luciana, 65, has short blonde hair and a solid robust looking about her. Her voice is deep and gravelly.

Georgio and Luciana live in the apartment where Ilaria grew up. Her room is more or less as she left it, even though she'd moved out, gone to college, lived in Egypt for two and a half years and then gotten her own apartment in with a friend in Rome after being hired by RAI, the Italian state broadcasting corporation. There are photos of her everywhere. Several show her wearing a red, hooded jacket, her blonde hair tied in a pony tail. She clutches a microphone and peers into the camera. The reports she sent back were saved on videotapes stacked beside the Alpis' television.

Her parents admit that they may have been overprotective of Ilaria, who as a child was quiet and fragile. They speculate that Ilaria set out for remote areas of the world in part to get away from their influcence, to proclaim her independence. Georgio tells about how young Ilaria was too shy to even ask for what she wanted in Rome's coffee bars. "Papa, tell them I want a glass of water," she would say. When she was 13, Ilaria worked on her school newspaper and decided she wanted to be a journalist. Georgio bought her a present, a small tape recorder. As he tells this story he begins to sob uncontrollably. Luciana's eyes turn red, and she comforts her husband. Shy Ilaria took the tape recorder and went out into the neighborhood interviewing news vendors about their business. It was a pattern that seemed to hold in her adult life. She struck those who met her as sweet and reserved. But as soon as she had a microphone and camera with her she was aggressive, professional, and self assured. "So self assured that she didn't have to be a bitch," was how one senior military official compared her to other female reporters.

While many television reporters saw themselves as the stars of their shows, Ilaria once complained to her editor in Rome that she wanted to spend less time on camera. "Why should the viewers be looking at me when I could be showing them another ten seconds of Somalia?"

Her parents and I watch some video of Ilaria, particularly her last interview with a clan leader named Boqor (King) Musa. Ilaria is interviewing Musa in the town of Bosasso, a relatively peaceful port 1,500 miles north of Mogadishu on the Gulf of Aden. Musa has a thick gray beard and a lazy eye. Everyone knows him affectionately by his nickname, King Kong.

Georgio Alpi turns to me and asks if I know King Kong, and if so, what I think of him. I tell him that the King is a decent fellow who spends his days at a hotel in Bosasso watching CNN. In these days of warlords he doesn't wield a lot of power, but he knows what's going on. Ilaria's discussion with King Kong is fairly mundane. They're talking about development projects and the like. Then she brings up the subject of arms trafficking. King Kong hesitates, and Ilaria tells Miran to shut the camera off. With the camera pointing away, but the sound still rolling you can hear King Kong speak about things that "came from Rome, Brescia, or Torino." Brescia is the arms manufacturing center of Italy. Then you can hear the final words on the tape, from King Kong: "those people have much power, contacts". Georgio thinks the answer to his daughter's death is in that interview.

The one and only time I met Ilaria, she had wanted to talk to me about Bosasso, and about King Kong. Something had disturbed her that day. What was she after? What did she want to know? The truth is, had I talked to Ilaria that night at The Sahafi Hotel, there wouldn't have been much I could tell her. But I might have found it curious that an Italian journalist in Mogadishu to cover the departure of Italian troops would have found an important reason to travel to Bosasso where there weren't any Italians.

Ilaria was on her fifth trip to Somalia. Miran was there for the first time. The two of them caught a UN flight to Bosasso, and apparently didn't tell anybody they were going. Several days after they left, Italian journalists began asking the staff of the Sahafi hotel where she was. Even the Italian ambassador to Somalia showed up at the Sahafi wearing a flak jacket and helmet with an armed escort inquiring about her whereabouts. The owner of the Sahafi, Mohamed Jirdeh Hussein, found it curious that the ambassador would risk being in the streets at that time at all. The hotel staff informed the ambassador that Ilaria had gone to Bosasso.

She was due to arrive back in Mogadishu on Saturday, March 20. The Italian military actually sent a few men to meet her plane and escort her from the airfield. They were going to advise her to spend the night on the Italian naval vessel, the Garibaldi, which was anchored off of Mogadishu. (I smiled when I first heard this. In a million years, even if we were under bombardment, the U.S. military would never send an escort for a journalist. And most U.S. journalists wouldn't have accepted one. We kept our distance from the military, maintained our independence. But the Italians felt they were all in it together.) Her plane arrived a day late, on Sunday at about 12:30. Though her escorts could easily have found out that the flight had been rescheduled, no one was there to meet her. So she and Miran caught a lift to the Sahafi where they checked in and had lunch. It was just after lunch when she and I spoke.

Ilaria then phoned RAI in Rome and asked for some satellite time at around 7:00 p.m. so she could feed some video back. She said she had some good footage. "We can speak about the story of the day later." The producer remembers that Ilaria had something she really wanted to do. "I'm in a hurry," she said. She then phoned her mother one last time.
At about 2:45 Ilaria and Miran left the Sahafi, heading across the Green Line into North Mogadishu to the Amana Hotel where some Italian journalists sometimes stayed. During the peacekeeping operation a feud had opened up between the Italian contingent on one side and the U.S. and UN on the other. In short, the Italians felt that they had been dissed in Somalia. This was, after all, their former colony. They had a 100-year relationship with the place. But Operation Restore Hope was at its core an American show. The top UN official was a former U.S. Navy Admiral. The UN headquarters was located in the former U.S. embassy compound south of the Green Line in territory that was controlled by warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid. The Italians sequestered themselves north of the Green Line in the area where the former Italian Embassy was and which was controlled by warlord Ali Mahdi Mohamed. There they pouted and sulked and took more than a little delight in the problems that the Americans later encountered in the ill-fated hunt for Aidid.

The Italian peacekeeping strategy in Somalia - as it had been in Lebanon before -was to make friends with everyone and stay out of the line of fire. I recall standing with some Italian soldiers one day by the Green Line, surrounded by rubble and barbed wire. The Italian commander warned me to move on because, he said, there had been a sniper in one of the buildings who was shooting at people. Why aren't you afraid, I asked him. We have an arrangement with him, the commander said. So the Italians made their separate peace with the forces that controlled the North.

Part of that dynamic involved the man everyone knew as Giancarlo. Giancarlo Marocchino, an Italian citizen and 50-something trucking magnate from Genoa who had made his home in Mogadishu since 1984 when he went into exile after being indicted for tax evasion. He married a Somali woman from the clan that now controls north Mogadishu, and settled in. If Giancarlo were to set foot in Italy today he would be arrested, but in north Mogadishu he became a good friend to, and important source of intelligence for, the Italian military. The U.S. military, on the other hand, once, briefly, had him thrown out of Somalia. U.S. intelligence was sure that Giancarlo was getting rich selling guns to the warlords. At one point an American intelligence officer suspected that weapons confiscated by the Italian military were sold to Giancarlo who then reconditioned them and sold them back on the streets.

During the 1980s, Italy's socialists under Prime Minister Bettino Craxi seemingly turned their entire government apparatus into a huge money laundering operation - and their former colony of Somalia played a huge role in that corruption. Trillions of lire were sent to the impoverished country as "aid" and recycled back into the pockets of Italian government officials and their cronies. (Some of this corruption came to light in 1989 when Mohamed Farah Aidid - not yet a world famous warlord - sued Craxi for 50 million lire that he says he was promised as part of a kickback scheme.) The biggest scam aid projects in Somalia were in the northeast, near Bosasso. One of those projects involved the construction a first-rate highway built through the desert linking Bosasso to Somalia's main road. One of the main beneficiaries of that road, and of the slush fund around the project, was the man who was very active in the area's trucking business, Giancarlo Marocchino.

During Operation Restore Hope, Giancarlo became a good friend to the Italian journalists, many of whom stayed in his home and paid for his protection. Giancarlo provided them with meals, cars, drivers, and bodyguards. Several of the Italian journalists, however, refused to stay with him. One of those journalists was Ilaria Alpi. She thought he was a gun-running sleaze bag.

So Ilaria and Miran headed north over the Green Line in their white pickup truck. Their driver was named Ali and their bodyguard was a young kid named Mahamoud. In retrospect, it clearly wasn't advisable to be traveling around Mogadishu with only one gunman. At that time I was traveling with two, some days with more. I rode in a sedan and had a pickup truck full of gunners following me. Other journalists did likewise. We realized that the pullout of the Western troops was making Somalis nervous.

While the public in Europe and the U.S. saw Operation Restore Hope as a grand charitable gesture, the Somalis saw the thing in terms of money. The UN, the charities and the press were pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars a day, cash, American dollars, into the Mogadishu economy. The foreigners living in Somalia had hired guards and drivers and rented houses and cars for astronomical amounts of money. Each journalist had an entire crew on his payroll. In addition, the presence of the peacekeeping troops meant that Somali businessmen could continue to operate. Somalia under the protection of the UN, but without governmental authority, had become a haven for smugglers. Cigarettes, for example were imported tax free (who was going to collect?) and sent across the borders to Kenya and Ethiopia.

And foreign boats came to fish Somalia's waters. Sometimes warlords were able to extract tribute from them. Sometimes they just seized the ships. At the time Ilaria was in Bosasso, the local militia had hijacked several fishing ships that were being held for ransom just off the coast. One ship in particular had attracted some attention at that time. It was a ship that had been donated as Italian aid to the Somalis. It had an Italian captain, two Italian officers and a Somali crew. Kidnapping and hijacking were business as usual in Somalia.
With the peacekeepers pulling out Somalis were aware that everything could change. And we were aware that the end of the gravy train might be the beginning of trouble.
People who knew Ilaria well said that she might have become too comfortable in Mogadishu. She was well known and popular among the Somali people, especially the women who she spent time with and whose causes she championed. They had given her a nickname (everyone in Somalia had a nickname), which translated to "little smile." One of those causes was female genital mutilation. Somali girls when they reach puberty undergo the rite of infibulation. Their labia are sliced off and their vaginas are sewn up until their wedding night when their husbands will crack the seal that guarantees he's getting a virgin. As horrible as this is, few members of the highly cynical Africa journalists corps thought it worth reporting on. The custom is common enough in Africa and it's not news. It was news to Ilaria, who was outraged and was naive enough, or idealistic enough, to think that journalism could somehow make life better.

At about 3 p.m. Ilaria and Miran arrived at the Amana hotel where the correspondent for the Italian news agency (ANSA) was staying even though she knew he wouldn't be there. The Amana is located on a hillside on a quiet street near the former Italian embassy. Ali and Mohamoud turned the truck around so it was pointing back down the hill where they had come from. Across the street from the hotel was tea stall, which was just a few benches in the shade where a woman boiled tea on an open fire. A group of men in a blue Land Rover pulled up, parked, and began drinking tea. They never got to finish it.
Only minutes after they went in, Ilaria and Miran walked out of the hotel, climbed into their pickup and started down the hill. The seven men from the Land Rover, quickly put their tea down, piled back into their vehicle and overtook the pickup, cutting them off at the bottom of the hill where the street intersected with a main road. Two men jumped out of the Land Cruiser. And the shooting began.

That point is where all agreement about what happened ends and where contradictory stories, some from the same witnesses begin.


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