The Mysterious Death of Ilaria Alpi (part 1)

Ilaria AlpiSome 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:

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."

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 travelling 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.