Australian Associated Press
Wednesday January 10, 2018
The haunting eyes and the jutting ribs of Somalian children are among the most vivid memories from Paul von Kurtz’s time in Somalia.
Wednesday marks the 25th anniversary of the start of Australia’s contribution to peacekeeping operations in Somalia amid civil war and famine.
Mr Von Kurtz, from Townsville, was a platoon sergeant in the Army’s first battalion (1RAR) and was among the first to touch down in the lawless capital Mogadishu.
“We were all very green.. it was very much an eye-opener,” he told AAP.
Among their duties, Australian troops went on nine-day patrols to protect the convoys of aid groups distributing food.
“What we were doing was having a great effect,” he said.
“Towards the end, the kids were putting a bit more meat back on their bones and you saw them playing and there were smiles back on their faces.”
Mr von Kurtz served in Somalia for about five months and laments it wasn’t longer because the Australian troops were making a significant difference.
The deployment was physically challenging.
Mr von Kurtz weighed 75kg at the start but a lack of fresh food meant his weight dropped to 52kg by the time he left.
The Australian Defence Force learned important lessons about ensuring soldiers have adequate food which it’s implemented on deployments since then.
Mr von Kurtz recalled it had been an uphill battle for Australians to build trust with Somalians because in the past the country had experienced a lot of foreign interference from the Italians, British, Russians and Americans.
There were some initial rock-throwing incidents and when the Australians arrived at Baidoa they were shot at on the first night, he said.
Australian Federal Police superintendent Bill Kirk also served in Somalia on a secondment with the United Nations and helped to restore the rule of law.
Mr Kirk said it was very difficult to operate on the ground and personnel could only leave compounds with bodyguards.
“You would think, why are we here? They don’t even like us,” he told AAP.
He recalled shark nets being put up at the beach in Mogadishu because some UN peacekeepers had been attacked while swimming.
“I thought sharks were the least of the worries,” Mr Kirk said.
The Somalian conflict received the Hollywood treatment in the 2001 film Black Hawk Down which was based on a true story. But that incident with the US special forces happened before the Australians arrived.
More than 1500 Australian defence personnel served in Somalia from 1992-94, four were injured and there was one death, Lance Corporal Shannon McAliney.
The Australian navy sent HMAS Tobruk and HMAS Jervis Bay to Somalia and the air force conducted regular resupply missions and personnel served as air traffic controllers at the airport.
Federal Labor frontbencher Mike Kelly and NSW Governor David Hurley both had military deployments to Somalia.
*1RAR is having a reunion of Australian veterans of Somalia on May 15 in Townsville.