Reportage Somalia: the Italian “lead”, interview with the new commander of the EUTM-S

(To Giusy Federici)

"For me it is the first time both in Somalia and in a European context. Previously, the missions I did were under the NATO "hat". So for me it is a new experience in the context of what the Security Force Assistance approach is, the concept of providing through the pillars of mentoring, advisory and training for the reconstruction and strengthening of the country's defense structure.".

Army General Matteo Spreafico has been the new commander of the European Union Training Mission Somalia, EUTM-S since 16 July. He replaced General Pietro Addis. Alpino, 49 years old, Spreafico has a degree in Information Sciences and Political Sciences and has participated in many operations both national (Riace, Vespri Siciliani, Strade Siciliani) and international (Bosnia Herzegovina, Iraq, Afghanistan).

EUTM-Somalia is a European mission that since the fourth mandate, in 2014, has the lead in Italy, being also the largest contributor in the number of men, women and vehicles employed on site. The base is inside the International Campus (IC), a housing compound in which the various nations coexist, including military and government organizations, which in turn is included in the "security bubble" of Mogadishu International Airport (MIA), a huge area, a city within a city whose safety is guaranteed by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). The situation in Somalia is very fragile and volatile also in terms of security and Mogadishu is no exception. Despite the "bubble" we are in, it is not uncommon to hear Kalashnikov hits whose typical sound reaches us here too. And if the shots were to be mortar and against the contingent, there is the security plan and the bunker ...

But the Somalis want to return to have a nation and have asked for help, also to replenish that army that will then have to guarantee their own security. There's so much to do and nothing here is easy, but that's why EUTM-Somalia exists.

General Spreafico, how does it feel to command EUTM-S, an Italian-led international mission, which sees Italy in first place for the number of soldiers involved and also for the relationship that binds us with the Somalis?

Italy, within the European Union, strongly believes in this mission. And he believes in it so much that he asked for and then obtained command, when the mission began to materialize on Somali territory. It believes in it so much that it provides more than half of the staff employed, covering particular key positions, not only that of the commander, but also that of the head of advising activities, which are the strategic support and training part that we provide to government authorities and the personnel, including senior commanders of the Somali Army General Staff. Nor should we forget the part concerning the Force Protection: here it is in the hands of Italian soldiers, through what is the Security Support Element, all that concerns the escorting of personnel who go out in activities outside this bubble area security which is the Mogadishu International Airport. So it is also a responsibility to ensure the safety of outgoing personnel. We are many but we are not only Italians, there are nine nations that have decided to contribute (Spain, Serbia, Finland, Great Britain, Sweden, Portugal, Romania, Hungary). All in the context of having to guarantee what is the mission assigned by the European Union. It is a reality where Italy is present with great commitment.

It seems difficult ...

More than telling her that it is difficult, I say that it is certainly not easy: it requires a lot of attention to have to manage it. We are faced with a people, the Somali one, which has lived through decades of war and which is now, little by little, facing reconstruction which must be understood as a stabilization of the situation and a reconstitution of the entire social structure.

The decades of war meant that not only was there a decrease in social activity, the entire government structure was destroyed. An example of this is the fragility of institutions that often undergo complete renovations within the entire command and control structure. I must also say, however, that in this little experience of mine, I already have the impression - that I hope it will materialize in time - of the fact that our counterpart really wants to get back to normal. It is up to us to help them, support them, advise them through our experience, through what is a more consolidated management structure in the military field, to promote their growth.

Personally, I feel a great responsibility for having been appointed as a commander of the mission. I'm proud and proud of it. I am aware of the great commitment due, as a European in carrying out and ensuring the success of the mission and also, as an Italian, to continue the work done for some years by Italy towards the Somali people. I feel a huge responsibility towards the men and women I command. This, for me, means making the commander and being in a position to manage the mission according to the expected rules, from training to the tasks assigned, but bearing in mind that we must be a team. I'm in charge, but the commander alone does not do anything. There must be a team, everyone must know what to do and must do it well.

What I am committed to and what I expect is to lead the mission as commander having a team that works with a single purpose: to help and support the government authorities, the military and, in general, the Somali people to rebuild their nation.

EUTM-S is a term mission. But given the situation, perhaps it will be necessary to stay still for a long time?

Now I don't know how long we can stay. The situation is in complete evolution. What I can assure you is that, as long as the European Union and specifically Italy is required to remain, our will to contribute will always be at the highest levels, giving the utmost commitment in fulfilling the assigned mission. A time limit here is difficult because, as I said, everything is constantly evolving. It is also certain that there is a strong will on the part of the entire international community to help the Somali people. Last but not least, the statements in the mid-July conference in Brussels, where both government and regional representatives were present on the Somali side and where the final result was a common intent to support the restructuring of Somalia, not only in economic terms, but also in that of rebuilding an entire structure, a government, social and cultural network of the country, through strategic advising and tactical activities in training the army. Our advising and mentoring activity is aimed at key officials from the Ministry of Defense to the Chief of Defense Staff, from commanders to heads of the various sectors, to reconstruct and define a command and control structure but also, on the other hand, through training activities, to create what are the basic units, therefore the companies that will then have to ensure the defense of Somalia. We must not forget that Somalia belongs to the Somalis, that they are the first who want to participate in defending their homeland and this is very much felt. For us, helping them to rebuild their country also means making them acquire an identity again and concretely: "I am Somali, I want to defend my land".

Among the young soldiers who train, there seems to be the awareness of being able to die for their country and against Al Shabaab. And be proud of it!

Yes, this awareness is there. And it is found in all the generations, in those who are now in charge of managing the situation but also in the younger ones. This gives hope that this identity is established on the basis of a link between generations. It is a common feeling that is not so easy to understand, because here there was a war and a rift of the continuity of tradition.

Returning to the training of the military, even here we start from the ABC and it is an Italian EUTM-S advisor who is helping them to draw up a new code of military behavior

This is precisely the added value that can be given to our contribution, in the sense of starting precisely from this, to define and build this new military structure not only in the hierarchical sense of command and control, but to review with them all the bases that regulate this command and control organization.

Starting from the discipline?

In the sense of discipline, but not seen only as the activity of regulation. It is a code of conduct where the values ​​that must be the basis of the discipline are reported, highlighted and deepened. Therefore, the spirit of the body, mutual respect and, also, the sense of discipline, because this is the basis of the organization of a military structure, the sense of belonging to Somalia according to the concepts we talked about before. We collect and put together in a single document, which is not just a piece of paper, the essence of what it means to us to be a soldier, the values ​​of being a soldier, in the broadest sense, for us and for them . But we don't do things alone. Our work, rightly, is always shared with them. Because it is they who, afterwards, will continue with the reconstruction. And it is right that these are concepts, initiatives, activities accepted and shared by Somalis.

Here in the IC we try to ensure a minimum of comfort, as far as possible, for the guys who come back after exits always full of tension, given the explosive situation of Mogadishu ...

Absolutely yes. However, it is a delicate mission. As he saw for himself, the situation here is quite fragile. The possibility and threat of attacks, both during our transfers to the areas where we carry out our activities, rather than here in the compound is not negligible. We are all aware that we are in an environment where the threat is present. And being able to create, in some way, that environment where on the one hand you work well and on the other you can create that moment of rest, is one of those things that I have in mind as a mission commander. I am aware that if a person has a moment in the day that allows him - not to "relax" because here one never relaxes - to be able to think about his loved ones and himself, I am sure that the next day will be more loaded to fulfill his mission. I'll give you the example of the guys from the Security Support Element, the famous “Guardian Angels” who work in a really stressful context: when they are in business, they are subject to constant pressure and constant threat. There must be time to recharge.

Obviously, before leaving, he was instructed on the mission. Sometimes, due to the geographical distance, the operational reality can be perceived differently. Arriving at the theater, did you find any discrepancies with the guidelines received in Rome?

Surely each of us, including other nations, before being employed in operational theaters, in this case for Somalia, receives specific training that not only concerns on-site activities but also tries to give context to what is there. operating environment and the social environment. Then, when you arrive at the theater, in the early days, you try to optimize the information and training received at home, providing each person who arrives, as part of what is "in-processing", the contextualization of what is the reality here in the theater, through further training and operational activities carried out on site, through lessons that also concern gender perspective, human rights and cultural awareness. In Italy, to take the example of our country, an excellent level of awareness of the mission is reached, but it is when you arrive here that you really put everything into practice. Homeland training works, as well as preparation. When you arrive here you complete it by putting your feet on Somali ground and acquiring more detailed information. To give an example: the part concerning cultural awareness is done by Safìa, our interpreter with us for many years, that is people who actually live here. And this is a further added value. It is the same as when you study, graduate and then go to work in an office, where you apply what you learned in school on the ground.

Another important thing to keep in mind is that now the Italian Army, with decades of operational activity, has considerable experience in employment abroad. Therefore, this training is not just the moment when the military is formed, but rather it is a further refinement of the employment capacity. What then happens is that your experience, done in operating theaters other than Somali, must be transported and contextualized here. You already have an instrument, you just need it better to hijack and set up in the operating theater where you are employed.

The "embedded" journalist, by the nature of the rules of engagement, sometimes runs the risk of not fully telling the reality of the places as well as of the Armed Forces, towards whom one can have or bad faith regardless, or an exaltation that is perhaps more harmful of the first. According to your experience, what do we not tell and instead we should?

Look, maybe it is you who can help me to give this answer, you who, as a journalist, come and see what we are doing, who can touch what Italy's commitment and the commitment of each of us are. in carrying out this mission. It is not that there is something to hide or to report. She is the testimony of what we have done and what we do. Compared to what is the reality that is read in the newspapers, as you see, there is "only" the transition from what is written to what you have seen.

The thing that I always think is that every soldier is here to do his job. The sacrifice that each of us performs, even remaining far from families, living six months in an environment of instability and with a level of threat that is considered "high", is rewarded by the results we can achieve. Those results that help the Somali people, the government authorities and therefore the military structure to grow again and, above all, that sense of gratitude that every time, on the Somali side, we find with a: "Thank you for being here!".

(photo of the author / Defense)