Reporting from Mogadishu’s Heart of Darkness Part 2
Getting my haircut in Tel Aviv took me all the way to one of the most dangerous places on earth – Mogadishu.
Previously… summary of Part 1:
After a long three-week assignment in Yugoslavia covering the civil war in Croatia I returned home and went to get my haircut. Sitting in my neighborhood barbershop in Tel-Aviv I read a short article in a back issue of a very popular Israeli weekly magazine. The story was about an Israeli arms dealer involved in Somalia, East Africa, caught my eyes. I felt this was a very interesting story and managed quite easily to “sell” the idea to our head office in New -York.
A story involved refugees, famine, civil war, arms dealers, all very intriguing stories to cover in a country which was extremely difficult to cover and highly dangerous – almost impossible – to operate there without the ruling party’s protection.
We were promised an exclusive interview the warlord who ruled most of the land of Somalia, from Mogadishu – all the way to the Southern border with Kenia, on the India ocean.
The crew and I arrived from Tel-Aviv to Nairobi on a commercial flight via London, and from Nairobi on a single-engine 6-seater plane to a landing strip outside of Mogadishu, the Somali capital. At this deserted landing strip, we were met by Ibrahim who drove us in an armed convoy of his men to his large villa on a side street not far from the center of the big city. Ibrahim was a close ally of the War Lord, Mohamed Farrah Aidid, and he was assigned to be our host, driver, security guard and tour guide. Mohammad A Jack of All Trades.
***** LINK TO PREVIOUS CHAPTER ******
After a restful night’s sleep to the monotonous sound of the small generator rattling in the yard, we woke up to our first morning in Mogadishu, to a breakfast of white flour fluffy buns, soft and warm as in the old days, like those the milkman used to leave on our doorstep every other morning with the bottle of fresh milk when we were children, in the early 1960s. Rolls baked in our honor at home along with the coffee that was simmering on the gas in the kitchen. There were also a hard-boiled eggs, cucumbers, tomatoes, and homemade jam.
The white Toyota that picked us up at the airport yesterday, was already waiting for us , inside the walled compound. We left through the iron gates and met by another small pickup truck, that would drive behind our truck – “just in case”, Ibrahim outlined the security arrangements while driving in the city.
“I promised Mohammed in Nairobi that I would do everything to keep you safe as long as you are here” he added in a somewhat apologetic tone.
Martin Fletcher, our correspondent, seated in the front seat next to Ibrahim, guided the driver; “Turn left and left again” and we reached the makeshift camp which was a large field which reminded me of a big football stadium without the grass, a bare surface. The UN flag hoisted at the gate and a sign in Arabic and English welcomed the visitors. “Welcome To Refugee Camp Number 105”.
Ibrahim explained the food rationing situation and the shortage of major ingredient – “The port of Mogadishu has enough food stored to feed a million people for a month, but the gangs controllIng the warehouses and trucks took the food supplies as hostages, despite the heavy price that hunger is taking on the city“.
This refugee camp was running by GOAL Ireland, an Irish Christian Non Government Organization [NGO]. We searched and found the camp administrative office and it’s head principle, Annette Callaghan. Annette came from Ireland, she was a nurse by profession, and with a heavy Irish accent she greeted us, “Good morning and welcome to our camp”.
In the far corner of the fenced camp was a tin shack. “This is the clinic,” pointed out the camp’s manager. In the clinic, a local nurse walked between the beds – she couldn’t help much. Medicines were in short supply, so was food. Water was rationed. The medical equipment – the “medical” in quotation marks, was a scale taken from the laundry or a butcher’s shop with a straw basket, where the child was placed. Iron beds. Two or three metal poles that will be used for intravenous infusions when the infusions arrived. Currently there was a shortage as well.
Salima the nurse was responsible here at the clinic for the children in the room. Her family stayed in the village on the mountain and she went down to the capital city to look for a living. She heard that there was a shortage of medical staff. Before the war, she worked in a clinic in the district town north of Mogadishu.
Annette the head principle pointed to a closed door at the other end of the shack. “Every morning we bring here those who didn’t survive the night,” she said in a dry and monotonous voice.
We noticed a group of five people pushing a makeshift stretcher. A body wrapped in a colorful blanket was placed on the wheelbarrow. “A nine-year-old girl,” explained the Irish nurse, “a combination of malnutrition, with malaria, dysentery, fever, worms, or scabies. Any child can suffer from several diseases at the same time, which of course brings him closer to his end in the absence of proper treatment, medicines, and sanitary conditions.”
Three men and three children followed muttering something in an incomprehensible language. A prayer for the repose of a girl who never knew one day of joy in her life. They arrived at the pit which was on the outskirts of the camp.
The two adults stepped down into the open grave and the third elder pushed the wheelbarrow allowing the dead body to slip out of his hands and in a moment or two – the pit will be sealed and covered. There was no name and no tombstone. No one would remember her name. No one in the world had probably never heard of her in her lifetime and would not hear of her after her death. Another girl who didn’t see the sunrise that morning.
About two hundred – and fifty – kilometers northwest of Mogadishu, after a grueling four-and-a-half-hour drive in the bouncy Toyota, we finally reached Baidoa, the capital city of the southern district. It was a city with a population of about three hundred thousand, like to Mogadishu but on a smaller scale, yet plagued by equally daunting challenges.
The roads here were no less perilous. Just like in other parts of this torn, famine-stricken, disease-ridden, and infectious country, food had become both a weapon and a hostage.
Survival was a battle, and only a handful managed to endure. The individuals we encountered, including those from various NGOs, asserted that a staggering eighty percent of the food intended for distribution was being stolen. It was a unanimous belief that only the intervention of the American military could put a stop to this brazen daylight robbery. The pressing question was when the American troops would arrive, and indeed, they did, supported by units of the French Foreign Legion, three weeks later.
I distinctly recall visiting another camp where we accompanied a volunteer doctor on her morning rounds. As part of her routine, she went from one straw and mud hut to another. Upon emerging from one of these shacks, she whispered to us that a child inside was on the brink of death, and there was little she could have done differently.
In this place, silence reigned supreme. There were no cries for help, no wailing. The refugees had resigned themselves to their tragic fate.
Yossi Mulla, our cameraman, peered into one of the huts, perhaps hoping to capture a final image of the young child or adolescent lying within for Martin’s concluding on-air report. However, Yossi returned, expressing his regret and explaining that he could not bring himself to film inside the hut. He didn’t want to disturb the young woman who sat there in the dim light, bidding farewell to her child, brother, or kin with his last breaths.
Moving on to the next row of huts, we encountered Aadi Al Bawad. She appeared to be around six years old. Tragically, her father, mother, and seven siblings had succumbed to the perils of the days and nights, the arduous journey, diseases, war, and famine. Aadi was now here in the Irish camp, an orphan, her frail frame weighing only about ten or eleven kilograms.
Aadi sat there, her expression devoid of emotion, in the entrance of one of the huts, cradled by a young woman who had taken her under her wing. It was possible she was a distant relative. The sight of Aadi stirred profound thoughts about our own children back home, children of the same age as her. During our week-long stay in Somalia, we encountered hundreds of children who shared Aadi’s harrowing reality.
As we made our way back to our trusty Toyota, Ibrahim took the wheel, his weapon close at hand. Fifteen-year-old Islam, our “machine gunner” in the escort team, held a machine gun in one hand while feeding bullets into the chamber with the other. Despite the grim circumstances, a young boy, his infectious smile revealing two rows of gleaming white teeth, relished being photographed in poses reminiscent of Rambo.
On the way back to the compound suddenly it hit me… The next morning would be November 25th, my 40th birthday! A big cake would not be present, nor the candles, but a cold local beer tonight in Ibrahim’s yard at the compound would be a nice treat…
I tried to estimate how many of the fortunate children who had made it to the camps, the ones we had seen here in the past few days, patiently waiting for their lunch rations, would have the opportunity to celebrate their 40th birthday. What were their odds in a country where the average life expectancy fell short of fifty years?
To be continued…