Thursday, 23 May 2013

A Year in Mog - Somalia

Somalia is a place that really gets under your skin.  A land of extremes that draws you back again and again.

I made one of my all time unforgettable safaris before the civil war, walking camels up from Kismayo to Hargeisa.  The book I took on that journey is the Somalia book, that I have re-read many times - 'Warriors and Strangers by Gerald Hanley. Later during fighting in the early 1990's I returned to establish and manage agricultural rehabilitation programmes along the Juba and Shabelle rivers.

Looking back at old black and white photos of the Italian colonial era it never ceases to amaze that a place could be so comprehensively trashed and still provide a home for so many.

Each day of blazing heat was greeted with the cry ‘turned out nice again’ before heading to the field. The Somalis were just as affected by the pulsating sun and white glare reflecting off an unforgiving landscape, perfectly matching  their highly volatile nature's.  

Back then Mog had the daily backdrop of almost constant automatic weapons fire.  Usually M16’s and AK47’s and occasionally something heavier when the Technical’s became animated.

One faction owned a flatbed truck with a four barrel anti aircraft gun attached. It tended to appear out of side streets, horizontally traverse that gun and let rip. Everyone scattered to the hills as its destructive impact within an enclosed urban space was spectacularly appalling.

Most NGO's had hustlers outside their compounds trying to sell or rent what they had looted. Occasionally these groups became fractious, and the normal backdrop of gunfire grew in intensity and volume.  One security briefing continued under a heavy dining table with bullets pinging off the wall above our heads

Then one day the firing outside really did become intense and the compound  filled with smoke. Bursts of gunfire  tended to last a minute or two, but this just went on and on.  It was the ambush and murder of 24 U.N. Pakistani peacekeepers, an event which contributed to the intervention of the Americans. The rest of that story is now history.

Two outstanding people I worked with and will never forget were Dan Eldon of Reuters and Sean Devereux of UNICEF.  Both were exceptional but found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time and did not make it back.

Preparing for a trip to the field
In 2013 the Brits re-opened an Embassy and  and funded solar powered street lighting which has made a huge difference to the atmosphere in Mogadishu after dark.
The diaspora are starting to return, leading to a spectacular rise in the value of habitable real estate and now there is even a dry cleaners.

If Somalia can emulate the success story that is Somaliland, those old black and white photos may cease to be distant memories.