Somalia's famine: A journalist's personal story of anguish and despair
The popular myth of frontline journalism is one of detachment, of almost inhuman apathy in pursuit of elusive – and equally mythical – objectivity. eNews Channel’s ROBYN KRIEL's account blows myths asunder.
It caught me by surprise, a feeling tugging at me from the back of my throat. It was completely unexpected. My chest felt constricted. My breathing became shallow and then, I couldn’t see. Almost of their own volition, out of nowhere, tears fell across my cheeks.
I was, at a temporary clinic set up by SA charity Gift of the Givers near an overcrowded refugee camp in Mogadishu, Somalia. For the past five days I’d been reporting for South Africa’s eNews Channel on starving babies, sick babies, babies with measles. I’d witnessed a litany of medical conditions; TB, gastro, cholera, leprosy, pneumonia - they all jostle for space here. I had looked mothers in the eye as I asked them about the treacherous journeys they’d undertaken for weeks, barefoot and dehydrated. They told me how they’d buried their children in strange lands along the roads. I felt pity for them, yes, but I didn’t cry. I had stories to file for 13:00 and 19:00 deadlines. I needed to write, edit, do live shots, work with my cameraman, all the while staying alert and alive as sporadic gunfire clamoured just down the street, as common to Mogadishu as a dog’s bark is in suburban Johannesburg.
Then, I met Baby Salamo. She wasn’t nearly as sick as the other babies we had reported on. Her mother wasn’t as shabbily dressed and had a smiling, hopeful face as she watched the Gift of the Givers paediatricians insert an intravenous drip into her daughter’s tiny hand. The baby whimpered, her petite lips circled into a tiny, emaciated yell, and she stretched out her free hand. I reached toward her outstretched hand with my index finger and she gripped it tightly, looking me right in the eye and screaming bloody murder. I was overwhelmed. It all went blurry after that.
The paediatrician continued with his work unperturbed by the weeping wannabe war correspondent. Salamo and I cried together. Her mother looked at me, a concerned look on her face, and rubbed my shoulder affectionately. This kind gesture from a person who had nothing forced another torrent of tears.
Baby Salamo was undergoing the first step to recovery for a dehydrated baby. The doctors rejoiced when the mother, with a panicked look on her face, lifted up her baby to reveal a big wet spot. When a child gives an almighty wail and real tears pop out of her eyes, it’s an achievement because dehydrated babies don’t cry tears. Some are so listless they don’t have the energy to do anything other than whimper.
Looking back now, I’m not sure if it was the kindness of the doctors, dieticians, paramedics, and nurses that pushed me over the edge that day. Everyone was so tired and emotionally exhausted I assumed they had gone (like me) into robotic mode. Then, I noticed Ismail Vawda fussing over Baby Salamo, chatting patiently via translator to her concerned mother, finding out if she was still breastfeeding and what the baby’s symptoms were. The young doctor looked so concerned and so sincere. Then it dawned on me. This man, dressed in his Islamic “topee” hat, scrubs and beard, who looked more like a kindly Papa Smurf than a paediatrician in a warzone, really did care about this baby. They all do. The tender way they assess these patients, you soon realise is not a mechanical act learned from some textbook. The joy they feel when a tiny patient starts to respond and begins to perk as the IV fluid runs into its veins, is all real. I struggled to believe the reality of it - here are people who are giving everything, asking for nothing and seeing genuine pleasure in their patients’ recovery. These medical practitioners are all volunteers, taking either special leave or vacation leave to make the trip to Somalia. ‘This for us is a privilege, not a burden,’ says Fameeda Miller. ‘We came here, during the holiest month of the Muslim calendar, to do God’s work.’ Baby Salamo left the clinic that day yelling her head off. Her mother, beaming with pride and thanking the doctors profusely. Thanks to the care Baby Salamo had received there, Vawda later told me, she would likely recover fully.
Not all the people on this trip are Muslims, but a lot of them are. I didn’t know much about the spirituality of Ramadan before this trip, but my eyes were opened. Prayers begin over loudspeaker at 04:00 every morning. The first morning it was a distraction, but every morning thereafter, it was a welcome comfort.
It is one thing to pray, but it is another to help and then pray. To have unwavering faith.
Somalia is about 98% Muslim, and when ordinary Somalis heard the call to prayer they’d slip out of the temporary hospital and spend a quiet moment meditating. Our drivers, the soldiers who looked after us, the volunteers from Gift of the Givers, were all incredibly disciplined about fasting, despite the long day and the incredibly hot, humid weather. The Muslim doctors would finish their day, after working on hundreds and hundreds of babies, and come home to pray for hours. And this, for them, was a privilege. ‘Prayer helps us relax, to focus,’ says Omar Jooma.
In the field, and in Mogadishu especially, any ruthless competitiveness you may endure with another TV station, newspaper or radio station is sidelined. When I told SABC senior journalist, Vauldi Carelse about Baby Salamo and my reaction to it, she cried as well. All of us helped the ‘competition’. The goal shifted from being the first person on the scene, or the person with the best visuals, to just getting the message out. Everyone, once in the famine zone, morphed into a team. It has been refreshing. The SABC, Eyewitness News and eNews teams all shared a room in the huge compound once owned by a former Somali minister and now acquired by Gift of the Givers as a base for this mission. It was a grand mansion, once upon a time. Complete with marble floors, elaborate chandeliers, four-poster beds and huge Jacuzzi bathtubs.
All the broadcasters set up camp slightly removed from the rest. We keep longer hours and the sheer volume of our equipment requires more space than the niceties of our own comfort. We are fairly certain the rooms we slept in were once used as lodgings for domestic staff. The conditions were not great. None of us was sleeping for more than four hours a night, if that. Most of have been ill at some point. The water would go off, the electricity would go off and, being broadcasters, there was a host of technical problems that could go wrong everyday - batteries dying, microphones cutting out, visuals without sound, sound without visuals, and of course the caprice of the dreaded satellite transmitters, called BGANs, we use to send out our visuals back to South Africa. Let’s just say, we had a few other four-letter names for those things by the time we left. At that stage it had become stupid to be competitive. There were so many stories around us and so many people with problems much greater than ours.
We didn’t need an alarm clock in Mogadishu, because we had the flies. Every morning at around 06:00, like clockwork, the flies would wake up and invade our hot, little room. One would invariably sit on my lip, trying to get into my mouth. If it wasn’t the flies, (they don’t like the rain much) then it was the gunfire. ‘They carry guns like we carry cellphones’ noticed SABC cameraman, Herbert Mamela. It seemed that everyone in Mogadishu owned a gun and, from the sound of it, everyone used it. Some were single shots, presumably fired into the air. Others were pulsating bursts of fire, heavy fire that could only come from an AK 47 or some sort of machine gun. That’s the ongoing turf war between AU/Somalia Transitional Government Forces and the Al Shabaab militia. From the state of the weapons carried by our Somali bodyguard soldiers, I’m not sure how they actually ever fired their weapons. Some of them looked like they were from another century. The fighting, although just around the corner, seemed so far away and removed from us.
Until, it was on our doorstep.
‘Robyn, Robyn, come quickly, Meshack and Herbert have just been shot at!’
I am watching a tiny baby being weighed by one of the dieticians, when my reverie is broken by Vauldi Carelse. She is clearly unhappy, her normally calm voice heightened by panic. Herbert is her cameraman. Meshack is my cameraman, and a good friend. My stomach sinks. ‘No, no, no,’ I think in a panic, ‘Not Mesh. Please God. What will I tell his fiancée and baby girl?’
‘Vauldi and I sprint from the clinic to find them. They appear fine, but shaken. Well, actually they are shaking, with laughter. I punch Meshack, and then hug him. I tell him I love him, and then I punch him again. He’s laughing uncontrollably. I contemplate killing him myself. Laughter, it seems, is the only thing you can do when you have been shot at - and missed - by an unknown sniper, several kilometres away. ‘We heard the shot, and thought it was a normal shot somewhere in the distance,’ Mesh tells me. ‘Then we heard it whiz past our heads. Herbert and I pulled each other down, and we turned around and everyone else had gotten down as well. When we stood up the soldiers were laughing at us, and then we started laughing as well.’ Such is the precariousness of life in Mogadishu. One moment you are alive, the next you have been shot, perhaps by a stray bullet that comes from the sky or perhaps by a child using you for target practice.
Meshack and I have covered many stories together. We’ve borne discomfort and danger together. In Afghanistan we lived in a tent pitched in the sand for a month. He is a lot more than just a colleague and I was suddenly horrified by what had just happened and was reminded of the gravity of the situation we are witnesses to here.
I soon joined their laughter, because it was either that or cry. Again.
We are in Somalia for a few more days, and every morning I can’t wait to wake up and tell the next story. I find comfort in the dignity of the men and women who bring in their sick children. I find strength in their strength. I find warmth in the kindness of the doctors and nurses. In Somalia, I know that despite all the bad, there is just as much goodness.” DM
Photo: Internally displaced Somali women carry their children as they stand outside their makeshift shelter in the capital Mogadishu August 6, 2011. Some 3.7 million Somalis are at risk of starvation, the majority of them in the south, prompting hundreds of thousands to make the dangerous trek to Mogadishu and its outlying areas in search of food. Drought, the worst in decades, has affected about 12 million people across the Horn of Africa. REUTERS/Ismail Taxta