To most of us Mogadishu is nothing more than nine letters on a page, an answer to a Trivial Pursuit question, a vague ethereal dusty sensation. Wasn’t it that place in that movie where they shot down the helicopter? And as indistinct as memory is, it is doubly so to think of fellow humans living, dreaming, fighting, hoping, dying there. But thanks to the incredible courage of aid workers and journalists, the factual and fantastical are made wrenchingly real for us. This is the second searing report by eNews Channel’s ROBYN KRIEL.
THE VACUUM-CLEANER KILLER
“I don’t know what he’s saying but he looks pissed off.”
My cameraman, Meshack Dube, is peering through the viewfinder of his video camera at a visibly angry Somali man. He is shouting at us in the local language and angrily waving what appears to be the nozzle of a giant, industrial vacuum cleaner. He holds the rest of the gadget under his arm protectively, and, at one point, becomes so incensed that Mesh dared to film in his direction, that he puts down his precious cleaner and stalks towards us.
This inspired one of the gaggle of South African journalists covering the Gift of the Givers Mogadishu Mission to snort “death by vacuum cleaner” while encouraging Meshack to continue rolling just to spite him. Add this to the fact that there are thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of spent bullet shell casings on the road where we are standing, and you can get a vague picture of how eerily surreal, yet oddly amusing, we all found the scene unfolding before us.
We were, according to our fixer, the first journalists to enter Al Shabaab’s notorious Abdi Aziz district in about five years. I didn’t doubt it. We had been bugging “Dr H”. an incredibly security conscious Somali-South African surgeon, who looked and acted like Samuel L Jackson, to take us onto the streets of Mogadishu. The media contingent, from various newspaper, radio and TV stations in South Africa, had been covering the famine in Somalia for about a week. We had heard the gunshots and the fighting in the distance as we watched mothers literally squeeze the last drops of milk out of their baggy, dehydrated breasts to feed their emaciated babies. We were emotionally spent and needed just one day of escape. We had told the human tragedy element of the Somalia story, now we wanted some action
Overnight, rumours were rife on the ground that militia group Al Shabaab had pulled out of Mogadishu altogether. Somalis were glued to their radios with hope in their eyes, and we had no way of telling the story because we were at the Gift of the Givers temporary clinic, surrounded by hundreds of desperate refugees.
And then, just like that, “Samuel L Jackson” relented, and we were piled into our fleet of 4x4 vehicles and driven off at high speed.
Driving in Somalia is always interesting. On our first day in Mogadishu, our driver actually ran over a motor biker’s foot. We didn’t stop for that and we certainly didn’t stop for anything else. When we first arrived we were confused about what side of the road Somalis drove on. Our convoy just put their hazard lights, sat with one hand on the horn, and drove up both sides of a dual carriage way, whichever side had the least potholes. “I’m going to hug S’bu Ndebele for the state of our roads when I get home” said the newly appreciative EWN reporter, Nathan Adams, of South Africa’s minister of transport. The potholes in Somalia would swallow a land cruiser, never mind an ordinary vehicle, and the Cape Town-based reporter usually had some choice, albeit hilarious, words about people’s mothers whenever we hit an especially large one.
It was the usual convoy that day. Our escorts were once again the AK-toting Somali soldiers. But it was due to become one of our biggest media scoops of the week, and the action, once again, came to us.
There’s something happening on the left, guys, there’s something happening on the left!”
The ever-alert Vauldi Carelse, an SABC senior reporter, screamed at the two TV cameraman to get their cameras out as our driver and bodyguard Hussein slammed on the brakes. Two cars ahead of us, the land cruiser of Somali soldiers quickly stopped, the soldiers piling out, fingers on their triggers and all screaming what I imagined in Somali to be “get on the ground”! Their quick stop created a domino effect and the van behind them slammed into the back of their vehicle.
Children were running everywhere, in all directions, including into the road. It was the first and only time during our visit that we were to witness any sort of reaction from our new Somali friends to the ongoing violence. Most of the time they just watched us jump at the shooting and shelling in amusement and said “No problem, no problem.” Our driver ordered the cameraman, who, in true cameramen style, wanted to head towards the action, to stay in the car. The old bullet wound on Hussein’s hand and his nervous tongue-chewing was enough to make us all believe he knew what he was talking about, and we sat tight, cracking nervous jokes.
What had happened, we were later told, was that a man had stepped into the road with a 9mm handgun and shot at one of our escort soldiers as they drove past. He thankfully missed, and was quickly arrested. The entire process all took about 30 seconds and completely unnerved the journalists. “No problem, no problem,” assured Hussein. Soon the soldiers were back in their truck, and we took off again, into “Al Shabaab territory”.
BULLETS AND BOOBY TRAPS
The sound and feeling of walking over hundreds of spent bullet casings is one I will never forget. The sheer volume was evidence of the massive gun battle the night before. And for every shell casing, there was a hole in one of the buildings. Huge, gaping cavities in the ornate, historical buildings that could never be repaired.
We were standing in a once grand sort of high street area in what the locals called Juba Centre. A decade ago, it housed the police station, the national post office and ministry of transport. “This used to be one of the most beautiful areas of Mogadishu,” said “Dr H”. His voice cracked a bit and I pretended not to notice.
“They lived like rats,” said one of our interpreters. Al Shabaab had fought a new-age trench-style urban war, it seemed. They built massive, eight-foot trenches to shoot from while evading enemy fire. Trenches filled with spiders and booby-trapped land mines made from lamp cords and seat cushions. Snipers tied silk sheets together to climb up trees to their hides and fire at the enemy, the AU Mission to Somalia, Amisom, and the Somali Transitional Federal Government. All this was left behind as evidence and we were some of the first people to see it.
I’ve said “the air was thick with tension” in a lot of TV stories in the past, ranging from service-delivery protests to awkward political press conferences, but that day, I could feel it, hear it and taste it. If I knew what Al Shabaab smelled like, we probably could have smelled it too. Everywhere we walked, we attracted a huge crowd. The usually cool and collected “Dr H” rushed us here and there, constantly yelling in Somali at the police officers and soldiers guarding us. Later, we learnt “H” was worried someone would attach themselves to us in the group and detonate a suicide bomb. That’s the militia’s modus operandi in times of desperation.
There were a lot more people on the street than normal. Most, we came to realise, were refugees streaming back into the district. Hundreds of people carrying their worldly possessions had been forced out by Al Shabaab years ago. They were now running to reclaim their homes. I’m guessing that’s how we stumbled across the angry vacuum-cleaner man, who, after noticing our soldier escorts, eventually realised he was fighting a losing battle coming at us. One woman told me: “I’m so happy to go home that I want to take off my clothes and celebrate in the street!”
That night, after filing our story, I was awoken by a huge explosion that rattled the windows and our metallic bed frames. It sounded so close that many of us ran outside, fearing a bomb had landed on our compound. “No problem, no problem,” said the amused Somalis. “It is Amisom saying goodbye to Al Shabaab.”
The surface-to-air missiles launched by Amisom on Al Shabaab safe houses were a regular nighttime fixture for the locals. For us it meant that while Al Shabaab may have left the city, they were still close enough to be shot at. The shelling continued throughout the night and none of us slept very well.
The following morning, “Dr H” quietly came to me and told me that his wife back home in South Africa had seen our video of the ruined Abdi Aziz district the night before and cried. The home she grew up in was only a block away from where we were.
THE AGED BABIES
Later that day, when we were back at the clinic, I was struck by the beauty of Somali women and their babies. They wore very colourful scarves around their thin faces and high cheekbones. Their scarf colours became ways to identify which baby belonged to which mother. I noticed that while some of the babies were tiny, their little puckered-up faces looked older. “It’s called a ‘wizened’ look,” said Dr Omar Jooma. It happens when a child is severely malnourished. They begin to look older, their skin becomes very saggy around their neck area. Their eyes become hollow and sunken and it gives the child an aged look. I was staring at a three-month-old baby boy who had the face of a hardened 40 year old. He had lost his youth – too young to even know it.
The Gift of the Givers doctors had large, dark circles under their eyes, but a week into our trip they were more intent than ever on treating everyone who stood in line. That day, a smiling six-year-old little girl came through the door with one of her feet bent in the wrong direction. After much consulting between themselves, the paediatricians concluded that she had polio. “This is my first case of polio in 25 years,” said Jooma sadly. “We have practically eradicated it in South Africa and there is really no need for anyone to have it anymore, because there is a vaccine!”
Dr Amith Ramcharam had the tough task of informing the mother that there was nothing the South African medical team could do for her daughter. She nodded sadly and said “Inshallah” meaning “God willing”. The little girl smiled widely. She had just lost her front teeth and had no idea that her disfigurement would haunt her for the rest of her life. She was chewing contentedly on a lollipop given to her by one of the dieticians, probably the first one she had ever tasted.
At the end of every day, when we would arrive back at the compound from a long, hot day, we were greeted by the smell of delicious, oily samoosas and freezing cold Pepsis or lemonades. We could eat as many samoosas as we wanted. Tiny triangular pockets of chopped onion and meat goodness after the day of nothing. It was the best part of the day, and it was the worst. It is not easy to enjoy a meal as a perfectly healthy grown-up while others are so hungry, just blocks away.
Somali food is incredibly diverse. Tons of fish, chicken, fresh fruit and fresh fruit juice. One by one, though, members of the medical and media team got sick, either with flu or gastro. “Dr H’s” cure for everything was freezing cold, pure, freshly squeezed lemon juice. It really did help to settle the stomach, oddly enough. The kind doctors, after treating close to 1,000 people every day at the clinic, continued their patient rounds way into the night, visiting members of their crew and popping Imodiums, antibiotics and other tiny pills into our mouths.
It is our last day in Mogadishu and we are all feeling a weird sense of delirious relief, mixed with unbearable sadness. The help the South Africans have provided, although monumental and unheard of in recent history in Mogadishu, is but a drop in the vast Indian Ocean that laps on this once-beautiful seaside town’s shores. “This could be Cape Town,” said EWN’s Nathan Adams. The once pearly white stucco buildings, the gorgeous views and the green-blue sea all speak of days gone by. Now it just looks messy and destroyed. There is nothing idyllic here anymore.
But the crowd has different plans for our last day. This crowd was different. Instead of the desperate, quiet mothers with the listless babies who seldom cry, who sat, despite their awful circumstances, in neat little rows with hope in their eyes, this crowd was boisterous. “There are local Somalis mixed in with the refugees here today” said Nageeb, one of our Somali translators. “They are pushing the refugees out of the way because they are stronger.”
Such are the perils of aid work. The strong will often get to the front of the line before the weak. The soldiers were getting more and more unhappy with the crowd of about 500, who became louder and louder. They were pushing hard against the blue iron gate, and every time a truck or car would have to drive through, a torrent of people would flood in with it. Just days before, there had been reports that a World Food Programme food distribution riot had killed six people, just down the road from us. We waited.
Soon, the stampede began. It was the ugliest thing I had seen in Somalia. Babies were dropped on the floor, a toddler was pulled out of the sarong he was wearing, and stood naked, screaming, while people pushed past him. Women and children lost their shoes, the soldiers went ballistic, firing shots just above people’s heads and holding pistols in the faces of women with children. Women piled on top of one another and men pushed and punched and beat people back with sticks. It was over soon, but the feeling of helplessness at the scene we had just witnessed lingered in all of us. These people knew we were leaving the following day and that there would be no foreign medical team to help them. They were willing to die to get in.
HOME, BUT FAR AWAY...
“It has to be the most awful thing, to watch your child die slowly and not be able to do anything.”
My Mom is looking at me for any sign of emotion, and I shrug and show none. We have been home in South Africa for a few days now and life in Mogadishu with the gunshots, convoys, food riots and famine seems so far away, but ever-present. As I drive down Jan Smuts towards my etv offices everything looks softly out-of-focus, like I’m looking at video Meshack shot with his eyes closed. Everyone who watched our reports during our 10 days in Mogadishu is giving us concerned looks and wondering if we need counselling. They ask polite questions and watch for the tears to fall down our cheeks. We just feel empty. It is too hard to describe how thin those children were. I can’t describe how I hid behind a soldier carrying an AK during the food riot, while watching the naked baby be shoved out the way and nearly trampled, too scared to reach out and grab him. Meshack has trouble depicting what it was like to take video of a silent funeral, where a father buried his toddler without any tears, at the bottom of a grave that will be used to bury more than one child.
The people we saw in Mogadishu were those healthy enough to escape their famine-struck areas. They were the ones who had made it to supposed safety and salvation, yet there was nothing waiting for them in their capital city. I dread to think about the people who can’t make the 1,000km journey, those who are starving to death in their homes in the south of Somalia. It infuriates me when I read the news about world leaders and groups of countries postponing the meetings about helping that desperate country. They are living, breathing people and they are dying slowly. They need help yesterday, not in a month’s time. Two-hundred-and-fifty people die each day, tens of thousands of babies are dead already, 3 million risk starvation, half a million refugees in Mogadishu. The numbers being bandied about are just numbers, but look into someone’s eyes, squeeze someone’s shoulder, smile at a toddler and you quickly come to realise that each person is a person.
Would we go back to report there again? Absolutely. Mogadishu is far away now, but right under the surface for us all who went on the Gift of the Givers mission, and it will stay there for a long time. DM
Photo: An internally displaced Somali woman waits for medical attention with her children at Al-Adala settlement in Mogadishu August 11, 2011. Reuters/Omar Faruk