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After My U.N. Office Was Attacked, Our Somali Colleagues Went Back to Work the Next Day

Tuesday June 12, 2018
By Dewaine Farria

African Union Mission to Somalia soldiers take cover after Shabab insurgents shot and blasted their way into the United Nations compound in Mogadishu in June 2013.CreditMohamed Abdiwahab/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The blast wave thundered through the compound, ripping the expletive on my lips in two and cramming half of it back down my throat. The radio-room supervisor, Hassan Osman, and I stumbled to the balcony. In that cathedral-quiet moment between the detonation of the car bomb and the staccato barrage of gunfire, we knew they were coming. Shabab militants were storming the compound, squeezing off bursts from the Kalashnikovs at their hips, leaping the gate’s smoking wreckage. It was June 19, 2013.

“Dewaine. Dewaine.” Hassan’s voice was steady, his hand on my shoulder. “Do the public announcement.”

Over the P.A., I instructed the several dozen United Nations staff members to duck and cover and then tried to figure out what to do next. With every rifle crack, my world flashed in a monochrome of stark, tactical decisions, like life and death reduced to their lowest common denominators. Even in the moment, the irony of stumbling into my first firefight more than a decade after leaving the Marine Corps was not lost on me. Since leaving the military, I’d grown used to my buddies shaking their virtual heads, via social media, at the fundamental insanity of inserting yourself into war without having the good sense to engage in combat.

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Mogadishu was a study in violent coexistence, a brutal ecosystem where new conflicts sprouted up without ever quelling the old. The Somali capital’s recent history included warlords, the Islamic Courts Union, the Ethiopian military, the Shabab and a shaky Western-backed government. This attack on the United Nations Common Compound — 10,000 square meters split between offices and living quarters, just off Mogadishu’s airport road — felt like the city’s fiercest predator had finally decided to take our measure.

After the initial blast, our Somali guards immediately returned fire, dropping the first two Shabab gunmen who came through the breach. Between clipped radio transmissions from the African Union Mission and the Somali government, four more militants unhesitatingly charged over the bodies of their companions. The guards’ gunfire funneled the attackers onto the accommodation side of the compound.

Under cover of suppressive fire from the towers, several of the guards and I leapfrogged the buildings on the accommodation side to herd staff members to the safe rooms on the opposite end of the compound. Pulling back the bolt on the office Kalashnikov to reveal brass bolstered my courage before our mad dash through the compound, but it was the valor and tenacity of our Somali allies that actually saved lives.

Mogadishu left a permanent scratch on my heart, but talking about the attack remains difficult. I’ve never wanted to risk implying that I’d done more than I did, or to say what I really feared: that I hadn’t done enough. The Shabab murdered 15 civilians, aid workers and contractors at the compound that day, including four of our Somali guards.

In Mogadishu, I led a United Nations Department of Safety and Security office consisting of three other international field security coordination officers — a Russian, a Ugandan and a Bulgarian — and about 20 local advisers, drivers and radio operators. Save for an unauthorized Chinese-made Kalashnikov, purchased by one of my predecessors and handed down to every senior field security coordination officer since, we were armed with nothing more than our wits.

Somali government soldiers after insurgents attacked a United Nations compound in Mogadishu.CreditMohamed Abdiwahab/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

For armed security, we depended on a Somali-owned private security company and the host government, with whom we carried out United Nations program delivery — agriculture and sanitation projects, polio monitoring, shelter programs — in and around the city. Armed security arrangements with private companies tend to unnerve humanitarians, who rightly worry about violating the principles of their profession. But my four postings with the United Nations taught me that in areas of conflict you could have a clean humanitarian conscience or deliver aid, but rarely both. Despite the inherent tension between United Nations agencies and the armed entities they relied on, our security system in Mogadishu worked. My team got aid personnel to some of the toughest locations in and around the capital.

I fell right in with my Somali security counterparts. I chewed bitter khat, a leaf with effects similar to amphetamine, with these guys, screeched through Mogadishu’s 17 districts behind their escort vehicles, and kicked up red dust while waiting for them during prayer stops on the roads to towns so recently vacated by the Shabab that you might still find the militants’ dirty dishes in the sink. Colonized but never broken, the Somalis were a wiry, arrogant and daring people for whom friendship ran deep. For all of Somalia’s trouble, I met fewer dispirited men in Mogadishu than I did in Manhattan.

After the attack, the personnel based at the compound, including me and the other foreign staff members on my team, relocated to the United Nations’ main compound in Somalia on the sprawling grounds of Mogadishu international airport. Protected by Ugandan and Burundian troops, displaced internationals could now join the mission staff, hacks, military officers and contractors who converged at the United Nations Mine Action Service’s “Little Kruger Bar” — foreigners with faces crimsoned by alcohol and the sun, many of whom could spend the weeks in country without ever leaving the airport or speaking to a Somali.

The new mission in Somalia was officially established only two weeks before the attack and had barely started moving into the compound on the grounds of the Mogadishu airport. The United Nations’ only unified radio room in Mogadishu — which maintained contact with its humanitarian and development convoys throughout the area — remained at our now-abandoned compound. I knew I couldn’t ask Hassan and his fellow radio operators to return to work at the hollowed-out buildings of an organization that the Shabab claimed were thwarting “Allah’s Law on earth & must therefore be dislodged.” But when I conducted my morning radio check from within the airport grounds the next day, it was Hassan’s voice that responded.

“Sierra 1, this is Mike Sierra Base, you’re five by five.”

In “War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern Times,” the journalist Linda Polman says that “the job of humanitarian aid worker is No. 5 on the Top 10 list of dangerous occupations, after lumberjack, pilot, fisherman and structural iron- or steelworker. It’s the only job on the list where most of the fatalities are caused by intentional violence.” From Chechnya to Dadaab refugee camp to Mogadishu to Gaza, I consistently found that most of this risk is borne by local staff — the polio-vaccination monitors, the convoy drivers, the project officers, the guards and the radio operators — who make up the backbone of international aid organizations.

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