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My time in Somalia with Michael Meacher, Tony Benn’s ‘vicar on earth’

The Spectator
Friday April 5, 2019
By Aidan Hartley

Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The late Michael Meacher represented almost everything I loathe in a politician. Before his death in 2015, this veteran Labour MP was Jeremy Corbyn’s ardent fan. He had served under Wilson and Callaghan and he was so left-wing he earned the nickname Tony Benn’s ‘vicar on earth’. Yet when I compare Michael to most MPs in the Commons today — disgusting cowardly weathercocks — I remember with admiration that effete, parchment-white Englishman I saw standing about at Mogadishu’s wrecked airfield 27 years ago.

Somalia had collapsed into anarchy. Dried blood and bone fragments were smeared across the airport terminal and militia battlewagons were zooming around the runway. I was a Reuters correspondent covering the civil war with Dan Eldon, the young photographer killed during fighting in Mogadishu a year later, and we took pity on this strange fellow who had nobody to collect him.

I had no clue who Michael was, but he introduced himself as a British Labour MP. I later discovered he was the shadow secretary of state for foreign affairs. He was entirely alone and carried a rucksack but no food or water. He said he had come to see for himself what was going on in Somalia. Dan and I thought he was very foolish but he would have been kidnapped or murdered if left to fend for himself, so we bundled him into our vehicle and set off for the inland town of Baidoa.

On the road we hurtled past wrecked villages and smashed wagons crowded with sun-dried corpses. Armed youths stoned out of their brains stopped us at roadblocks demanding cash. Four hours inland across the sparse, beautiful Somali acacia bushlands, we started seeing herds of walking skeletons. There were groups of figures crouching in the shade, brown rags, long teeth, sunken eyes, emaciated children along the roadsides. The numbers of dead and dying increased the closer we got to Baidoa, which was a magnet for starving people because the charities had set up feeding centres in the town.

In Baidoa we stayed with an American charity handing out emergency rations in tents full of children with oversized heads, bulging eyes and plastic tubes coming out of their noses, crapping watery puddles and dying in their listless mothers’ arms. ‘That one’s circling the drain,’ said a nurse pointing at a dying child. ‘You know, like a spider in your bath?’ Dan and I had already made the trip to Baidoa several times and we favoured this American charity because the nurses were attractive young women. On the roof of the charity’s headquarters, the security men had set up large bags of milk powder and food aid to hide behind when the shooting started, as it did at all hours of the day and night.

Across southern Somalia the famine was in full swing that summer, a catastrophe caused entirely by fighting between clans. The state had utterly collapsed and all the embassies had evacuated a year before. The outside world was preoccupied with the Balkans civil war and very few people took any notice of what was happening in the Horn of Africa. Britain had sent almost no help at all to Somalia by that stage. In Baidoa each morning a fleet of lorries did the rounds, collecting the people who had died overnight. Dan and I took Michael around with us while we took photographs and collected interviews and colour for the morning reports. The lorries deposited the bodies in piles and around 400 dead were being buried each day in just this one town. Almost all the children under five died in southern Somalia that year and estimates, whatever they meant, were that 300,000 people were killed by hunger and disease.

For several days Michael accompanied us, took notes and asked questions. He was a bit stuffy and did not join in any of the banter or our ragging about with the nurses, which we did to let off steam during the evenings. Dan and I were quite cruel, grilling him about why the UK was so hopeless in its lack of sympathy for the Somalis. We could see Michael suffered greatly, not only because everything he witnessed was so distressing, but also because he became dehydrated and ill from the intense heat. We dropped him off at the airport a few days later and away he flew. I suppose he filed a report back in Westminster. We all know what has happened to Somalia since then. How many MPs alive today would be so brave and go to so much trouble out of sympathy for people on the other side of the world? I imagine very few.


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