by Abdul Ghelleh
Monday, August 22, 2016
Over the Indian Ocean and on the approach to landing in Kismayo (southern Somalia), the plane dropped four thousand feet in a single maneuver followed by another violent drop. There was no decompression in the cabin and the oxygen masks did not drop in front of me, so I did not know what to make out of it as I have never experienced such a violent aircraft movement before. When we landed, I asked the young pilot what had happened. “The second drop was about five thousand feet; were you scared, he asked? Before I could respond to the question and while he was lowering the door of the plane’s cargo hold, he added: It’s not hundred percent safe but it was necessary; Al Shabaab’s location is about few miles from this airstrip. And whenever we fly to southern Somalia, we deploy our emergency procedure”! Welcome to Al Shabaab territory.
A Siad Barre built whitewashed and windowless immigration building nearby, I paid fifty US Dollars and my passport was stamped ‘Exit 05 February 2016’. I did not inspect it at the time and it was not deliberate I guess, but perhaps the young man in the immigration office may have lacked the necessary professional training or may even have missed his formal primary education to a continuing conflict in the area. I tucked away my passport in the inside pocket of my jacket and wheeled my bag back to an area close to the runway where I could find shade under the scorching early afternoon sun.
There, a large group of men had already gathered including my contact in the city. Ahmed Madobe, the man who captured the city with the help of the Kenya army some three and half years earlier was flying to Nairobi, Kenya with the same aircraft in which I have just disembarked. I watched as the city’s strongman in his dark safari suit strolled towards the plane, with about fifty of his favourite cronies walking close behind to see him off. Within fifteen minutes of landing, the plane was in the air once again. I am now in one of the world’s most dangerous territories for the first time in my life.
Getting down to work
A week into my stay in Kismayo, I met a guy who runs a local Non-Governmental Organization through someone who welcomed me to the city and whom I knew through my writings on WardheerNews. For reasons unknown to me, the online magazine wouldn’t publish this piece on its website. Our project, perhaps the only one in town with meaningful objectives, was to engage and create jobs for hundreds of young people who would otherwise have been at risk of falling into the hands of radical groups. In our second encounter in as many days and without hesitating, the project director told me that my experience is needed in this town and immediately offered me the post of project manager. After forwarding the necessary paperwork to the Somali Stability Fund (SSF) - a multi donor programme based in Nairobi, I was at work the following day.
Unbeknown to me, the livelihoods and the capacity building project had its fair share of enemies, just like the NGOs in other conflict areas of Africa. The militia groups who run the city and who often goes without pay for long periods are particularly eyeing for a substantial cut in the project’s tight budget. I later discovered that, although Al Shabaab is based just outside of the city limits and continues to pose imminent danger to the residents of the city, these militias have most of the guns inside the town and it would almost be impossible to ignore their demands. In fact our bodyguards – five in all – were no match for a few hundred heavily armed and battle hardened former war children. They have all the ‘Technicals’ (as it’s called locally) – a Japanese made pickup trucks mounted with what appears to be an anti-aircraft weapon. The militia started harassing us for a few days. Then when a letter to shut down the project was handed to us on March 18, it spoke volumes: we need the money or else. We pleaded with the leaders of the militia to allow us to continue working for the long suffering people of their city but to no avail.
Kidnapped in Kismayo
On the morning of Saturday March 19, four technicals and numerous other vehicles carrying tens of armed militias swamped outside our offices. When the three militia commanders stormed into our office, I was immediately manhandled and taken away, while lower ranking members of the militia intermittently fired into the air. A kidnapping plot was underway. I was put in a saloon car while the director was led into another. I recorded the temperature at nine in the morning: twenty eight degree Celsius and rising. The car in which I was detained in was stationery outside our offices for about twenty minutes with the blackened-out windows shut as I gasped for fresh air. After I politely asked that I need a window to be lowered, the two young lads who were sporting loaded pistols inside the car, effectively guarding me, did not acknowledge my request let alone sympathize with my plight. At that point the magnitude of the situation hit me hard: these boys have killed people in the past and would not hesitate to kill again. I decided to stay seated in the back of the car and wait for what happens next.
The director and I were driven away in separate cars under heavy guard to an unknown destination. When we arrived at a militia-run compound, a place called Fiat (perhaps the Italians had a car showroom here during the colonial era), we were searched, belongs confiscated and promptly locked up. I was put in a filthy and windowless cell with about forty teenagers. The director was thrown into another with about similar number of youngsters. Had I been white, this story would have made the headlines on prime time television news right across the UK and around the Western world on the same day. But what would a white guy or a non-ethnic Somali, for that matter, be doing in an Al Shabaab playground, I wondered, except those who are converts and had already joined the ranks of the warring factions? Against all advice, it was my choice to travel there; I needed to feel and observe the Somali conflict personally for a few months.
It was late afternoon and while inside, my cellmates got exited in my presence and immediately debated on what should happen to me next. Their age range was between twelve and nineteen years. One impressionable sixteen year old boy’s words sent chill to my spine after saying that I would be taken to the beach later that evening! But another inmate countered his assertion and said that I would be set free soon. “Remember the old man who was taken to the beach the other day at around four in the afternoon. We did not see him again, did we”? The teenager reminded the other detainees. I have heard about the beach thing because everyone in town knew that this is the place where Madobe’s militias have executed people in recent past. Prior to my arrival, two businessmen who returned from the diaspora where executed on daylight. Basically, among the other charges, they belonged to the wrong clan.
Although worried for my safety, I also saw an opportunity to conduct quick interviews with the boys. Some townsmen must be on their way to Madobe’s fort to alert him of our kidnapping right now, I reassured myself. Apparently, my cellmates were all suspected of being members of Al Shabab. Talking to them while appearing to be concerned about their welfare is one way of disarming them in case I was held overnight and someone had smuggled information that I am anti-Al Shabaab and wrote about the atrocities committed in Somalia. There was one non-Ogaden detainee out of about forty inmates. Listening to what they had to say was the tactic I employed.
Our conversations are translated from Somali: “look at the way I am being treated in my own country, Abdi, a baby-faced teen who appeared to be the spokesman for the group said, adding, if I go to across the fence in the Al Shabaab-held territory, they will kill me because they think that I am a ‘Murtad’, an Arabic word for a non-believer. And if I had to manage to escape to the supposedly secular militia side as I did a year ago, they accuse me of being a member of Al Shabaab. We’re frustrated”. Another interjected while speaking for the whole group: “we have no hope in our own country. They held us for more than a year, and for some, they are being locked up for more than two years under these conditions. If and when we are released, we have no choice but to try and cross the desert and into the Mediterranean to seek safety in Europe”. With other larger projects on the pipeline, these were some of the youngsters I planned to assist back into sustainable civil life and away from the reach of the extremist groups.
A conversation with the United Nations
Nine days after my kidnapping, our project received an invitation from the UN on a short notice, little over twenty four hours to be precise. It’s an open secret that the UN regards any Somali person in Somalia, including NGOs workers and government officials, as a potential risk to the life of their personnel. Two members of staff and I went to Kismayo airstrip to meet a UN group led by the head of Human Recovery.
Ian Paterson, a ponytailed and suntanned fifty-something man who had probably worked in other conflict zones elsewhere in Africa for many years was in a seat directly opposite mine. Paterson opened the meeting by explaining the nature of their trip: “We, at the United Nations, are the eyes and ears of the donor community because we are able to go to places were the donors themselves are reluctant to send their personnel. Ian and I are having small talk in a fortified compound at Kismayo airstrip, protected by several Africa Union Peace-Keeping contingencies. Although I offered the opportunity to see the activities of our project in the city, a stone’s throw from where we were holding the meeting, he appeared to have declined my proposal. The UN and other iNGOs, I concluded, simply aren’t interested in how the projects they purportedly support are delivered on the ground or the impact such projects may be having on communities it meant to be serving.
During a break and while everyone else remained seated or helped themselves with the refreshments provided, Paterson went outside for a smoke. It was the opportunity I was waiting for. I immediately followed him outside, promptly greeted and lit my fag as well. I introduced myself and confided in him that I was kidnapped recently and that the danger still lingers on. I knew that the UN could use its leverage - if it wanted to - on the Somali fiefdom leaders and the warlords in order to protect the local NGOs. Ian said that he is interested on the issue and scrawled his contact email on my notepad, quickly discarded his cigarette and added: “email me with more details”.
Back in the meeting room, Ian told us while reaching for a glass of imported bottled water: “what we report back to our partner agencies is imperative to the assessment made by the donor community as to which project deserves a continuity of funding”. I wrote about the NGOs and Africa in the past but this is the first time I happened to be in the same room as the world’s biggest NGO. The following day I sent Ian a detailed email. He did not even acknowledge its contents.
In Somalia, and other conflict zones in East Africa, armed militias are actually enforcing their own laws while constantly disturbing any efforts to bring back normality and social progress. And the countless donor representatives keep throwing some of the cash donated by the international community from the windows of heavily protected airstrips, uninterested in a particular projects’ outcome or its impact on the local population. Aid managers then return with the rest of the cash to Nairobi and draft glossy magazine style reports on how the development programmes and the rule of law should be working. Well, next time that is.