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Toronto (Canada)

Feb, 7. 2004


M. M. Afrah

(This story appeared on the Life Section of the East African Standard newspaper of Nairobi, Kenya.)

CASILEY Airstrip 20, June 1995

It was early in the morning and I was standing at a windswept airstrip north of Mogadishu, the Somali capital, with a group of visiting Western journalists, waiting for a UN-chartered Tupolev aircraft that was to take us to the Kenyan capital of Nairobi.
The twin-engine Soviet-era airplane appeared in the horizon when an .85mm mortar shell exploded in the middle of the dirt runway, about 300 feet from where we stood, like cattle waiting to be slaughtered.

The Russian pilot could not land his aircraft on the bomb-scared runway and we would go back to the smoking ruins of Mogadishu, or that another mortar round would land, this time on us, because they always come in pairs!

I suddenly realized sweat broken out in my forehead and armpits. "Oh, no. Not now!" I thought. "A farewell mortar!"
Several journalists lost their lives while trying to cover the anarchy and mayhem in that Horn of Africa country. Many died in crossfire as they tried to cross Mogadishu's hellish Green Line, dividing the devastated Somali capital along clan fiefdoms. An angry mob has lynched Dan Eldon, Hoss Maina, Anthony Macharia of Reuters news agency and Hansi Kraus of the Associated Press (AP) in the wake of a UN helicopter assault in South Mogadishu and their badly mutilated bodies dragged in the streets of the city.

Ilaria Alpi and Miran Hrovatin, journalists,murdered in Mogadishu on March 19th, 1994
The first question everybody asked the moment they learnt that I managed to escape from Mogadishu is: "How did you get out of that hell-hole?"
To this day I still puzzle how the Russian pilot, an Afghan war veteran, succeeded in landing his aircraft over a huge bomb crater in the middle of the runway, instead of returning to Nairobi as common sense dictated.

One of the journalists sitting next to me had difficult remembering the day of the month and the type of the Soviet-made aircraft. We looked at each other as the Topolev took off in the middle of heavy artillery exchange between forces loyal to the opposing Mogadishu warlords, Ali Mahdi Mohamed and General Aideed, shook our heads and laughed. For a moment I thought I had gone insane as a result of what I had witnessed during the last ten years of civil war, famine and anarchy in Somalia described by the International Committee of the Red Cross as the world's greatest human tragedy today.

Another journalist, a frontline reporter of many wars and revolutions said he had the same experience in Vietnam, Beirut, Liberia and El Salvador, and he would not be surprised if the deadly 37mm anti-aircraft gun hits the airplane! He had survived several close encounters with death and kidnapping attempts in Beirut during the savage civil war in Lebanon.

Sporting Hemmingway style sleeveless Safari jackets and bucket hats, others in my group are seasoned frontline journalists of the old school and veteran war correspondents made of sterner stuff, but they were all eager to see Somalia fade from view through an airplane window. In Mogadishu and Baidoa (The City of Death) they have seen more than they could absorb.

Somalia was and is still very dangerous place, but the airstrip in the north of the city is the worst place on earth. If the wind is right one could hear the 37mm anti-aircraft guns starting in the south of the city whenever a plane made its approach to the airstrip.
The first incoming artillery shell would precede the landing of an airplane by seconds. Anyone waiting there to be transported could do nothing, nothing at all, because there are no bomb shelters or hiding places anywhere around the dusty airstrip, aptly named Asiley, the place for the exiles, and there was nothing random about the shelling. But there was no feeling in the world that compared with the feeling I felt as I became airborne out of Somalia after more than two decades of reporting bizarre events as they unfolded in front of my eyes.

In Mogadishu it was like driving in a Mad Max movie set and the whole country is awash with guns and someone is always shooting at you and you do not know who or why. Journalists are particularly targeted because somebody is anxious to put their hands on the expensive cameras that reporters always carried around.
It is common to see 12-year-old boys trying out their newly acquired AK-47 or M-16 assault rifles in order to prove their manhood, otherwise they would be disowned by the clan and their peers. (I tried to remember where I'd learned the names of all the weapons in Somalia. But then even kids in Mogadishu knew the name of every weapon and armour like the back of their hands).
The airstrip is a hive of activities because of the hourly flights from Nairobi that unload cargoes of Qaad and cigarettes and the importers of these lethal cargoes hide behind their heavily armed private army. The gun-boys cleverly avoid the numerous airstrips around the capital; because the warlords and their hired superior firepower and big money are ever present there to direct the unloading of the Qaad and cigarette cargoes from Nairobi's Wilson Airport.

This is the story of a young press photographer from the defunct Somali Films Agency. He is probably 25 years old, although it was not easy to guess the age of people in Somalia due to the effect of the prolonged factional fighting and famine. Many visiting journalists couldn't tell the difference between a man of fifty and a boy of fifteen.

The photographer was always smiling and his eyes never showed fatigue or war-weariness. He gave the usual 300 dollars to the man who represented the Cessna aircraft in Mogadishu. His passport in order, his bags packed, he was going through all the last minute business of "getting out," organizing letters from friends to their relatives to be posted in Nairobi for onward transmission to Western Europe, United States and Canada. Because like everything else in Somalia, postal services have been destroyed in the wake of the popular uprising against the former military dictator, Major-General Barre.

By noon, the good-byes and backslapping had ended. He caught a ride in a battle-wagon mounted with a .50mm Browning Machinegun, locally known as Technicals. The driver left him at the edge of the airstrip to fend for himself.

He dropped his bags and looked around and watched the Cessna as it touched down. The shelling started. He ran, leaping over some shrubs and cactuses. He lay flat on the ground and listened until there was nothing to listen to. The shelling stopped as quickly as it started. And the Cessna left without him. One of the artillery shells narrowly missed the aircraft and the Asian bush pilot momentously decided not to wait for another one.

Back to the city, there were some surprises at his return, but no one said anything. Anyone can miss a plane. They all simply slapped him on the back and wished him a better luck the next time out.

The next morning, two of his friends went with him to the perimeter of the airstrip to see him off on his second attempt. They went back home to say that he had gotten out for sure this time.

An hour later, the press photographer came up the dirt road across the notorious Sniper Alley, again, smiling. He said that there had been a deadly shootout at the airstrip between two rival clans over the ownership of the narcotic drug Qaad and cigarettes, imported daily from Kenya and the Cessna had left without him again!
He was still there smiling when I left the burning city. He probably made it.
Eventually, but you can never tell.

Now standing at that airstrip we watched helplessly as another 85mm mortar hit a family of five who were apparently waiting for the same Cessna on the other side of the dusty airstrip in order to flee the inferno that is Somalia. None of the family members survived that latest carnage.

I've seen artillery shells hit sprawling and densely populated neighbourhoods, I've heard cries of agony and grief, I saw bloated bodies rotting in the streets and in public gardens, unburied. I've heard Mooryaans boast the number of people they had killed during the day, and robbed their real estate properties, and raped their womenfolk in the process. I saw one of my sons and some of my colleagues killed in front of my eyes.

But that last image at that hellish Casiley airstrip has remained imprinted on my memory, as well as what it feels like to abandon your own country to begin life all over again in a country where a no-English speaking Somali comes face-to-face with overconfident, briefcase carrying immigration officials, bully security guards and egoistical landlords. But that is not all. He or she has to cope with the deadly seasonal flu' and the harsh Arctic winter. Not to mention his host's indifference to a one time proud Somali nationalist-now-turned a helpless refugee in a strange land, trying to make ends meet.

It is a miracle that he or she have survived SARS, Mad Cow Disease, West Nile virus, Stomach Flu' and other seasonal flu. An old colleague of mine, now employed by a local newspaper, aptly commented: "We are from the clutches of brutal warlords at home only to end up with egoistical, penny-pinching Landlords in the Diaspora." He said the title of his new book is "FROM SOMALI WARLORDS TO NORTH AMERICAN LANDLORDS." Good luck!


Yesterday, Today: Voices from the Somali Diaspora by Nuruddin Farah
Mission Impossible by Helen Fogarassy
The Somali Tragedy: The Gang Rape of a Nation by M. M. Afrah
From Barre to Aideed, Agony of a Nation by Hussein Ali Dualeh
Betrayal of the Somalis by Louis FitzGibbon
Hostages: The People Who Kidnapped Themselves by Marian Arif
Me Against My Brother by Scott Peterson
The Zanzibar Chest by Aidan Hartley
The Road To Zero: Somalia's Self-destruction by Mohamed Osman Omar
Learning From Somalia by Clarke, Walter and Jeffrey Herbst
Whatever Happened to Somalia? A Tale of Tragic Blunders by John Drysdale
Somalia: Economy Without State by Peter D. Little
Silent Over Africa: The Story of War and Genocide by James Schoffield
Target: Villa Somalia by M. M. Afrah (out of print)
Secrets by Nuruddin Farah
Historical Dictionary of Somalia by Margaret Castagno
The One that Got Away by M. M. Afrah (Under review)
Tree of Poverty by Margaret Lawrence
Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden
A Tear For Somalia by Douglas Collins 1961 (reprint)
Understanding Somalia by I.M. Lewis

By M. M. Afrah©2004

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