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Toronto (Canada)

7, March 2003

M. M. Afrah

I wake up each morning, wondering who do I hate today, the Qaad importers, the charcoal barons, the arms traffickers or the militia gunmen?

Well, let’s start with the Qaad importers from Kenya. Qaad, a poisonous harvest that made the majority of our starving people look like zombies was introduced in Southern Somalia by Northerners and Yemeni Arabs in 1970s, and since then there has been direct correlation between the consumption of the green plant and life expectancy.

The consumption of this drug Qaad (wrongly spelled as khat or Kat by the Western press), is like every other life-threatening drug, cost-efficient quick death, because the user losses appetite and becomes victim of insomnia (sleeplessness), impotence, restless and lack of self-control induced by false euphoria.


The busy airfields are little more than strips of level grounds, carefully leveled with rollers, surrounded by rusty barbed wire and the occasional huts of corrugated iron sheets and disused steel containers full of bullet holes from previous battles. The Mogadishu International Airport was closed after the Americans and the UNOSOM (The United Nations Operation in Somalia) pulled out in 1993/94.

As soon as a light Cessna aircraft lands at the strip, the whole area turns into a hive of activity. The cacophony is immense. It sounded as if all the furies in the world have been unleashed at once. To the uninformed, there was an air of uncontained rage about it-–the bellowing of a slaughterhouse. To the seasoned Qaad importers and consumers it was business as usual.

The pilots, mostly Kenya Asians and Russians could make the Australian bush pilots look like Sunday school teachers. The Russians, in particular, are former members of the Soviet Red Army and have seen similar chaos in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation in that country in the 1980s and as long as they delivered the cargo of Qaad, Cigarettes and guns, they weren’t going to give much of a damn about the lawlessness in Somalia. They flew their armour-platted Hind helicopters in Afghanistan against the Afghan Mujahideen. No war was too dangerous for them, no weather was stormy enough to keep them on the ground, and no landing strip was too short or too rough to keep them from flying their Tupolovs and Antonovs.

“They are the daredevils of the African skies,” wrote Kenya’s Daily Nation, after a giant Antonov crush landed on a golf course in 1981. They were ferrying missiles to Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA rebels. Their worst nightmare, however, is unexploded ordnances and landmines planted in the middle of the dirt runways.

The same goes to the importers. They knew the kind of pilots who flew these runs were basically smugglers. They could smuggle anything into any war-torn African country, including atomic suitcases, poison gas and the so-called dirty bombs for all they care and promptly fly back with cash and diamonds (in the case of the Congo, Angola, Sierra Leone and Liberia). Smugglers hated half empty planes the way a good bartender hates an empty bar. In Somalia, they ferry weapons from Ethiopia to the warlords and Qaad and cigarettes from Kenya to the Qaad barons, and then fly back, with the blink of an eye, overloaded with people who desperately wanted to get out.

Kenya receives annual revenue estimated at 1.5 million US Dollars from the export of Qaad and cigarettes to Southern Somalia.  Paradoxically, the demand for Qaad and cigarettes is always greater than the supply. It’s a seller’s market. This at a time when there are acute shortages of the basic necessities of life in the country.

Running arms and running drugs are frequently overlapping enterprises. And the big merchants who have their hands out to protect one activity will in all likelihood be on the take for the other as well. If the merchants are the culprits what does tell you the warlords?

For some unknown reasons the 1992 UN Security Council Arms Embargo on Somalia was not enforced, even after a special committee to monitor and enforce the embargo was created. Thus Somalia became a dumping ground for toxic waste, drugs and weapons of all types and calibers.

Whoever controls the airstrip controls the loading and unloading of the merchandize and their final destination. And there are more than seven airstrips in Mogadishu alone. However the largest is the Soviet-built at Balli-dogleh, with a clearance warehouse for weapons. Hundreds of militia gunmen are in the payroll of the warlords and the merchants of death. These militia gunmen receive small percentage plus a day’s consumption of Qaad and cigarettes. And everybody is happy.

“Well, Haji Ali,” said the brisk BBC man. “Now you look back on it, how would you sum it up?”

Haji Ali cleared his throat in an upbeat mood and replied: “I never had it so good. I have increased the net of my capital three folds. I am fully satisfied with the present system.”

What the Haji really meant was that the country can do without a government to screw up every business in the country.

With all his upbeat moods, just try to cross him, and he would cock his pearl-handled revolver as quickly as the baby-faced kids who manned the string of makeshift barricades in the city.

Are the Haji and his circle of merchants happy? Who was happy? Many of them have medical problems and being a mortal, the merchant died like everyone else. He is stuck into the ground, and the family, the clan and business partners wrangle over what was left of his ill-gotten gains. No will and no income trust. Most of his cash was stashed away without a trace. Unlike his colleagues, he never trusted foreign banks; even the national banks in peacetime Somalia were foreign and untrustworthy to him.

Usually he is rare specie who survived the Italian and British colonial administrations, three regimes and a brutal civil war. And what’s more, he does not worry about the current law and order problem in the country, because, like every merchant in the city, he is the proud possessor of his own private army carefully selected from the Commandos of the defunct Somali National Army. 

It is not the old Somalia you and I had known. It’s a moonscape, a hostile land, and no doubt because we made it so. It’s no-man’s land to hurry through. But to the new big merchants and businessmen it’s El Dorado gold mine. And the poor folks continue to chew Qaad to dull the pangs of their misery.

The great silent majority wants clean up. 

The first step is for the UN Security Council to immediately reinforce its own arms embargo and stop the arms proliferation in Somalia. 

Step two: confiscate all weapons already in the country and incinerate them. 

Step 3: stop importation of Qaad and other harmful drugs. 

Step 4: end dumping toxic waste in our territorial waters (the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea). 

Step 5: end forthwith the foreign trawlers illegally fishing in our territorial waters with impunity. 

Step 6: help charcoal burners to diversify their hazardous enterprises.

This is a tall order, but it should be carried out with great weight backed by the United Nations and regional organizations if Somalia is to survive. Setting up a committee to monitor those who break the so-called ceasefire is not the answer in a country like war-ravaged Somalia, and guns are galore. The raison d'ętre is to disarm the warring factions once and for all.

Obviously, neither the Somalis themselves nor the so-called frontline states had the will or the capacity to rectify the situation.

Maybe I am grasping at straws, but this state of affairs must not continue.

M.M. Afrah © 2003


Mr. Afrah is an outspoken Author/Journalist and a member of the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). He contributes hard-hitting articles to Canadian and international newspapers and magazines on the Somalia situation "through the eyes of a man who covered the country for more than two decades".

Many of us remember his critical articles in his weekly English language HEEGAN newspaper, despite a mandatory self-censorship introduced by Guddiga Baarista Hisbiga Xisbiga Hantiwadaagga Somaaliyeed in 1984 and the dreaded NSS. I am very proud to know that Mr. Afrah openly defied the draconian censorship laws and went ahead to write what he thought was wrong in the country. He received several death threats from the warlords and was briefly held hostage by gunmen in 1993. But he remained defiant and continued to send his stories of carnage and destruction to Reuters news agency. He still is!


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