10 January 2010

Somalia: A Working Christmas in Mogadishu


Nairobi — The Christmas Holiday conjures up all sorts of exotic destinations for some and the peace and tranquility of home for others.

Well, my Christmas was the total opposite. I was in Mogadishu. The place the US Marines nicknamed the Mog, and one they would love to forget quickly. Mogadishu is infamous for being one of the most dangerous places on earth.

Since it was Christmas Day, let's call my visit a working holiday, although it was a fact-finding mission at the former Halane military training camp, the home of the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom), on how the peacekeepers were coping with the ever increasing attacks by the belligerent Al-Shabaab militia. Not exactly a holiday, if you consider the danger involved.

The camp is located some 300m from the airport, sandwiched between the Aden Abdulle International Airport and the Mogadishu coast. What stood between me and instant death from Al-Shabaab's mortar attacks or sniper fire was a 3kg helmet and body armour weighing 20kg -- 10kg covering the front and another 10kg the back.

On my arrival in Mogadishu on December 20, the first pleasant surprise was that the Aden Abdulle International Airport that in 2006 was just a shell of bombed-out buildings, was in better condition than those of some peaceful African countries that I have visited.

In 2006, the only things standing at the airport were the remains of bombed out walls. Back then, only a sisal rope separated the departure from the arrivals section.

Pleasantly, the airport has been renovated, expanded and neatly painted, courtesy of Amisom. Mogadishu is a volatile and dangerous city, but we flew and landed there safely on an African Express Airline flight from Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and just like at any other airport, went through passport control -- manned by government immigration officials.

We left the airport for the camp in a military Landcruiser with just the driver -- of course a soldier -- and our host, Amison spokesman Maj Gen Nathan Mugisha of the UPDF.

The camp -- which also serves as the Amisom headquarters for both Uganda and Burundi troops -- is virtually covered by a tree species that was introduced by US soldiers in the 1990s during their mission in the country. The local people call it Garanwaa, meaning "the unknown" or Geed Yuhud, meaning from Israel.

The first thing you notice about the camp are the sandbags everywhere, a reminder of the constant danger the Amisom troops live under. The camp itself is well-guarded and hardly any artillery fired by the Al-Shabab militia from their stronghold of Bakara market seven kilometres away causes any damage here.

The Amisom soldiers calmly go about their duties, something quite unexpected in a camp that is basically in the middle of a war zone.

The soldiers are housed in tents and senior officers in prefabricated houses. We were put up in one of the prefabs. Life in the camp is strict. Discipline is expected at all times from everyone.

It is the trips to the various neighbourhoods of the city in armoured vehicles that leave a lasting impression. Every trip -- in armoured vehicles -- is both thrilling but dangerous. As a journalist, it could easily be my last assignment.

As we drive around the city, Mogadishu residents go about their business as usual, but aware of the dangers lurking at every corner. During our visit, a woman was shot and wounded by sniper fire near the Amisom compound.

With all the unpredictability of Mogadishu, it is the infamous Kilometre 4 section that brings home the reality of the chaos that has engulfed the city for almost two decades.

This is a major junction of Mogadishu, from which one can connect to the four corners of Somalia. It is also the main route in and out of the seaport city.

Being a strategic location, the Al-Shabaab militia fight day and night to wrest it from the Ugandan Amisom contingent. Two hours after we left Kilometre 4 for the Amisom camp, Al-Shabaab fired a mortar in the area killing four women who were sweeping the street. Despite the constant state of alert, one never gets to realise the full magnitude of the dangers until one is out of Mogadishu.

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