Somalia Journal: Gun-toting Taxis and Wartime Luxury

3 January 1993
Africa News Service (Durham)

Mogadishu — Seeing news programs before arriving in Somalia gives the impression that Mogadishu has become a calm city. But from the point of view of the aid agencies, not as much has changed as appearances suggest. Although it is possible to move around in some parts of the city more easily, and goods can pass through the airport and port on a daily basis, when aid workers try to go out to do their work, they face the same dangers. They still have to hire gunmen to go with them.

Security increasingly is provided by the Pakistani soldiers, dispatched by the United Nations, who preceded the U.S. marines. When I needed to leave the protected compound where I was given housing, I had to order up an armed Pakistani unit - just like ordering a taxi or a pizza!

The Pakistani escorts have made security much less expensive. Instead of paying technicals as much as $3,000 a trip, they order up the Pakistanis. But they still need armed guards for a trip across town. What they have now is a sort of half calm for a lot less money, with the continuing frustration of not being able to do their work freely.

Ordinary Somalis in the streets appear happy, or at least relieved, to have the U.S. presence. The expressions of most people I encountered can be summed up as, "Wow. Now we have a little breathing space." No one knows how long the respite will last, but everyone is pleased to have it.

One of the most interesting things I witnessed was a meeting between a United Nations official and a group of Somali non-governmental organizations. In a long, lively discussion, they were talking about how to work together, how to get water flowing again from the city's underground wells, and many other issues. The UN representative was soliciting advice and knowledge from the locals, including criticisms of well-intentioned but misguided aid efforts. Although it appeared that much was accomplished, it seemed to be the first time such a consultation had taken place.

Many international agencies, including the United Nations, are housing their staff, plus visitors like me, in big palatial houses whose owners have fled. Some owners have rented these villas and their walled gardens complete with their staff of servants. It is comfortable and quite safe; doors can be left unlocked, and there is free movement within the grounds. The houses all have electricity provided by large diesel generators. The most prominent sound in certain Mogadishu neighborhoods is the hum of the generators.

But in the average neighborhood, devastation and destruction is everywhere. Whole sections of the city were stripped of wire - electrical wire, telephone wire, everything. There are whole neighborhoods where all the roofs are gone, and all that's left of the houses is walls that have been stripped bare.

One of the most sobering sights is the number of young Somali men and boys looking for pick-up work. As many as 200 hang around the airport fence every day. While their labor is needed to unload and refuel the planes, the process of firing them and making them go away when their job is done is a complex one. These are the same chaps who, only days ago, were toting guns and earning huge amounts of money. The problem is similar to that of young drug dealers in the United States. Even if there are jobs available, how do you convince a 16-year-old who has been pulling in thousands of dollars to do the same work for a subsistence wage?

Africa News chief engineer Kenneth Mason went to Somalia to do technical consulting for Internews, a California-based nonprofit production company specializing in international television linkages.

From AFRICA NEWS, December 21, 1992-January 3, 1993

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