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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
Letter from Mogadishu

Globe and Mail Update
Friday, January 10, 2002
From the Field
Nolen Stephanie


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Pictures from Mogadishu

A gunman walks by the remains of the Mogadishu Cathedral. The Cathedral and most of the city have been destroyed during the last ten years of interclan warfare.
Photo: Pedro Ugarte/AFP

Somalis stroll past airline offices and shops in Mogadishu.
Photo: Sven Torfinn/AP

A Somali woman walks on a street in Mogadishu.
Photo: Sayyid Azim/AP


I was determined to be in Mogadishu for Dec. 9, 2002, the 10th anniversary of the start of Operation Restore Hope, the ill-fated U.S.-led mission to bring peace and distribute food aid in Somalia. The civil war has raged ever since and yet we hear almost nothing of how 10 million Somalis live in near anarchy. I wanted to report on the once-nation a decade later.

But getting to Somalia is easier said than done. At first, Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) said they could fly me in. But persistent fighting around their hospital in the north of Mogadishu scotched their trip plans. Then I tried the UN but I was bumped by a cargo of humanitarian supplies.

The one thing I had going for me was qat, the semi-narcotic leaf that most Somali men spend their afternoons chewing. The qat has to come from Kenya or Ethiopia, and so the planes have to fly to Somalia, total lack of infrastructure or authority notwithstanding. With help from colleagues in Nairobi, I found a guy who knew a guy who knew a guy who had a plane going. But, when I reached the airport, it emerged that the drug flight had been scrapped for the day because someone failed to pay the right bribes but I could buy my way for $350 (U.S.), the white-girl price, on to a people-smuggling flight.

On the tarmac, there was chaos. The passengers and their belongings were being stuffed madly into the narrow hatch of a twin-engine King Air. I got in last, wedged between a grim-faced young man poring over a copy of the Koran and an elderly blind man who regularly slammed his cane down on my foot. But I wasn't worrying much about any of that: the big question was whether anybody would meet me at Kilometre 50 airport outside Mogadishu.

Reporter Hassan Barise, a native of Mogadishu, had pledged to have some "security" at K50 to pick me up. But we were late and I was convinced my security would be long gone by now. I tried to think of a back-up plan but I hadn't come up with anything when we finally thudded down at K50. There, when the hatch of the plane sprung open, was a gleaming red pickup truck. A compact man stepped forward, said he was Hassan Barise, shook my hand, and bundled me in behind windows tinted impenetrable black. The truck roared forward, and there was a loud scramble into the flatbed behind me: this was my "security."

Over the next few days, I came to think of them as The Boys. Five young men carrying AK-47s, extra clips of ammunition around their shoulders and waists. They rode in the back of the truck everywhere we went, guns pointed over the side. They were polite but reticent. I learned that they had used family connections with a local warlord to get this job, one of the few in Mogadishu. They earned about $100 (U.S.) a month, and they had to supply their own guns.

For the next few days, I made my way cautiously around the city. It was filthy, strewn with rubble and huge heaps of trash. The once-lovely old port neighbourhood was one vast mountain of crumbled white stone, with people living in the pockets made by still-standing walls. Yet despite the total lawlessness of the city, it bustled. There were shops and markets and a plethora of new telecom companies. Women in coloured veils were hanging up laundry, carrying water and herding cows. Amid the complete chaos of the battle-scarred concrete and the bursts of gunfire, there was an air of friendly normalcy.

Soon, it started to feel like I'd always travelled with a posse of gunmen. The only thing that bothered me was their drug habit: by mid-afternoon each day, the Boys had procured branches of qat, which is similar to speed. As we drove through the city, I thought about the safety of travelling with a truckload of gunmen on amphetamines. When I told a Somali friend, he laughed. "You're quite right," he said. "They're more of a danger to you than they are protection. But the point is not what they can do: it's who they can call. People see them, they know them and they know the truck, and they know that if they start trouble with them, they will have to deal with the guys these guys can call for back-up."

The Boys were a largely silent bunch. Only twice did they show any interest in what I was doing, when they overruled my choice of destination. An interview at a Somali women's organization was off-limits, they decreed because six telephone installation men were killed on that street in a rocket-propelled attack a couple days earlier. And there were ongoing gun battles outside the office of an NGO I wanted to visit in the north of the city -- so we passed that up too.

But after a few days, emboldened by the comparative ease with which we moved through the chaos, I asked if we could go to the Bakara Market. The Boys declared the central bazaar an approved destination, and so we set off for the site of the battle immortalized in Blackhawk Down.

We parked at the edge of the warren of alleyways and while The Boys gave no outward sign that they were worried, I noticed they all had the safety off and their hands near the triggers. They formed a phalanx around me and we plunged in. There were benches lined with men sipping coffee, and stalls of qat, and then streets and streets of -- everything. The market mostly sells food, for few people have the money to buy much else. But there were smuggled electronics. Belts. Trousers. Plastic pitchers. Gold jewelry. Grenades. I passed up an anti-aircraft gun, but I did buy a rather spiffy pair of sunglasses, which set me back 40 cents. Everywhere we went, a little ripple of surprise followed me; watching people's heads snap around in disbelief, I had the sense it had been some time since a white woman strolled through Bakara.

After four days it was time to find another drug flight out. The Boys drove me to an airstrip on the edge of town where a motley collection of women in crimson robes, men with trucks and boys selling freezies from coolers were lined up around the edges. The stillness of the shimmering heat was broken by the arrival of a small-twin engine plane carrying the qat . The women would rush forward, haul the bales of green leaves off the plane, then cart away armloads of it to the trucks and minibuses, to take into the city and sell.

Getting out of Mogadishu is far easier than getting in, because the qat flights go back empty and are glad to pick up paying cargo. Once the bundles of qat were off, and a few bundles of smuggled perfume and household goods were shoved in the back, I was boosted in too.

In the cloud of dust, I could just make out The Boys, already chewing, lined up in the back of the truck to wave goodbye.

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