Adventures in War Zones and Disaster Areas for Journalists and Relief Workers

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Guns Cameras and Fools

You really haven’t lived until you’ve heard that terrible double snick of an automatic weapon being cocked and pointed at your stomach.  It’s a real tonic for tired blood let me tell you.

Twice I had the wonderful pleasure of an idiot’s company which resulted in that double snicking.

Thomas, and of course that’s not his real name, was on a tour of relief operations in Somalia after the civil war had ended, well actually it is still going but “officially” it is said to be over twenty some odd years later. 

He had one of those wildly friendly exuberant personalities and he’d switch it on at full power any time he was around a Somali.

  Normally, with the rest of us world dominating white people, he was short and surly and just a nasty important person.  Put him in front of the light of Somali youth, usually one with the dirty Kalashnikov, and you’d think he’d found a brother separated from birth.

I was doing the Bank Crossing in Mogadishu, the long silent walk across no-man’s land and Thomas was with us. 

Photographs aren’t normally allowed during the walk but I’d managed a couple by just pulling the lens up out of my shoulder bag and shooting blind.  Thomas was going on and on with the suspicious guards at the crossing as we waited for our truck to arrive.

He had this theory that if you take a Polaroid picture of someone and give them the picture it will instantly make them friends.

  I’m sure he’d never seen those old adventure movies where the natives believe that a camera will capture their souls so they kill the idiot with the camera.  If he had he wouldn’t have been so dangerous.

In this crowd of armed guards from five Toyota technicals and bunch of bystanders, Thomas talked some kid into posing for a picture.  I’m not sure the kid understood the wild old American but some of the crowd did and there was a lot of angry shouting.

“Thomas. Back off. They don’t want you to do that.”

“No no, it’s okay, they’re my friends, they’ll love it.”

I stepped back two paces. Time was starting to slow and that’s always the way I know I’m in danger because the body will pick up the signals faster than the conscious mind and start speeding up the metabolism so that when you finally do understand that you’ve landed in a pile of stinking doo-doo, the body is ready to run like hell.

“Thomas!  These guys are getting angry.  Back off!”

He wasn’t paying any attention.  He was too busy grinning and laughing and generally acting like a gorilla on amphetamines as he practised his theory that you can get to be friends with anyone by acting stupid enough.

I should have taken a few more steps back but this terrible tendency of mine to walk up to bears and pat their heads took over and I moved forward.

I grabbed his shoulder, “Let’s go Thomas.”

He swung out from under my grip and raised the Polaroid to take the picture regardless.

“Snick snick.”

I swear that all four quarts, or however many there are, of blood in my body came to a shuddering freezing halt. 

Everything got one hell of a lot sharper. 

I got the impression that I could smell each individual person in the crowd, that I could hear each individual sound as though they were the only sounds in the universe.  My eyesight, already better than twenty-twenty went telescopic. 

I could actually and suddenly read the serial number of the grenade strapped on the gunman’s belt, the guy who’d just cocked his Kalashnikov and was now pointing it at us from a distance of ten feet.

I’d like to be able to say that Thomas got justifiably blown apart and I walked away with a song in my heart, but unfortunately, after a few tense moments and some very quiet words from the two of us, he allowed Thomas to live for another day so Thomas could try to get someone else killed.