I spent something like six months in Somalia in the run-up to the arrival of foreign troops in a failed attempt to restore order. Those six months in 1992 and 93 felt more like six years, or perhaps the entirety of my life. When every day is a fever dream of madness, time stretches out.
I suppose some people must think of Mogadishu as their dearly loved hometown, but for me it will always remain a city dreamt of by a terminal drug addict, and Somalia a rough first draft for the end of the world.
Every aspect of life in this sadistically tortured country has been twisted so grotesquely that more than one aid worker has wondered out loud whether we hadn’t so much come to a land of unfortunates as we had died and arrived in the waiting room for the pits of hell.
Mogadishu was once called the Paradise of the Indian Ocean. Well sure, perhaps once, but it has become clear over the months of civil war and famine that some metaphysical planning board has re-zoned it as a bedroom community for hell.
On this Sunday in the late November before the international armies arrive and arguably made things worse I’m sitting in the back of a massively armed Toyota Land Cruiser on a short errand to the docks and then the main market, or as I’ve come to view it, the Looted Goods Recycling Center.
The Toyota is called a technical for some vague reason having to do with Italian terminology left over from Italy’s occupation of the country for much of the century. There are other theories of how the term came about but they all mean the same thing. A looted heavy duty SUV or truck to which a heavy calibre machine gun has been mounted. They will also frequently have three or four men armed with light machine guns hanging onto the outside and usually at least one inside. The term and the idea of arming a four wheel drive vehicle has spread since its introduction in Somalia in the early nineties and now can be found in just about any war zone or disaster area around the world.
The two guards on the roof of the Toyota that I am in each have an AK-47 in addition to the heavy machine gun bolted in front of them. Inside with the two of us are a driver and two more armed Somalis. You could tear a house apart with the firepower these guys are carrying.
There’s a neat little system at work here. Any non-Somali who walks anywhere outside of an armed compound, no matter how short the walk, runs an extreme risk of being beaten, robbed and killed. And since the only vehicles available are in the hands of Somalis who have acquired them from god knows where, you’re pretty well stuck with having to pay upwards of a hundred dollars a day (cash in uncreased US 20 dollar bills please) to go anywhere. If you refuse and try to walk, the same people will probably shoot you down just to maintain their business position.
Newcomers make the mistake of feeling at ease as they speed through the littered streets protected by violently trigger happy guards until they learn that the weapons and the gunmen are only there to protect the vehicle. The guards won’t lift a finger to protect their passenger unless it’s a question of keeping the poor bastard alive long enough to collect the day’s hire.
Technicals come under attack frequently because the battle wagons are the most highly prized of looting tools and that means all vehicles are potential targets for freelance hijackers.
There’s a tremendous amount of status associated with weapons and technicals. The teenagers who make up the bulk of the technical guards are at the top of the swagger list. They get the women, the drugs, the fearful respect and anything else they want just by a negligent wave of a gun muzzle. They’re dangerously violent at the best of times but horribly and psychotically murderous in the late afternoon as the effects of the amphetamine like plant they chew takes effect. Khat, in all of its spellings is the drug of choice in northeastern Africa. Most of it in Mogadishu is flown in daily from Nairobi in specially charted light aircraft. It is grown mainly in Ethiopia and has to be transported to the buyer in not much more than 24 hours otherwise it loses its potency.
The highest sport on the status list is reserved for the few even more crazy who ride around in trucks converted to carry such Somali sport hunting weapons as recoilless rifles which are a kind of baby tank cannon. On a couple of occasions I’ve seen trucks sporting rocket clusters ripped out of abandoned Somali MIG fighter aircraft. No one seems to know whether they could be fired but really who would want to doubt. An air to air missile fired at close ground level range would go through a block of buildings like a sword through a mouse.
You should see the destruction the warring factions have inflicted on this town. There’s hardly a building without a shell hole in it, there’s no electricity, no water, no businesses.
The scale of looting and extortion is astonishing. Except for those homes and buildings that were fortified and defended constantly throughout the civil war, everything has gone. Windows and frames, plumbing fixtures, doors, electrical wiring, all stripped out of the buildings and sold somewhere else, mostly in Yemen across the Red Sea or south in Kenya. All of the above ground telephone and power lines have gone, even some of the buried cables in the downtown have been dug up and shipped away for resale. It’s a city of concrete and cement and nothing else a rotted corpse of a city.
The arrival of international aid groups has given the looters the best time they’ve ever had. Shiploads of highly valuable relief food and tonnes of equipment meant for the refugee camps disappear with depressing regularity the moment they arrive in the country.
Some of the worst offenders are the very guards who are supposed to stop it.
A word about the guards. They’re supplied by General Mohamed Aideed, the leader of the faction which holds control of most of Mogadishu and a fair part of southern Somalia. These technicals might be hired and paid for by the international aid groups but they still work for Aideed and Aideed is the top dog in the looting food chain. Foxes guarding hen coops have nothing on technicals guarding relief supplies.
The technicals are used to guard Mogadishu port. Well that’s what they’re hired for, but mainly they hang around helping their relatives steal food.
CARE employs 900 technicals at the port. And whether they show up or not, whether the port is operating or not, they demand payment, some twenty thousand dollars every four days, (in uncreased 20 dollar bills please.)
The International Red Cross also operates from the port and oddly enough they too employ exactly 900 technicals. They are of course the same people being paid twice for doing not much at all.
Every once in a while, about twice a day really, technical units at the port will get into arguments with each other and start firing. They might be well armed but no one has given any of them any training. When the arguments start the bullets spray wildly all over southern Mogadishu and only coincidently is the actual target ever hit. We’ve learned rather quickly to get under cover when the firing starts to avoid the 7.62 millimeter lead rains.
Things settle down when the sun sets and the Khat chewers slump into inactivity. But, then there is a second wind towards midnight and for no particular reason the various factions will fire off rockets and heavy artillery at no particular part of the city so sometimes the night sky just blossoms with fireworks and booming explosions.