Somalia still not for the fainthearted

Braying donkeys outside my makeshift accommodation unit woke me up from the deep sleep that had momentarily rested my fears of an attack by the Al-Shabaab militants.

The sound of the waves on the Indian Ocean could clearly be heard as the Islamic call for prayer, Athan, for the morning prayer (Fajir) went off from different corners of Ceeljalle village, Marka district in Somalia’s Lower Shabelle region. 

UPDF troops under Amisom patrolling Ceeljalle town in the Lower Shabelle region

The makeshift shelter at Ceeljalle, the headquarters of the UPDF battle group 22, is the safest that the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) could find for the team of 14 Ugandan journalists who were in Somalia to monitor the progress of the implementation of the UN security council resolution to have a gradual down-draw of the AMISOM troops in the war-torn nation. 

Sand bags made a wall around our respective accommodation units, but a thought of the fact that we were within less than 10km from the Al-Shabaab base was enough to keep one worried. 

If you are to take a walk outside the camp, you must be wearing body armour and helmet, despite the scorching sun. A military escort was a must. 

The only ‘safe’ means of transport by road are infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) locally known as Mamba. 

“Forget your air-conditioned cars that you travel in in Kampala; for your safety, we are to take you around in infantry fighting vehicles and you must keep your body armour and helmet on,” Maj Ceasar Otim Olweny, the spokesman of the Ugandan contingent in Somalia, said as he briefed our group upon arrival in Mogadishu on April 30. 

Hotels come equipped with bomb shelters

Olweny and Kenya Defence Forces’ Col Richard Omwega, the AMISOM forces spokesman, gave several assurances for safety but there were security guidelines that had to be strictly adhered to. 

For instance, after checking in at the Leaf Camp hotel in Mogadishu, the manager, David Ndayisenga, took the group to the hotel’s bunker – the safest place just in case of a bomb attack. 

“In case you hear a bomb alert, kindly leave whatever you are doing and run to the bunker. There, you’ll not be affected,” Ndayisenga said. 

In Ceeljalle, about 75km south of Mogadishu, there were no bunkers and no thick walls surrounding the camp like at Leaf camp. Under a scorching sun with about 10kg of a body armour and helmet on, we boarded the IVFs to Shalambood, a once popular city built by the Italians in the 1920s. 

A girl carries a saucepan of food in Bufoow

Because of its nearly 3,000km-long coastline, Somalia once had well-built cities that brought in tourists as well as traders across the Indian Ocean. But the effects of the more than two decades of civil war has left the cities in ruins and the Somali coast a no-go area because of pirates.

In fact, it is hard to find any semblance of a city especially in the Lower Shabelle region. 

“Where we are seated is the site of a once luxurious Italian hotel but when the war broke out, it was razed to the ground,” Lt Col Fred Mwesigwa, the first infantry commander at Shalambood said. 

Mwesigwa tried to “reconstruct” the hotel by erecting two tents; one for his residence, and another serves as his conference hall. 

Dos and don’ts 

Save for the foreign forces, Somalia is purely a Muslim country and this explains why almost every home is a mosque. 

The country’s centuries-long ties with the Islamic Arabia (it is within a two-hour ride on a speedboat to the Middle East) made it adopt the Islamic culture. For instance, a headscarf has become part of the female soldiers and other staff under AMISOM and the United Nations Mission in Somalia (UNISOM). 

A businesswoman waits for customers in a market

“We don’t allow ladies to move around in trousers and their hair must be covered in respect for the Somali culture,” said Col Omwega. 

If you are a man, you are not expected to shake hands with Somali women as it is likely to be construed to be disrespect to their cultural and religious beliefs. While journalists have always complied with these rules, security breaches are common and have sometimes led to regrettable incidents. 

Maj Olweny speaks of a traumatic incident he encountered when he led a group of international journalists to one of the Al-Shabaab-infested areas but one journalist acted against the rule of not staying in one position for more than two minutes. 

The un-named journalist interviewed a Somali man against the advice of the soldiers and the moment they got into their IFVs and drove away, the man was gunned down. 

“I still feel the trauma because I feel that if I had not taken journalists to interview that man, he wouldn’t have been killed,” Maj Olweny said. 

Gun country 

It is a common sight of young boys moving around with guns. What is not easy, is telling whether the person with a gun is a soldier under the Somali National Army (SNA), a clan militia allied to AMISOM or an Al-Shabaab militant. 

“The militias just like the SNA have no uniforms, which makes it easy for the Al-Shabaab to mix in; the Al-Shabaab sometimes are confused with the SNA,” said Lt Col Robert Nahamya, the commander of the UPDF battle group at Bufoow. 

It's not easy to tell if a person with a gun is a soldier under the Somali National Army (SNA), a clan militia allied to AMISOM or an Al-Shabaab militant 

Part of AMISOM’s public relations is facilitating the construction of recreation facilities like playgrounds but the sight of young men with guns and machetes by the roadside in the settlement outside the UPDF camp at Ceeljalle was enough to scare even the strong-hearted. 

At the football pitch where we were taken to watch an inter-clan match, there were other men holding guns. Many of us could not keep our eyes away from the gunmen. Matters were made worse when one of them stepped away to speak on phone and we asked the UPDF soldiers to lead us away. 

Locals enjoy a football match

“Sometimes you can see a boy carrying a gun but it belongs to the father [and] when there’s an attack, the boy picks a gun and starts fighting. They were born in the struggle, they are like warriors; they are ever alert,” Col Bonny Bamwiseki said. 

Dollar economy 

Despite the 27-year-old insurgency, Somalia has not lagged behind in embracing the technological advancements. Unlike Uganda where most transactions are with hard cash, in Somalia, it is easier to pay for anything using a mobile money-like service. 

Halima Ali mining coral reefs at the coast in Lower Shabelle region

The most acceptable currency is the US dollar and a few points like restaurants at Aden Abdulle International Airport Mogadishu, the Kenyan shilling is accepted. Given its proximity to the Middle East, commodities are sold cheaply. For instance, with $600 or less, one can get the latest model of an iPhone. 

But visiting the centre of Mogadishu was never to happen for us. For days, AMISOM commanders debated whether to allow us to take a tour of the city but since it was not secure although safe, it was decided that we keep within the UN camp. 

“It requires us to organise a convoy of armoured cars or IFVs but given that the city is once again busy, we may disorganise traffic flow,” Maj Olweny said. 

By 4pm, all the markets around the UN camp are closed, and locals with businesses there are expected to return to their respective residences. By the time the sun sets at 6pm, all roads leading to the airport get barricaded and the airport itself shuts down. 


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