My Somali adventure. First stop: airport ‘no-man’s land’

It doesn’t matter how many times I go through an airport, whether it’s for business or pleasure, or how many corners of the world I visit.  Every time I pick my way through the crowds of people all intent on making their flight, not forgetting their belongings or children and selecting last-minute overpriced ‘genuine craftwork’ paraphernalia to take home for friends and relatives, a childish wonder and excitement wells up in me at the exotic destinations announced over the intercom and the fascinating lands they suggest.  This time was no different and travelling at night added to the sense of embarking on an adventure.

I had to negotiate my way through a couple of Chinese tour groups waiting for a flight home; their trolleys linked into one long snake, and a family destined for a flight to Abu Dhabi who had lost their boarding passes.  Then there was the very nervous gentleman who had insisted on wrapping every last suitcase, bag and box in luminescent white plastic – preventing not only a would-be dodgy baggage handler but I fear also himself from ever gaining access to the contents again.

Seamlessly through my photo shoot at passport control, the ladies and gentlemen wafting the explosive-detector wands slowed me and the rest of Terminal 4 down on our quest to reach the blissful no-man’s land of the departure lounge.  I spent half an hour loitering for my bag, during a security scan so heightened that every man, woman, child – by this stage already barefoot, holding up their trousers with clenched fists and having emptied their pockets of any small change and remaining dignity – got patted down and every bag, belt, boot and plastic container of toiletries rummaged through manually after having already been zapped by the xray machine.  It may have delayed my progress through airport bureaucracy but it did afford an unexpected opportunity to peer into my fellow passengers’ belongings and therefore their lives, as they were unceremoniously laid out by latex gloves like evidence in a murder trial.  And there’s nothing more amusing than that aloof and ill-mannered superior woman who’s brushed past you in the queue, to whom the rules clearly do not apply being stopped in her tracks by an unflappable security operator.  An obsequiously delivered “madam, is this a bottle of perfume?…then. It. Must. Go. In. The. Separate. Plastic. Bag.……And is this an IPad? Then. It. Must. Also. Go. In. A. Separate. Tray….” And pedantically, patiently on, item by item, as her ladyness’ face makes its way progressively from the expensively rouge’d-at-the-cheeks look, to a rather less desirable dark puce of hopelessness, humiliation and barely contained rage.

Having just about managed to contain my guffaw at the now-deflated superior one still nodding her way through each painstaking question and item presented, I had ample time to find all sorts of lotions and potions that I absolutely HAD to have (well, it is very difficult not to when the packaging is so shiny and anyway everyone knows money spent in airport no-man’s land doesn’t count).  Ample time in part because I’m very particular about being punctual – you can take the girl out of the military and all that – but mostly because on checking in, I found out our Kenya Airways flight was delayed by at least two hours due to a technical fault.  No complaints from me as they compensated us with a meal voucher and I can think of worse airports than Heathrow to have a few hours to kill.  So I settled on a stool at the seafood bar on the main concourse and sipped a chilled glass of Chablis while people-watching over the top of my newspaper.

I had my boarding pass, I’d made it through to airport no-man’s land.  I was on my way to my next adventure.


Off For A Somali Adventure

There I was thinking after a 5-month tour in Afghanistan as advisor to the top British General, I would take it easy for a bit and avoid the war zones I seem to be drawn to on an almost continuous basis, both in uniform as an army officer and as a field producer and reporter at Sky.

I had decided to give up my staff job at Sky News on my return – I’ve been deputy foreign news editor for the last few years.  I wanted more of a challenge, and the flexibility to do more reporting, writing and the option to grab the opportunities I was increasingly being offered to do more as a consultant in strategic communications.

So much for some quieter time in leafy Hampshire with my husband and cat, occasionally squeezing in a bit of work between selecting cuts of meat from our local farm shop and training for marathons across the fields.

They were creating a job based on my skills, around my experience.

They were not talking to anyone else.

They would offer whatever I would be willing to accept.

They wanted me to go to Mogadishu.


Somalia.  Well, that’s one so-called failed state I’d not been to.


I would be running the African Union/United Nations mission’s news operation.  I would have crews across Somalia, a documentary team, editors and a base in Mogadishu.


I would advise the African Union commanders and Somali authorities on a communications plan; how to promote their work, their successes and build support from the local population and international community.  My experience of doing a very similar job with the NATO mission in Afghanistan and within the UK Ministry of Defence would come in very handy.



So the job was tailor-made for me.  And the contract was based on a rotation that meant down-time at home.  My husband and the cat were quite content that this was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down.  And anyway for my husband it would just mean a prime opportunity to launch forth into yet another of his ‘projects’ during my time away (a previous Iraq tour had resulted in a new pet, my recent Afghan tour a new motorbike and hand-made boat…)


I’ll be flying out as ‘Deputy Director of Communications for the African Union/United Nations mission in Somalia’ at the end of May.  Sunglasses and headscarf at the ready.  Body armour and helmet in-hand.  Accommodation will be basic but reassuringly familiar from previous adventures – portacabin for sleeping, another portacabin of showers and loos, and a bigger portacabin for eating.  Home Sweet Home.

And what a country to explore, a story to discover and a challenge to get my teeth into.  I’ll always have time for a spot of writing and farm shopping in leafy Hampshire during my weeks back in the UK.  And I can enjoy the fevered anticipation (trepidation) waiting to find out just what entrepreneurial ‘project’ my husband comes up with this time.  And whether we’ll have space for it in the garage.