Meeting Mogadishu

Roaming the streets of Mogadishu for the first time, my eyes are on stalks, my ears pricked; trying to take everything in and start to discover the city that has until now been just another news report about an attack or a bomb.  What I find is a sprawling city, much bigger than I had imagined, bustling with people getting on with their lives.Image

Central Mogadishu

I’m travelling in a three-vehicle ‘Casper’ convoy of Ugandan soldiers from the African Union mission here in Somalia.  This particular patrol usually accompanies the Force Commander around but as he’s out of the country, we have the use of it for the day.

We’re off to Maslah.  It’s a drive North-East, about twenty kilometres from central Mogadishu up the coast, and where the Ugandan Battle Group have their Headquarters.  Once we’ve negotiated the crowded centre of town, I’m told by the patrol commander that we’ll have to go through the district of Sokoro, on the outskirts of the city.  Here houses become more sparse, the dirt road widens and we’re heading out towards less built-up bushland.  Sitting next to me, he tells me with a twinkle in his eye and a broad grin that this is the district where they always get hit.  “They like to attack us here, this is where Shabaab still think they have a bit of power, they try small arms fire and sometimes IEDs, so we are prepared”.  “But we’ll be fine” he says, and chuckles.  As it turns out, Al Shabaab must be out for lunch as the locals continue to carry their shopping and push their carts of straw up the road and there’s not so much as a dog barking.  My friend seems almost disappointed.

We are welcomed like old friends at the camp at Maslah and taken on a brief tour of the basic but well-protected HQ, before meeting the newly arrived commander, Colonel Kimbowa.  Over sweet juicy orange segments and digestive biscuits – huge treats that we do not get on our camp – he describes his area of operations and jokes that he feels quite at home as the countryside is very similar to that in his native Uganda.  He’s optimistic about the improvement in security and while admitting there are challenges ahead, is confident that the war in Mogadishu at least has been won.  He’s looking forward to his year-long tour here and believes he and his men can bring invaluable experience to help, since their own country was itself “at war for so long and had its own similar problems”.

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Maslah

It’s a symbolic place for the African Union troops to have control over; Maslah used to be one of Al Shabaab’s main bases on the outskirts of Mogadishu.  They planned and launched their operations from this high ground surrounded by bush.  I’m shown a row of eucalyptus trees and told this is where enemies and defaulters were hanged as examples to the rest of the community.  Urban myth or fact; the soldiers are proud of their achievements in Mogadishu and from my first impression rightly so.  From the street corner gunfights and bloody battles a couple of years ago, this city has come a long way.  The only obstacles to our patrol were vendors taking their produce to market, long lines of trucks queuing to deliver goods to the port, and an unruly herd of goats taking their young minder for a walk.

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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.

Tempted.

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.

Hooked.

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.

Sold.

 

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.