Brussels: a unique city and a survivor

Someone said to me yesterday “Brussels is that place you pass through on the way to France, it’s hardly somewhere you’d expect a major terrorist attack to take place”. For me Brussels is a second home, it is the city I grew up in, it is one of the safest places on earth and somewhere I have escaped to over the years for a bit of family time and peace and quiet. It is far more than ‘somewhere to pass through’ but I would agree that until recently, it is the last place I would have expected a terror attack to be staged.

Brussels is a vibrant cosmopolitan city, with a different language spoken on every corner, a colourful blend of cultures down every cobbled street; its centre sprinkled with just as many cultural attractions, architectural feats, history, entertainment, parks and forests as it is the EU institutions everyone associates with the ‘capital of Europe’.

It has, in my opinion, an unfair reputation for being a dull and grey hub of European bureaucracy. In my experience that view is often held by visitors who swing through for a few hours on business, or those who are en route to France and see nothing more than the ring road. You would hardly judge London on a fleeting meeting, a stay in a big hotel chain or a few hours spent in traffic on the M25, would you?

For those of us who have lived there, the city devastated by yesterday’s attacks has far more to offer.

Brussels is today the crossroads of Europe and has been at the centre of some of the greatest wars of recent decades and some of the most momentus peace negotiations. It has survived invasions, continuous decades-long internal clashes between its multi-lingual and proudly different Flanders and Wallonia regions. In recent years, it somehow maintained its integrity and a functioning economy through nearly two years of political chaos when the leadership was incapable of forming a government – a record outdoing even governmental procrastination in Iraq.

Belgium’s history and its colonial past as a melting pot of cultures and languages has left a rich legacy of Renaissance architecture, beautiful medieval old towns jostling with Art Nouveau quarters, immaculately maintained memorials and historic battlefields, the unmissable ‘Atomium’, the lavishly ornate towers of the Grand’Place in central Brussels and a vast array of nationalities living side by side. And whatever you may think about the European Union, Brussels nurtures the story of over 70 years’ of our history as Europeans, the incredible journey of our continent from a fragmented collection of battered, bloodied and penniless battlefields to a (relatively) united and serious player in the global arena.

The mix of cultures has also left the country with what I think is some of the best food in Europe. I like to think of traditional Belgian fare as having the quality of French food, but served in German quantities – the perfect combination. Whether it is seafood – the traditional ‘moules frites’ – or meat – slabs of it served practically still ‘moo-ing’ all the way to ‘bien cuit’ depending on your taste or stewed in a Flemish ‘Carbonade’, or game hunted in the Ardennes – it is all served with a hustle and a suitably brusque waiter. In the most traditional of eateries, he will scribble your order on the table cloth, memorise the list, disappear and return with every dish memorised perfectly.

If you are not careful you could spend just as long picking which beer to sample, many bars routinely supplying pages and pages of varying strength and flavours brewed in different regions and all served in their own specific glass. And to finish, if you can manage it, there is always a mountain of chocolate and vanilla ice-cream lathered in hot sauce and crème Chantilly – the ‘Dame Blanche’ – and mouth-watering Belgian chocolates to savour with a glass of Calvados and ‘un petit café’ to finish off.

Clearly growing up there gave me a well-developed appreciation of gastronomy. But more importantly, Brussels was one of the most colourful but also safest places for a child and then a teenager to grow up. My siblings and I had the freedom to find our own way, without our parents worrying about violence or crime to the same extent as they might have had to in another capital city. That’s not to say Brussels does not have its issues, its crime rate, its poverty.

But on the whole, Brussels provided us with big-city cosmopolitan exposure with a feeling that we were in the thick of global events, but somehow also gave us a level of safety and sense of calm community that meant we could go and discover life and make our own mistakes without running any great risks (or giving my parents a heart attack). Having lived and worked in a number of other European capital cities since, I have yet to find another one that offers that unique environment. I still consider Brussels a home and every time I go back, I breathe a contented sigh of relief that it has not changed.

Tuesday’s cowardly attacks on Brussels have left people frightened, shocked, angry and grieving. But there is also a sense of community and defiance. Let’s face it, Brussels and Belgium have seen it all over the decades and are still standing strong. It will no doubt take some time to recover and those affected will not be forgotten, but the ‘Belges’ and the cohort of multi-national multi-cultural adopted ‘Belges’ like myself will not allow cowardly attacks like this to change the country or its capital city. It is far too strong for that.

 

 

 

Inside the Gaddafi regime

(First published in Pen & Sword Club “Scratchings” newsletter June 2011)

As ‘guests’, we were in turn hosted and suffocated, welcomed and intimidated, engaged and spied upon, embraced and punched, accommodated and imprisoned. The same people were warm, good-mannered and kind one day; contemptuous, rude and violent the next. The pendulum swung in seconds and with little or no warning. And these were the people in whose hands we had effectively put our lives for the duration of our stay. Our hosts: the ‘Brother Leader’ Colonel Gaddafi and his Libyan regime. I’ve been a peacekeeper stuck in the middle of warring factions in Bosnia and Kosovo, mobilised as part of the coalition force in Iraq and later returned as an embedded Sky News journalist. More recently my country of choice has been Afghanistan as a – sometimes-embedded, sometimes free-moving – reporter.

These deployments have undoubtedly been challenging, exhausting, in parts traumatic, and all without exception hugely rewarding. With hindsight though they have been in many ways relatively straightforward and predictable. The Arab Spring brought an altogether new experience for me. The uprisings spread across the Middle East and eventually opponents to the Gaddafi regime in Libya launched their offensive in earnest with their so-called ‘Day of Rage’ on 17th February. Colonel Gaddafi and his entourage were initially predictably tight-lipped and refused entry Visas to all Western journalists. Eventually hours spent getting to know the embassy staff in London paid off and our 3-man Sky News team had clearance to go to Tripoli – as ‘guests’ of the regime. Gatwick airport was thronging with families carrying backpacks and skis. One check-in desk at the far end of the terminal stood clear of queues. Afriqiyah Airways had one flight departing – to Tripoli.

Under the perplexed gaze of holidaymakers, Lisa Holland – the Sky Foreign Affairs correspondent, Nathan Hale – our cameraman, and I checked in for our unconventional mini-break. We started our (‘it’ll be about three or four days’) mini break in February. We next set foot on British soil in April. We were in Tripoli as the stalemate with Gaddafi escalated, watched on Libyan State television as the votes were cast at the United Nations and the No-Fly zone was agreed. We were inside Colonel Gaddafi’s compound as the first bombing missions were launched, and were woken by nightly firefights, anti-aircraft fire and the sound of NATO planes overhead. And when we weren’t taking cover from our RAF compatriots’ raids overhead, we were talking down increasingly desperate regime goons brandishing guns at us. At least in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, I had within reason been able to identify potential enemy and threats and distinguish them from friendly forces who might provide help, safe haven and evacuation.  Here on the ground in Tripoli – apart from a last resort and very risky emergency escape plan – our ‘enemy’ and ‘friendly forces’ were effectively one and the same, just swapping at the drop of a hat from host to hangman.

We and about forty other journalists were cossetted in the 5-star Rixos hotel. Our 5-star prison – effectively under ‘hotel-arrest’. All of us at some point tried to leave without a minder, to get the ‘real’ story. All of us were escorted back with a slapped wrist, like naughty school children. Some got further afield, some were detained for hours, some were even tortured. But all were eventually rounded up by militia or soldiers at checkpoints, by men in leather jackets emerging at speed from unmarked minibuses, or by informant taxi drivers on the regime’s payroll.

Back at the hotel, the anti-virus software on our laptops fought a constant battle against ‘hackers’ over the hotel wifi. Every phone call was accompanied at the very least by a loud click; and at its most ridiculous, by the sound of someone else picking up a handset and voices chatting in Arabic in the background. The circus continued when parts of conversations we’d had over the phone were casually related to us by government representatives – a not-so-subtle reminder that they had all the power and were monitoring our every move. One such moment came from the official government spokesman himself. With a tone of concern and a beatific smile, he asked me about my family and how worried they must be about me. I had returned from a Tripoli hospital in plaster after breaking my wrist earlier in the day and had just called home to let them know. The spokesman recounted the words of my family to me almost verbatim.

But in a spurt of over-confidence he then went on to ask about the wellbeing of a daughter I do not have; having clearly mistaken in his hasty eavesdropping, the name of my cat for one of offspring. I smiled, thanked him for his concern and went on my way with a wry chuckle. He was the least of my worries. I had an admirer, a senior government minder, and a pretty persistent one at that. I could not brush him off politely; and to do so more forcefully would have put me and my team in a very precarious and potentially dangerous position. If I was going to have to put up with that I thought; it may as well be useful to us. So I drank numerous cups of mint tea, smiled as he tried to order me around like his chattel, allowed him to carry my tripod, edged gently away from his wandering hands, chatted during cosy coach rides and didn’t flinch at his whispered ‘sweet nothings’ during his translations of speeches. After one long press conference during which he draped himself over my chair and ‘translated’ for me, a Channel Four colleague commented that I ‘oozed rejection’ and ‘couldn’t the slimeball see that?’. It was a game of cat and mouse for all of us; and one that was only bearable to play thanks to a press-pack that put aside all competing interests and united in banter, support and camaraderie in the face of a common foe. And let’s face it; I had it easy. Three of our BBC colleagues were detained for two days, hooded, cuffed and subjected to mock executions. Enough to mobilise even the most cynical and selfish of hacks. This had the making of a BBC exclusive; but as soon as the three had been released and were safely out of the country; the BBC chose to release the interviews and pictures of their story to other broadcasters and we all ran it extensively.

We were of course in the country by choice, and had passports that protected us, that got us out when we needed to. Iman Al-Obeidi did not. She was the Libyan law student who made world headlines after she burst into our hotel breakfast room one morning screaming in Arabic. After realising she was no suicide bomber (our instinctive assumption), slowly journalists gathered to sit her down and try to speak to her. Banging the table and pointing out bruises and scratches, she accused the Gaddafi regime of detaining her, then beating and gang-raping her. Within minutes we had mobilised our cameramen and were capturing her story. Instantly mobilised too though was the army of hotel staff who joined the official minders to attempt to shut her up. She was literally muzzled by one. A waitress then threatened Iman with a knife shortly before her young colleague expertly threw a jacket over the treacherous woman’s head and dragged her to the door. The minders smashed cameras, punched journalists and tried to wrestle equipment and footage off us. One minder who had been full of concern at my broken wrist just twelve hours before, and had been offering the services of a doctor-cousin of his, pulled a gun on us. Somehow we got the footage out to London over our satellite dish. We then agreed with other broadcasters who had been there that we would share the story and give it the widest possible airing.

We’d been in Tripoli for five weeks, welcomed initially like long-awaited friends. We’d been taken on tightly controlled trips to alleged NATO air strikes on civilians, pro-Gaddafi demonstrations, and visits to alleged Al Qaeda prisoners plotting against Gaddafi. We had been fed daily press conferences by a state claiming to be unfairly victimised by the West and accused of atrocities against its people it had not and would never commit. As we had got increasingly frustrated by our smiling gaolers and gilded cage, they had got increasingly angry with our desire to escape their clutches and their propaganda. The smiling masks had begun to slip and the earlier superficial warmth was replaced by orders announced over Tannoy and the occasional uncontrolled venomous outburst. Despite the glaring evidence we had managed to gather; the daily arrests of errant journalists, the threats, the intimidation and guards physically barring us from leaving the hotel, the regime still blindly reiterated its message; insisting this was all a figment of our biased imaginations. But weeks of pressure had taken their toll. They were holding on so tight they momentarily lost control.

One woman had somehow made her way unobserved into one of the regime’s fortresses and she had lit the fuse. And that day, the world was shown just what the Gaddafi regime is really capable of. And yet, more than two months on, journalists are still sequestered at the Rixos hotel in Tripoli, the minders watch them more closely, the Tannoy still bellows out and the phones click. The nights (and now the days) are filled with the noise of NATO air strikes. The café still serves gallons of mint tea, and no doubt my admirer is circling around his next prey. Iman has since popped up in Jordan and Romania and if reports are to be believed, is heading back to her native Benghazi. The regime spokesman still holds a daily press conference. Libya is still the victim of the colonialist oil-hungry West and Colonel Gaddafi is still in power.

A day in the life: Media Advisor to Deputy Commander ISAF

(First published in the Pen & Sword “Scratchings” March 2013)

‘Poacher-turned-gamekeeper’, ‘spy’, ‘Colonel meeja’…the nicknames were endless. It may not have been the most conventional role for a journalist but the contradictions between my recent operational post and my day job are what made it challenging, rewarding, fascinating and occasionally infuriating all on a daily basis.

I was mobilised from my job as Deputy Foreign News editor at Sky News and deployed to Kabul for five months to create the role of Media Advisor to the ISAF Deputy Commander (and commander of British forces in Afghanistan), Lt Gen Adrian Bradshaw then Lt Gen Nick Carter. Privy at the highest level to the most sensitive information and thinking, input to some of the most important decisions on the campaign and a close working relationship with the most influential military figures in the British Army today. The kind of access and headline-rich environment a journalist could only dream of. But a privilege and situation which with my military hat on meant careful management of those potential stories, anticipating how my alter-ego might interpret the campaign’s every move and decision and turn them into news.

People always think the hardest part of sitting in the no-man’s land between the media and the military must be to adhere to the Official Secrets Act and resist the temptation to ‘make’ my hack’s career on a scandal or sensitive information that I’ve acquired during military service. The reality is that’s relatively easy – a decision when I first joined the TA that the line would never be crossed and classified information and behaviour shared on trust stayed just that. And, contrary to popular belief, integrity is a quality valued in journalists and service personnel alike.

What is far harder is reconciling what are two very different, independent, antiquated and stubborn professions and institutions and attempting to get them to work in a more collaborative and less combative way; a task which is all the more difficult when under operational pressure and tempo.

The military is all about discipline, protocols and the chain of command. There are drills for everything. God help you if you put a comma or tab in the wrong place in a Fragmentary Order, Warning Order, Operational Order or any other kind of ‘service writing’. Every type of briefing has a format and powerpoint is a must, with a gold star if you can include flow charts. Officer cadets spend half their first term at Sandhurst marching back and forth across a drill square at 140 paces a minute in painstakingly bulled boots. But it is exactly that regimented way of life that makes the British Army one of the best in the world.

Journalism on the other hand is about thinking laterally, finding the point of view others have not considered. It means questioning authority, exposing imperfections and mistakes, and where the military is concerned, making sure nothing uttered by senior commanders is taken at face value or left unchallenged. Your writing and style are your signature. And the idea that any briefing or report should require anything other than your magnetic storytelling or charisma – let alone follow a dictated structure – is abhorrent. Mention powerpoint to a journalist and you’ll have them running for the hills.

So when the two come together it can be fairly interesting.

The sceptical glances I got initially as a journalist ‘in advisor’s clothing’ disappeared early on. I would like to think that it was because people realised I was a professional and started to believe that it is possible to be a journalist and still have a modicum of integrity. I think it’s more likely though that they thought that if I was put there somebody somewhere must have trusted me and at the end of the day I might actually be useful if I could shed some light on this ‘meeja’ lark.

One of my closest allies was a colleague working on the very opposite end of the information spectrum. That caused a few eyebrows to be raised until people understood that in order to be prepared for the worst possible leaks and stories in the press, and mitigate against the damage they might cause, I had to be conversant with everything that was going on in the campaign, including and most especially the most sensitive reports, intelligence and decisions – material most likely to cause the most controversy and therefore the most damaging headline if it ever hit the press.

There was a steady stream of stories and incidents to respond to as well as media engagements and embeds to plan and manage for the General. They were busy months of Insider Attacks, Prince Harry on the front line, the Camp Bastion attack, troop drawdown announcements, not to mention the ISAF commander coming under investigation. But for me what took the job beyond its media advisor tag and what made it all the more fascinating was that it was all about diplomacy, building and nurturing key relationships and enabling the passage of information to the right people at the right time. Those relationships outside the military machine – with both the Afghan and international press – were key but ironically more straightforward than those within it. It was a time-consuming and painstaking process of making sure the various headquarters across Afghanistan were talking to each other and to the Pentagon and to Whitehall, and to the various military institutions in the UK. And that they were all following the same ‘narrative’, and saying the same thing or would in the event of x, y or z. And if they weren’t, then finding a compromise they could all agree upon. And that meant tiptoeing through the different personalities, different agendas as well as coalition and national politics on the one hand, and making sure the UK position was represented in the ISAF decision-making process on the other.

A minefield to negotiate, an exhausting pace and level of pressure and constant demands and questions from three timezones to keep up with. There were occasions where I breathed a quiet sigh of relief when what I had predicted happened on cue; when advice I had pushed hard was borne out; when risks I had taken to achieve an aim under time pressure paid off. I hadn’t expected it to be easy; after all I’d agreed to deploy at 24-hours’ notice, to a job that didn’t exist, in the media management of the UK’s most unpopular military campaign in the last century. But to be privy to decision-making at that level, working with military minds at the top of their game, and battling to bring media and communication considerations to the forefront of military campaign planning was exciting, challenging and rewarding. I enjoyed it so much I would have stayed on well beyond the end of my tour. I was given the freedom of manoeuvre to have real impact and use my specialist knowledge and experience to best effect. I handed over a job which is now firmly on the map and made it one which I think justifies the continued investment in specialists and their deployment to the right jobs, where they can contribute unique skills which the military lacks and add real value.

A little corner of paradise….

I’m back on a beach, looking out to a crystal blue sea in the sticky bright heat. Bliss to be away from the seemingly never-ending winter we’re having in the UK. And bonus, this time there’s no barbed wire, no soldiers to brief and I’m not traipsing around in desert boots and flowing garments, looking forward to a cold seawater shower. We couldn’t be further from Mogadishu here on the island of Medhufushi in the Maldives. Paradise doesn’t quite do it justice.

As an eternal cynic, when I look at holiday brochures, I always take the pictures of deserted pristine white sandy beaches, calm turquoise waters, lone palm trees silhouetted against breathtaking sunsets with a bit of a pinch of salt. I’ve seen what can be done with Photoshop, the deft angling of the camera to exclude from the frame the large building site next door and the colour palette that could ‘enhance’ even the Basingstoke canal to tropical luminescence. This is now my third visit to the Maldives though (the first two were to Bandos island, about 45 minutes away on the Male atoll), and still it delightfully fails to disappoint. Medhufushi – which apparently means ‘ centre of the sand bank’ in the local language Dhivehi – is in the Meemu atoll and a 40-minute seaplane flight from the capital Male. The island resort has a collection of ‘water villas’ out on a row of stilts above the water and looking out to an uninterrupted glistening horizon. We’re in one of the wooden ‘beach villas’, at the water’s edge, tucked away in amongst the coconut palms and leafy bushes with our own private area of white powder stretching to the water’s edge. It’s difficult not to relax when the setting is so serene and the discreet but attentive staff’s sole intent is to prevent you from lifting a finger and make your stay as memorably decadent and lazy as possible.

On Medhufushi, you’re barely aware there’s anyone else on the island, except at meal times when couples and small family groups emerge from their thatched bungalows for a bite to eat in the central open air dining area. We seem to have one entire side of the island to ourselves. We’ve spent hours paddling up and down it in sea kayaks – almost heading off to a neighbouring island we were so intent on following a curious turtle yesterday. Although this is one island that is surrounded by lagoon rather than a reef, there is still plenty of wildlife to be seen underwater. I will no doubt pay later in the sunburn stakes, for the amount of time we spent being toyed with by a couple of reef sharks earlier this morning. Always an exciting sight for anyone who grew up watching ‘Jaws’. Thankfully there were huge shoals of smaller prey around so we thought they were probably not very hungry and anyway we were too big a bite (and yes I am aware that reef sharks are harmless but they always say that until something happens so you can never be too careful I say). Our own feeding times are equally plentiful. Spread across various chefs’ stations interspersed with silver-domed buffet counters, every meal is freshly prepared with local fruits, spices and the day’s catch. For those less adventurous diners, there are tray-fulls of gourmet European food as an alternative to the Maldivian curries. If the chocolate monster in our gang’s orgasmic reaction to last night’s gooey chocolate and pear tart is anything to go by, the dessert selection is nothing short of sinful. The only complaint I would offer on this is that the melt-in-your-mouth coconut cakes, home-baked naans with cinnamon and clove fish curries are not conducive to showing off one’s brand new glamorous bikini in the most flattering light. Which is why having one’s own private beach is a doubly good thing.

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Enjoying the view

It’s hard to imagine this and many other islands of the Maldives were completely wiped out by the tsunami in 2004. It has been painstakingly rebuilt and cared for, making it once again one of the most exclusive destinations in the world. And they’re obviously keen to keep it that way. Alongside the extreme luxury and enjoyment of this paradise, runs an ethos of caring for the environment and preserving what’s left of the reefs, the natural wonders living on them and the tranquil surroundings.

If what you’re looking for is clubbing and parties, this is not for you. If you’re looking for monuments, museums and a cultural journey of discovery, this will leave you frustrated. But if, like us, you need a sledgehammer to properly wind down and let go; if like me you’ve read and re-read Chapter One of that bestseller twenty times over the last few months without getting any further; if paddling around with turtles, sting rays, sharks and rainbow-coloured fish in your very own ocean, challenging yourself with the full range of watersports and topping it off with burning purple and orange sunsets over a totally peaceful Margherita or two, then this is for you.

If that all sounds a bit too energetic, there’s always the spa. It sits out at sea, a haven with nothing but the smell of spices and flowers mingling with the sound of the tide lapping up under the floorboards against the stilts.

We’ve got that planned for tomorrow. This evening, we’re off fishing; and who knows, we might even manage to catch our own dinner.

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Our ride from the capital Male to the island of Medhufushi on the Meemu Atoll

Train or ferry? A lesson in European travel

There was a time when Eurostar was an easy, smooth and somewhat luxurious way to hop across – or more accurately under – the Channel.  As a family who live scattered across the European continent, we would make the train journey feel part of the whole holiday adventure by travelling en-masse for family events, carting a huge picnic on-board or upgrading to the glass of bubbly, three-course meal and comfy seats of business class.  Now though, it is more akin to a 2-3 hour journey on any cross-country train and a little scruffy at that.  At peak times like Christmas, under the chipped gloss, it heaves under the seemingly unexpected (although since it happens every year on the same day you’d think by now they’d have got it sussed) strain of expat families racing to get together.  St Pancras teams with queuing hordes loaded high with luggage and presents travelling to Brussels, Paris and further afield.  All are funnelled through electronic gates and then bottlenecked at security and left waiting for space on the x-ray conveyor belt, while standing in between electric doors that keep closing on your luggage or on your upper arms.  Last time I went through, after surviving the automatic doors, I spent half an hour watching a security official grunt and waft orders at me to unzip bags and pouches, then unceremoniously dump the contents of my case onto the counter and walk away.  It gave me just enough time to re-pack, push through UK border control, then French border checks and get to the escalator for the platform in time to be told off for almost missing my train (clearly I should have arrived more than the recommended 2-hours before my train’s departure).

So when my husband and brother suggested we go across ‘retro-style’ at Christmas – on the ferry – I thought why not.  Needless to say we picked the best day for our crossing – gale force winds and blinding torrential rain.  But we were not to be cowed and set off whacky-racers style on our convoy down to Dover.  Nostalgic to be back at the white cliffs before being swallowed up into the belly of the Pride of York.  Nothing like the number of cars I remember in the lanes in those pre-Eurostar and Chunnel days though.

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Retro travel queueing for the ferry

It may have been a little choppy and there were a few very green looking faces bouncing off the walls as we made our way up and down and across the Channel.  There were also a great many people enjoying hearty fish and chips, doing a spot of shopping and chatting over tea while staring out resolutely at the horizon, thereby batting off the onset of sea-sickness (yours truly).  Despite the weather, we were off and on the road to Brussels on time and even had plenty of time to stop off in Ghent on the way to Brussels for some Belgian chips, mulled wine and a browse around the Christmas market.  So full points for the good old-fashioned sea voyage across the Channel.

Or so I thought.   Just how old-fashioned only really came clear on the return journey when rough (understatement) seas prevented us from crossing for over two hours.  Not a problem said the apologetic note from the French port authorities as they would like to “draw our attention to the facilities offered in the Terminal building: toilets, a cafeteria and a bar”.This, we soon realised after arriving at said establishment after braving horizontal rain and gusts sweeping you off your feet, was actually a ‘slight’ overstatement.  We found no Terminal building.  Just a big sign pointing to a small (heated – small mercies) room with a toilet and three overused heaving vending machines.  Not quite what it said on the tin.  The contents of my thimble-sized plastic cup were most definitely not ‘rich tomato soup’.  The ‘creamy hot chocolate’ and ‘rich vegetable soup’ (naive waste of money or generous attempt to give the machine the benefit-of-the doubt?) were neither creamy, rich, or chocolate or vegetable.  Rather than apologise for the “adverse weather conditions causing delays”, they might have wanted to focus on their “cafeteria and bar”.  Just a suggestion.

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The “Terminal building”

Tomato soup, vegetable soup or hot chocolate?

The “cafe” and “bar”

So the retro road-trip, Channel cruise choice falling short of a gold star.  But then if we were judging on authenticity of the retro journey, I suppose the French port authorities have indeed stayed with a traditional 1970s ‘coffee shop’ offering; rather apt for fer ry crossings that have been around for decades and survived the advances in technology and invasion of Costa offee shops everywhere else.  It just would have been nice if rather than dressing it up as ‘Le petit café du coin’, they’d told us it was indeed a coin’ and ‘petit’, but your chances of any ‘café’ were slim to grey and luke-warm.  They could in fact learn from Eurostar, which on an earlier trip, as we pulled out of Waterloo station (in the olden days before the move to St Pancras) we were greeted with the announcement that the buffet car had run out of tea, hot food and small cups.  Abysmal and in record time, yes.  But at least there was no attempt at cover-up or glamorising.  You will pay through the nose, probably be delayed on the French side due to strikes, and on the UK side due to leaves on the line, and throughout your journey you WILL enjoy a wide range of snacks; namely ready salted crisps and large cups of coffee.  Simple.

So if you’re looking for speed without frills and a city-to-city jaunt – I’d go Eurostar, but take a picnic and a good book in case there are leaves on the line or a fire in the tunnel (to be fair that’s only happened once I think).  If you’re looking for a road trip and are happy to take it easy and see some countryside – I’d go with the ferry, but take a picnic, sea-sickness tablets and check the weather forecast first.

Either way it’s all part of the experience of seeing family when like mine, it’s multinational and everyone’s scattered across Europe (I haven’t tried the trains across Germany but am told by my German relative that they are very punctual and clean – well, they would be wouldn’t they).  I just wonder what some of the visiting tourists think.  The Japanese manage to get drink dispensers to the top of some of the highest mountains, the Americans have food outlets every few hundred yards on every road, and the Australians couldn’t have horizontal rain and weather-delayed ferries if they tried.  What a culture shock it must be when they come and visit our Europe.  And on reflection how delicate of them to only call it ‘quaint’.

A FLEETING CITY-HOP TO KAMPALA

It’s just a flying visit.  I arrived at Entebbe airport yesterday evening from Mogadishu via Nairobi.  I’ve turned my hand to a spot of recruiting for the vacancies that have come up over the last few weeks at AMISOM’s Information Support Team in Mogadishu.  Intent on spreading the net across the region a bit; I’ve done Skype interviews with candidates from Mogadishu, Nairobi and Kampala.  Now I’m on a manic city-hopping extravaganza to meet the front-runners in person.

We landed to glaring dry and hot sunshine – my kind of weather – and I shared my ride from the old capital Entebbe (and location of the country’s only airport) to today’s capital Kampala with a couple of gentlemen from Djibouti, also on their first visit to Uganda and firing questions at our driver about the sites, the politics and the history.  I had been told by one of my team in Mogadishu who lived here for a few years that it was a beautiful country.  What I saw as we drove through the countryside confirmed it.  The lush green rolling hills, the vast Lake Victoria with its beaches and resort hotels dotted around it, the banana plantations all made me wish I was here as a tourist rather than a would-be recruitment consultant.

The traffic and its behaviour reminded me of the roads around Sri Lanka where moped drivers take their lives into their hands (and yours) competing for tarmac with the seemingly never-ending supply of Toyota minibus taxis.  Weaving around the road and barrelling into oncoming traffic, on a couple of occasions, they forced our driver to swerve into the gravel, narrowly missing them and lulling me out of my sight-seeing reverie.  By the time we rolled into Kampala just under an hour later, the clouds had gathered and droplets were hitting the windscreen.  Seconds later, the road was a river of orange mud-laden water, with the regular speed bumps creating mini waterfalls at pedestrian crossings.  Clearly a regular occurrence during the rains season though as suits, dresses and school uniforms alike navigated deftly through torrents without so much as a brolly in hand.  It did serve to slow down the moped maniacs though, who were suddenly nowhere to be seen amongst the criss-crossing rush-hour traffic.  I realised as we went past a couple of service stations that these kamikazes on two wheels were not quite as hardy as their pedestrian counterparts.  I found them all cowering under the forecourt awnings waiting for a break in the clouds; swarms of bikers patiently chatting and eyeing up the more glossy, more powerful and desirable mount parked up alongside them.

For my twenty-four hour flying visit, I’m staying at the Grand Imperial Hotel.  One of the smarter hotels in town but of an older era than the luxurious modern chains; with wide ornate corridors, leather sofas and writing bureaux made of dark polished wood lining the lobby area.  I’m just sorry that with meetings and interviews, I’m spending far too much time in it working, than exploring well beyond its ornate pillars and welcoming staff.  Barely a taste of Uganda, but enough to say I’ll definitely be back.

Giving Somali women a voice

When I meet Ikran and Deko, I’m struck by how ordinary they look.  There is nothing superhuman about them, nothing of a stereotypical militant feminist.  And yet they have chosen one of the most controversial and challenging careers for a woman in Somalia.

Working in the media is frowned upon here if you are a man.   If you are a woman, it’s madness.

And yet despite qualifications in business and nursing; both these women are determined to make a difference to their local communities and their country by giving women a voice.

Ikran and Deko are part of the management team running the output and developing the programming at Kasmo Radio, the first radio station run by women, for women in Mogadishu and launched just four months ago on International Women’s day.  The station broadcasts seven days a week with a staff of just ten women.   Knowing that to stir up friction would mean being taken off air at best, and incurring severe repercussions at worst, Ikran tells me they avoid all political programmes and focus on subjects that cannot possibly threaten or cause controversy, but can still have a real impact on the lives of people and families in Somalia.  Ikran says their aim is to “be different, raise morale and help Somali women raise their children”.  As head of scheduling, her programmes include cookery shows hosted by celebrity chefs, children’s story-time, and educational programmes about health and hygiene.  A favourite with listeners she tells me, is effectively a ‘how to outdo your neighbour’ in the dinner party and decorations stakes.  Deko, who is part of the management team at the station says there is now room for these more light-hearted pastimes; “a lot has changed, salons are opening now – you know, we get our nails and hair done – restaurants are opening and women are finding careers, but also pride in their work in the home”.  Money is coming in and so are the female entrepreneurs eager to fill the gaps created by years of conflict and uncertainty.

Deko insists women always went to work – “let’s face it the men were always out fighting” – she had two jobs, was studying nursing and was pregnant with her first child during the worst days of the war.  But she says confidence in women and their abilities is building and that is infectious.  They even have men calling in on their radio shows to praise the work they are doing and the effect it has on their sisters, daughters and mothers.

It is not all plain sailing of course.  The Somali government is currently tabling a new media law which it’s feared if passed will seriously limit the ability of media professionals to do their job – not exactly the incentive needed to encourage youth, let alone women, into the profession or the media more widely.  And these women are hampered by the total lack of media training available to them.  They simply are not allowed access, so they and their staff are left with limited skillsets and a hunger to learn more about production, editing, story-writing and technology.  But Ikran and Deko are determined to do this their way; without having to hand over their hard-fought project to the more experienced and skilled men.

They may not yet be leading the way in political argument.  They are playing the long game and understand that change happens gradually.  And by bringing communities together through cookery programmes, chat shows and youth projects, these women are instrumental in building a strong home-front against anyone intent on threatening the new-found cohesion and fragile stability of their community.

This blog was published for Albany Associates and can be found at: http://www.albanyassociates.com/notebook/2013/07/giving-women-a-voice-in-somalia/

(Kasmo radio was set up by Somali NGO called WARDA – Women’s Association for Relief Development Actions and is sponsored by UNESCO)