Words by Bruna Dessena
While working for a medical support company in Mogadishu, Somalia was frequently in the news because of all the bombs that were going off amidst clashes between Al-Shabab and the Somalian armed forces. Not a place for those of a nervous disposition or who are easily offended. I say this because, from the time you land, you are assaulted by smells, sights and sounds that are unforgettable, to say the least. When you receive your ticket to fly on the notorious Mogadishu Express, you get just a ticket, not a seat number. You can be forgiven for becoming suddenly disoriented when, as the gates open, there is an urgent mass exodus through one door, as if the Somalian Civil War were right behind you. If that were not enough to frighten you, we then board the plane at the back via a small, one-person ladder. All the Fatimas and Aishas bustle for a position, much like in a rugby scrum, and they usually have four-and-a-half kids in tow who are already used to this dance.
Finally, you find yourself seated but then you notice it – a fly! Yes, in all my years of travelling, not a single aeroplane had flies clocking up voyager miles on the same flight as me. But I am comforted by a small, wrapped slice of sponge cake provided by the airline staff.
When you arrive, the war begins. Not the war outside the green zone where Al-Shabab is fighting the Somalis, but the war of getting through customs and obtaining your precious luggage. First, you are herded into a room. Tradition dictates that your luggage is kicked down a concrete slope into this room, and a few airport workers fetch the disheveled luggage and place it in three neat rows. Then all hell breaks loose as everyone yells and shouts and tries to make eye contact with the luggage officials to pass them their luggage. But the pièce de résistance is when the main luggage official – an old man dressed in an even older army uniform and wielding a stick – sharply whacks any passenger who dares to lean over to try and grab their luggage. No one is safe – not men, women nor children! Anywhere else in the world, assaulting passengers in this way would result in a hearing and a dismissal. In Mogadishu, this is just another day at the airport.
While in Mogadishu, I worked at the military camp located inside the green zone (safe zone) next to the airport, as well as another site in the city centre that fell outside the green zone. To get to the city site, we had to don full protective gear – helmet and bulletproof vests – and travel in hot, armoured vehicles in a security convoy. The reality of war is so very different to the reality of working in somewhere like Hillbrow. People are so desperate that they are paid less than $20USD to let off a grenade in a marketplace. They do this not because they are terrorists, but because they are desperate for money. The face of the enemy is impossible to profile.
The day they stormed the UN offices situated less than 50 metres from our compound, was unforgettable; the explosion was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. It was followed by gunfire, which continued for over an hour as the brave Somali soldiers kept the terrorists away from the building. The shrapnel that flew over our compound wall made it all very real. The Somali soldiers are like nothing you’d expect as far as soldiers are concerned. They don’t have camouflage outfits, voice-activated radios, infra-red glasses, or fancy backpacks. Instead, they are dressed in long, flowing robes, wear flip flops, and chew a lot of Khat to keep them awake. They can sleep on the ground with no mat, and despite their appearance, are as tough as can be. We huddled in the corridor with our helmets and bulletproof vests awaiting our private security to give us instructions, but being in a compound you are a sitting duck. One cannot but marvel at the age of cellphones, as exactly 11 minutes after the explosion, the first news broke through the major online news outlets and we had regular updates on what was happening on the other side of our wall. That is the life of a medic in Mogadishu.