"A Journey Into fear is where I go to find my self, to see the things that I must come to know to be the one called me." Mike Farrell
Friday, November 6, l992 - Los Angeles
Air France to Paris, en route to Nairobi - the first leg of a trip for the UNHCR to look at the situation in Somalia and then Bosnia.
We leave about an hour and a half late, but I’ve got time. Don’t meet the rest of the party until tomorrow night in Paris. (Having made these long treks a couple of times before, I’ve arranged to leave a day early in order to be able to stretch out and try to get some rest at the half-way point rather than do it all in one mind-numbing dash. My sense is this is going to be tough enough without starting out exhausted.)
Joe and Judy and Tom and Mike brought me to the airport. Shelley is working, so we said goodbye earlier. It’s kind of daunting to have so many friends and family members express their love and concern so clearly. Telling myself this trip may be the most dangerous yet is one thing, but it’s fairly easy to dismiss those concerns as melodrama and chivvy oneself into getting on with what’s important. However, when enough people tell you to “keep your head down” and give you the look that says they think they just may be seeing you for the last time, it’s enough to put a lump in the throat. Ah well, Michael, go with God.
It all started late last spring, when Richard Walden of Operation USA (which started out a few years ago as Operation California, a small relief organization based on the audacious notion that Richard and his partner could put together surplus medical supplies in this country with the crying need in parts of the Third World by brow-beating someone into loaning them an airplane to ship it in and has since grown into a highly respected world-wide operation) invited me to a dinner to meet Ms. Sadako Ogata, the new UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Ms. Ogata and her assistant, Sylvana Foa, knew of some of my involvement with refugee and human rights issues and asked if I’d consider doing a trip for the UNHCR. A few months later a letter and follow-up phone call from Barbara Francis at the UNHCR office in Washington began to zero in on the where and the when and here I am.
Business class is pretty nice. Seats are bigger and a bit more comfortable and they give you sockettes (not big enough for some), blinders (that always make me think of rich women in Beverly Hills) and a place to put your feet.
A little food and try to sleep. A gray, frowzy uncomfortable night complete with sore back, stiffening neck, coated teeth and disjointed images of Tom Cruise being boyish and muscular and not very convincing.
Saturday, November 7, l992 - Paris.
I’m barely, groggily awake after a too-short night’s sleep and it’s dark and rainy and going on night again. (How can zis be?) Bags, bus to the Meridien Etoile, voucher for a room. A meal and a walk before bed.
Half a block away is the Champs Elysees. Once there, the Arc d’Triomphe stands in the distance, glowing, majestic, alluring. To walk down this street toward that incredibly romantic monument on a drizzly November Saturday evening is to be not only in a different place but a different time. Oh, Shel, where are you?
At the foot of the monument, people gather. Flowers mark a particular memorial, one I don’t understand. I’m surprised, and pleased, at the number of young people here, cavorting, romancing. The sense of history, of permanence, is palpable.
Sunday, November 8, l992 - Paris
Wake up groggy, body clock all screwy. Eat, take the Metro to the Tuileries. Walk, look. Too many people to get near the entrance to the Louvre. The I.M. Pei triangles look weird to me, out of synch with the rest of the architecture. It’s grey, chilly, but people are everywhere. Walk over to the Ile de la Cite, through a street market that seems to be all about birds, cages, roosts and feed, and on to Notre Dame. What a sight! More people; artists working the crowd. A black mime in a tuxedo and top hat stands impossibly still on one leg atop a cement post, moving only when someone drops a coin in his box, then shouting “Thank you!” and leaping into another posture. Very artful, very charming. Circling the cathedral, I’m struck by the drama of the gargoyles. They appear to be spirits/demons being driven from the church. Is that the idea? All the way around now, there is a troop of teenagers on roller blades entertaining the crowd by swooping down the street, up onto a ramp, leaping into the air and landing to much applause, only to circle around and go at it again. They are in all sizes and shapes, some of the smaller ones hard put to duplicate the acrobatics of their elders, but game in the attempt. It’s a circus, this grey Sunday in Paris. Erin and Mike, you’ve got to come here!
Everybody looks like a million bucks. Walking around here leads me to an important sociological discovery. I think I’m the only male in Paris over seven years of age wearing white tennies.
Back in the Metro. A woman, poverty stricken, talks to herself. A troubadour enters the car. Very charming, bilingual, he announces his intention then launches into song. Actually quite good! Interestingly, there’s no threat about him, no sense of intimidation, no guilt trip. At the end, he passes the hat and many put in money with a smile.
At the hotel, check out and get the bus to Charles De Gaulle. Check in, search out the Business Class lounge and lo and behold, there I find most of my traveling companions -
-Jonathan Estrin is a friend already. Met him through Margie. He and his partner, Shelley List, are successful writer/producers in television, very political, good people. They’re very involved with Operation USA and I know Jonathan has done this kind of trip before. He’s about 6’4” or 6’5”, smart and very funny.
-Del Reisman is president of the Writer’s Guild of America, West. I’ve known him slightly for a long time as he was story editor on a series I did 20 years ago. A nice man. Quiet, unassuming. His first experience of this type, I think.
Having just gotten off the same flight I came in on yesterday, they’re feeling pretty ragged, but in good spirits. Then we’re joined by another -
-Phil Alden Robinson had gone on ahead of us by a week because his picture was opening in London. A writer and a hot young director (Sneakers, Field of Dreams), he’s never done anything like this before. We’ve spoken on the phone and met for breakfast with a human rights person who briefed us on Bosnia, as well as at the lunch where we all got together. Phil is also very bright, funny and seems to be a good guy.
In all, it seems to be a very congenial lot, which is a relief. The last thing one wants in a situation like this is a prima donna or someone who demands a lot of hand-holding. (Ah, the joys of retrospect. Little did I know at this point that I would be the one needing the hand-holding.)
Finally, as we’re comparing stories about inoculations, medications and what-terrifying-thing-the-doctor-said about this or that disease, condition or side effect , we’re joined by the last of our contingent -
-Ofra Bikel is a documentary film producer from New York. The only one of our party who hadn’t met any of the others up to this point, she is, I believe, an Israeli, who does much of her work currently for Front Line. She, again, was pleasant, congenial, and seemed to fit right in.
At some point around this time I took the opportunity to give voice to a concern that had come up for me since reading a report about the situation in Bosnia. Since of this group only Phil, Stephanie and I were going on that second leg of the journey, I addressed it primarily to them, confessing that I had found myself terrified by a description in the New York Times of the reporter having been crammed into a military vehicle, an armored personnel carrier, to be transported through “sniper alley” and into Sarajevo. What terrified me about it, interestingly, wasn’t concern about being shot at, but rather being jammed into a tight space, having the hatch slammed shut and having to ride that way for some time with only little slits of windows near the roof to be able to see out.
To their credit, they were all great about it and we ended up joking about various infirmities of one form or another and let it slide.
Claustrophobia hasn’t really been much of a consideration for me for some time, in fact. I have a pretty good understanding of the dynamics of it, I think, and can usually handle whatever comes up, though that might involve walking up a flight or two of stairs rather than getting into a very small, crowded elevator or the like. I didn’t care for getting stuck in the elevator in Syria a couple of years ago, or the one in Canada, but in each situation we got it worked out before the panic took over and I became a clawing, screaming madman. (There was one comic-opera incident in Egypt, going into the Great Pyramid at Giza, that still makes me laugh. But I worked it out.)
Just before our flight is called, Ofra is hailed to the desk and up-graded to First Class, which causes a short round of good-natured jollying. Phil, his ticket being paid for by Universal, is also in First Class on this leg, but no one really seems to care. As we pass through the gate I’m stopped and up-graded as well, which makes me decidedly uncomfortable, but, other than the embarrassment of all of us not getting the same treatment, it’s not the worst thing that can happen on an overnight flight.
Monday, November 9, l992 - Nairobi
Another grungy, frowzy, mostly sleepless night. Breakfast while getting an eyeful of sub-Saharan Africa (a first for me), the Gulf of Aden, the Horn of Africa, the Indian Ocean. We land in Nairobi (which the French pilot insists on pronouncing NAY-ROBI) at about 9:30 AM and walk through customs, passport check, etc., without a hitch. It’s definitely the Third World, and bureaucrats are bureaucrats, be they African or any other kind, but other than a bit of a pile-up at passport control where we waited while a man in a suit insisted on doing things at his own pace while another watched him do it, things went fine. Luggage came through and we changed some money into Kenyan Shillings (35 to the US $l) and met Barbara Francis, who had come in from Washington a day earlier (she’s young, maybe early 30s, elfin, smart, a good smile, I think a bit nervous at having to shepherd a bunch of Hollywood types she only knew over the phone and by reputation through what promised to be a strenuous time) and her UNHCR counterpart in Nairobi, Panos Moumtzis (a Greek, 30ish, very easy-going, unflappable, slightly built, but a workhorse, a pleasant face and a diplomat’s manner).
Jambo, jambo all around, then Panos guided us around to two Land Cruiser type vehicles and we dumped our luggage in one and loaded into the back of the other. As I sat down and got the sense that others were piling in behind me, the seat was locking down in front of me and the window beside me wouldn’t open I had a wave of panic as “the big C” came over me and I had to excuse my way back out of the car in a hurry and take a couple of deep breaths while I tried to sort things out.
What the hell was this? I don’t get claustrophobia attacks in the backs of cars! Well, old pal, I realized, you do now. In Africa, after a long, hard night on a plane, putting yourself into a new and possibly sticky situation with a bunch of people you don’t know as well as you might, you apparently do now.
I was embarrassed. Everyone was great. They adjusted things around so I could sit by the door and off we went. But God, was I embarrassed. And more than a little shocked.
As we headed toward Nairobi on the highway I was amazed at how much the countryside reminded me of Central America. Even the buildings had the same feeling of casual construction typical of so many in other parts of the underdeveloped world, rather than the finished, somehow clean lines of those in the wealthier countries. The roads are serviceable, usually two lanes rather than four, and the traffic is typically made up of buses, smaller cars, many of them showing signs of great wear and belching black smoke, and a lot of trucks. Everyone drives at one of two speeds: fast and stop.
There is a sense of energy in the city. Traffic moves in a snarl and people dash in and out of it or ride bikes, motor scooters or cycles through it. Buildings are for the most part apparently in good shape, though I didn’t get a sense that there was much attention paid to keeping them clean. I didn’t see as many soldiers as I had expected, particularly in view of President Daniel Arap Moi’s reputation for having a pretty heavy hand.
We were taken to the Nairobi InterContinental Hotel and got checked in. It’s a pretty nice place and feels fairly comfortable. Panos gave us a warning about carrying money and even passports with us on the street, saying crime is a real problem, and suggested that we take advantage of the hotel’s safe deposit boxes for our valuables.
Most everyone wanted to walk around a bit and get acclimated in the free time we had before a meeting at the UNHCR office, but Jonathan had a number to call and thought we could meet with someone from the IMC (International Medical Corps), so I agreed to join him.
We met with Gwen Borgeault, a pretty American (from PA) woman in, I’d guess, her early 20s, who is the logistics person for the IMC in the city. She’s been here for a year, seeing to it that the needs of their medical people on the ground in Somalia are met. The three of us had lunch at an Italian restaurant she knew and I was pleasantly surprised to be able to get pretty good minestrone and spaghetti.
The IMC operates three hospitals in Somalia. One in Baidoa, one in Mogadishu and the third in another city that I didn’t get. She indicates that progress is being made, but that they still operate under extremely difficult conditions. They do what she referred to as “Civil War Medicine,” meaning the techniques they’re forced to use are pretty primitive. She spoke, for instance, of surgeons having to use stones to pound in pins to hold bones together because they don’t have enough surgical hammers.
(Somalia was ruled from l969 until he was overthrown in l99l by Siad Barre, an increasingly cruel tyrant. For the first ten years of his reign he was supported by the Soviets as a counterbalance to US support for Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. In a maneuver magnificently descriptive of the idiocy of Cold War politics, once a communist revolution overthrew Selassie and the Soviets no longer needed Barre, they dropped him and the US picked him up and became his best friend. So for twenty years, first one side and then the other supported this dictator in terrorizing his people, giving him all the guns he could ever hope to want, without any apparent consideration of the needs or desires of the people of Somalia. In January of ‘9l Barre was overthrown in a revolution led by two of his former stalwarts, General Mohammed Farah Aidid and one Ali Mahdi Mohammed. After succeeding in throwing Barre and his forces out of the country, Aidid and Ali Mahdi had a falling out and are now fighting each other. Barre’s forces, in the meantime, have made an attempt at resurgence under the leadership of a General Siad Morgan, who is Siad Barre’s son-in-law. All of this has resulted in a currently stalemated civil war and the utter collapse of any recognizable government in Somalia. It is further complicated by the fact that the Somalis are in large part a nomadic people who are divided into clan groupings that dictate loyalties and family ties. A drought and resultant famine, exacerbated by the war, have driven the people off their land and left them without plots to plant or livestock to tend, hence the disaster of tens of thousands of them starving. They are a fiercely proud people who do not consider themselves “African,” had no written language until l972, and have a rather distinct appearance. They are often thin, have beautiful, delicate features and can be incredibly striking. The model, Iman, is a Somali.)
Gwen says that progress is being made, in spite of it all. She says Mogadishu is “less tense” now because of a meeting between Ali Mahdi and General Aidid. (We later learned that the meeting, though scheduled, hadn’t taken place.) She says doing work in the country is made more complicated because of the lack of a functioning government. Guns are everywhere, causing IMC people to have to hire guards from the various clans to assure there won’t be violence. (Huh?) (I find it interesting that people from the various clans will cooperate with each other in this “guarding” position. She says they tried hiring only one clan but that provoked violence.)
A problem they’re dealing with medically that is directly related to the Somali pride is the fact that the men so hate the idea of having a limb amputated that they will often refuse to come in for treatment when they have a wound, with the almost inevitable result that infection sets in, gangrene results and amputation is required where it might not have been had treatment been timely.
Fierce Somali pride, she says, results in their unwillingness to use a simple “peg leg” prosthetic. IMC is dealing with this by working with a prosthetic factory in India to provide more modern limb replacements.
She also pointed out that war is good business. IMC pays $3000 per month to rent a small house in Mogadishu to contain their operation. Planes are charged a “landing fee,” payable, I guess, to Gen. Aidid, whose territory includes the airfield. Another interesting phenomenon she described is the chat trade. Chat, or khat, (pronounced variously CHAT, CHOT, CAT & COT over the days we’re there) is a plant the leaves of which, when chewed, produce a high similar to that from speed. It is legally grown in Kenya, shipped in by air to Somalia (or carried in by traders) and very popular. “Everybody chews it.” (An expatriate I talked to later who had tried it said it takes hours to get the reaction - found it not worth the effort.) Gwen said that someone had tracked the cycle of use (start chewing in the morning, high by early afternoon) demonstrating a connection between increased gunfire and wounds to be treated in their hospital and the times of the day most of the users are experiencing their highs. Also, naturally, a large number of these gunmen/chat users are teenagers.
I asked Gwen to explain a concept I had read about, called “monetization.” She says it is the practice of selling food aid at low cost to Somali merchants who then resell it in country for a profit. It is a way of reestablishing an economy in the country. The UN is doing it with some of the aid, she says, and then taking the money it makes on the sale and using it to buy more supplies. It is effective in part, she says, but you still have to have a safety net of supplies to provide for those who have no money to put into the economy.
Some have suggested trading food for guns in order to get guns out of the hands of so many. She says it hasn’t worked because if one gives up his gun and gets food in exchange, he then turns around only to have someone else shoot him and take the food. Only, she says, a meaningful program of long term work and education will get the guns out of their hands.
Gwen introduces us to someone from the American Embassy who says Sen. Paul Simon and Sen. Howard Metzenbaum are due in. I ask him to say hello.
Back to the hotel to hook up with the others and off to the UNHCR office to be briefed by the ranking representative, Carol (sp?) Faubert. (50s, thickset, graying, either Belgian or French)
It took me a while to warm up to Mr. Faubert. He had an attitude that put me off. It was hard to tell if he was uncaring, patronizing or just tired. He described the camps and the situation in them for which UNHCR has responsibility in Kenya.
KAKUMA - N.W. Kenya. Near Sudanese border - Deals in large part with “unaccompanied minors” who came out of Southern Sudan. Of the Dinka tribe, they were originally pushed out of Sudan by government forces from the north and fled into Ethiopia. When that situation was no longer hospitable, they came back into Sudan, only to be driven south into Kenya. There are supposed to now be some 20,000 of them in this camp, all children, either orphaned or driven away from their parents. Complicating factor is the presence of the SPLA (Sudanese People’s Liberation Army), which may be using them as soldiers. One report said 4,000 kids had been taken by SPLA and used as human mine sweepers. That has apparently been debunked.
WALDA - N. Central Kenya - Near Ethiopian Border - 45,000 Ethiopian refugees. It is not technically a camp, rather a “gathering.” UNHCR provides food only.
BANISSA - NE Kenya - Small camp. Problems there, food distribution must be handled by clan elders. Camp will “hopefully” disappear.
MANDERA - NE Kenya - 50,000 Somalis. Similar food distribution problems. Main problem is sanitation. CONCERN setting up a latrine program.
EL WAK - NE Kenya - l7,000 Somalis - Similar problems. “Some fuss in the press. It’s not that bad,” per Faubert.
IFO, DAGAHEY & HAGADERA - E. Kenya - l00,000 Somalis
LIBOI - E. Kenya (Border w/Somalia) UNHCR tried to close this camp as it was too close to the border. It stayed open with the flood of population that keeps coming over the border and filling it up. People are processed here and sent on to Ifo, Dagahey or Hagadera.
(A problem in dealing with a nomadic population is that sometimes people move back into either Somalia or Ethiopia, rebuild their houses and only come back to the camp when the feeding starts.)
(Another problem is with difficulty of drawing borders between peoples. The people in a large circle that includes NE Kenya, Somalia and Southern Ethiopia are all one people: Somalis.)
UTANGE - SE Kenya - (Near Mombasa) - Population came from Somalia earlier, many from Mogadishu area. Many are upper middle class, well-to-do, intellectual. Many came by boat to coastal Kenya, others drifted down there from camps in the north. Setting up a new camp, MARAFA, to deal with the overflow.
THIKA - (Near Nairobi) - houses Ethiopians and Somalis. It is a staging area for resettlement to a third country or return to Ethiopia. 6,000 here are headed for the U.S.
In all, there are approximately 300,000 Somali refugees in Kenya.
Q. - Why are these people refugees? A. - War, in some cases. Hunger, due to drought. Hunger, due to breakdown of infrastructure. Social breakdown sets up a chaotic situation.
Q- . What is the ultimate goal of this work? A. - Repatriation. Until that time, to attempt to stabilize the situation, meet human needs. Refugee status is difficult to ascertain in areas where Kenyans, Somalis and Ethiopians interpopulate. First objective is to stabilize the population. Set up small projects that give the message that they may stay in place, not flow to the cities and create large gatherings. Repatriation is always a goal. “Durable solutions” are what is sought.
Q. - Could early assistance have prevented much of this? A. - Yes. Resources always follow the front page headlines.
General comment: Monetization has to be done very carefully.
Problems and priorities - l) Stabilize emergency. 2) Stabilize deaths per l000 population per day. 3) Lower deaths per l000 population per day. 4) Get Kenya Government to authorize new camp sites. (Expansion of need creates expansion of camps. Gigantic camps create massive ecological damage.)
Security problems exist. They include rape, robbery (against refugees and against staff). Committed by? Probably bandits (Somali and/or Kenyan), though, he admitted, charges have been lodged suggesting such misbehavior on the part of Kenyan military and/or police. No proof of such a thing, so far.
I liked him a bit better by this time. When I asked him about Sahnoun, he admitted (off the record) that it was a big mistake to fire him and probably created bigger problems. (Mohammed Sahnoun is an Algerian diplomat who was appointed by Boutros-Ghali [UN Secty. Gen.] as his personal or special representative to Somalia. He is reported to have been very effective, but short on diplomacy. He is said to have established good relationships with Aidid, Ali Mahdi, etc., and was making progress in getting them to understand the value of UN programs to feed the hungry and getting them to lay off the theft of supplies, as well as building an understanding of the need for UN troops to protect the relief supplies and workers. Very delicate negotiations, but indications are he was having success. He also spoke very frankly, in public, about UN shortcomings, about the mistakes made in the early days of the problem and about the fact that the NGOs [Non-Governmental Organizations] were the heroes who had succeeded where the UN and governments had failed. For this heresy he was roundly criticized within UN circles [there is reportedly an African Mafia within the UN bureaucracy controlled by jealous and/or power-hungry West Africans who didn’t take kindly to his criticism of their failures]. He is reported to have said that if he had $1,000,000 to spend on Somalia he’d give half to the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross], one quarter each to two other NGOs and none to the UN. The heat got intense and because he was appointed by Boutros-Ghali he evidently thought he could face them down. He tendered his resignation, thereby laying it all out on the table. To the surprise of many, Boutros-Ghali, evidently feeling the heat, accepted the resignation. Now the new appointee has to start over in establishing all these important relationships and much time will be lost - and perhaps many lives.)
After this meeting Panos took us to his office and gave a run-down of what lay in store. The schedule calls for us to fly out tomorrow morning in two small planes (I felt the skin on the back of my neck start to crawl at the choice of adjectives) and he wanted to let us know that there had been a couple of developments that might prove to be a concern. A shipment of supplies is being trucked by convoy from Mogadishu to Baidoa (the city for which we were headed) tomorrow. As he put it, “tensions get a little higher” when these convoys go out. Meaning? Meaning that convoys have been attacked in the past and we might want to skip the trip to Baidoa rather than risk being in the area when there is gunplay. We polled the group and decided that Somalia was what we had come to see, that we couldn’t hope to have a complete understanding of the situation without being there and seeing it for ourselves and that we wanted to go ahead as planned.
So, back in the cars (with everyone being understanding about my needing to sit by the door) and to the hotel to clean up a bit before being taken out to dinner at a special local place called, (can you believe it?) “Carnivore.’ (!!)
Carnivore (when they first said it I was sure it was a joke) is evidently a popular spot here, a must for tourists. A very African motif, open sides, open pit barbecue kind of idea, bamboo or wood structure with palm-leaf roofing, wooden tables. Everyone says “Jambo” when you come in (same as at the hotel and at the airport), which means hello, but may be more properly an African version of aloha. The barbecue is literally stacked with skewers of meat of all kinds. Thank God, because this country has a significant Muslim population, they also had vegetarian options on the menu. Because so many of the people in our party were not meat eaters, or not red meat eaters, we were having a great time figuring out how to not offend anyone and at the same time avoid starving to death. The program is that you order your dinner which, unless you specify otherwise, they assume will include a lot of the meat that the waiters bring around on skewers and slice directly, from whatever portion of the animal they happen to be carrying, onto your plate. Richard and Jonathan were the kings of the evening. Richard simply decided that since he was here he ought to try everything and, to our delight and amazement, did so. Jonathan, on the other hand, kept protesting that all he wanted was chicken, but every time they would come around with some exotic beast or another in hand, he’d say, “Well, OK, but just a little. All I really want is chicken.” Phil and I, who were sitting across from these two prize carnivores, nearly split our sides laughing as they worked their way through turkey, giraffe, pork, crocodile, hartebeeste, zebra and everything else under the sun, with Richard declaiming, “this really isn’t bad” (except for the crocodile) and Jonathan insisting, “but all I really want is chicken!”
After a long day, a good evening and looking forward to an early rising, we took off for the hotel. (Mr. Faubert had joined us later at dinner, further thawing my original impression.) On the way back, Richard asked if I had any understanding of the source of my claustrophobia. I said that while I couldn’t be sure, it might derive from a childhood experience where my father disposed of a mouse that had been trapped in a drain (I identified with the mouse, of course) in a rather dramatic way. We discussed the phenomenon and the fact that I had since discovered some ways to offset the panic when I can see it coming, etc. He was so sweet about it and so genuinely interested that I was very moved.
Once into my too-narrow bed, worried about the idea of “small” planes tomorrow, I did an experiment and let myself go into the panic and sense of suffocation and other stuff that comes up in association with this feeling. I thought maybe if I tried to go through the sensation instead of running away from it, it might possibly release some of the tension. I had to find a way to get out from under this thing. It made no sense to come all this way and end up blowing it because I couldn’t get in a stupid little plane. Well, whatever. It was a powerful night, if not one that included much sleep.
Tuesday, November l0, l992 - Nairobi
Up at about 5AM, leave the big suitcase in Barbara’s room so we can check out of our rooms. (Having to pack for the heat of Africa and winter in Bosnia made for taking more than one would normally want to carry.) Take a small bag with enough stuff to get us through the next couple of days, grab some breakfast, pick up a couple of bottles of water (a major issue in these situations. Though some feel the better hotels like this might have a sufficiently good water purification system, bad water is the simplest way to get dysentery and be down for the count, so avoid local water [i.e., don’t get water in the mouth while showering, brush teeth dry or with bottled water, avoid uncooked foods like salads and fruit, avoid juice that might be mixed with water and don’t drink anything with ice in it]. It makes for pretty spare and usually dull eating, but it’s better than the alternative.) and get in the vans for the airport.
Checking in at the charter airline at Wilson Field, paying our fees and getting ourselves and our bags weighed was all done in a kind of fog. All I could think about was these God-damned planes! What the hell was I going to do if I couldn’t get in one of them? Panos introduced us to the group of journalists who were going to be accompanying us to Baidoa (the City of Death); Andy (Reuters) and his photographer, Hoss (a Kenyan); Tom, (AP) and his photographer, David (who later told us he was still carrying shrapnel from a shell that landed near him in Sarajevo); Sonya (Voice of America) and Scott, (USA Today).
Finally, out on the tarmac, I look over the situation. One is a ten-seater twin engine and the other is a five-seater (six including the pilot). Though logic says the bigger one would have more room, it doesn’t seem to work that way for me. The big one has windows that don’t open and the only way in and out is a door on the left side behind the wing. Figuring it might be OK if I sit beside the door I get in, but can’t straighten up, can’t breathe, can’t stay and get right back out. Richard and Phil are watching, aware of my dilemma, and are trying to be helpful. I explain the situation to Barbara, who confides that she doesn’t like small spaces either (is this the blind leading the blind?) and Stephanie mentions that she can’t stand heights. Almost able to see the humor in the situation, I take a look at the small plane, reminding myself that I’ve been in them in the past without any problem. Two very cramped seats in the back, two in the middle and two in front, both of which have controls. The door is on the right side. I ask the pilot which side he sits on and, blessed man, he says “the left,” so I ask if it’s OK if one of us sits next to him and he says, “sure.” Phil and Panos and the two photographers are going to ride in this one and it’s OK with them if I sit in front, so I go back to Barbara. She says she’ll be OK in the co-pilot’s seat in the other plane and Stephanie says she won’t look down, so we load up.
Our pilot is a tall African with a great smile and an easy manner. He fires it up and asks me to keep the door open while we taxi out to the strip (a request I’m only too happy to comply with) and before I know it I’m having fun! Phil, kind soul, keeps checking on me, but so far so good. At the take-off place we close and lock the door (no panic, I can breathe), I turn and look at Phil and give him a smile and he gives me a thumbs up and we’re off!
We are to fly two and one-half hours to Mandera camp in Northeast Kenya, where we’ll stop and refuel before setting off over the border into Somalia. Massive sweeps of clouds fill the sky, but we power through them, tossed about a bit when we’re inside, then break free and suddenly the vast expanse of Africa is laid out below. It is extraordinary. Once away from Nairobi it’s as though there is no civilization anywhere. In even though the vegetation is still not lush, there is, when you see it from this height, an almost palpable sense of verdance, of fecundity, to the land; a deep richness that speaks of a profound fertility. It is, they say, the cradle of mankind, and somehow a sense of that magnificence is communicated as your eyes scan the horizon. How then to explain all the disaster, all the cruelty?
Panos fills us in a bit. Says that last week in Baidoa there were 65 dead per day being picked up off the street. People simply put dead bodies outside their houses if they are themselves too weak to bury them. Others may just be lying where they have died. Some of the bodies come from the medical treatment centers or the feeding centers, having gotten there too late. The 65 a day figure is down considerably from what it was in recent weeks (over 200 per day in September) and is considered to be “almost normal,” normal being 2 deaths per l0,000 people per day.
A great source of frustration to the relief workers is a sort of Muslim fatalism among these people. If a child dies of starvation or a malnutrition-related disease, it is often considered “the will of Allah.” This attitude sometimes keeps people from coming for help for sick or starving children who could be saved by feeding and re-hydration therapy. If, on the other hand, someone does another person harm, it requires a response. A kind of blood-for-blood code. It’s only one of the many problems one confronts when coming to the aid of those with a different culture, understanding and background.
As we float along above this troubled land I can hear Phil getting his ears filled by David, in back of him, on the dangers of life in Sarajevo. Another world.
The plane begins to descend and I look in vain for a landing strip. It must be out there somewhere. Finally, off in the distance, there appear some unusual colors and shapes. Mandera is a small town that has become the temporary home to an additional 55,000 Somali refugees for whom the UNHCR has established this camp and to whom they are trying to provide supplies and services. This particular group is made up primarily of members of the Marehan Clan, which was associated primarily with Siad Barre. Driven out of their country by Gen. Aidid’s forces, they squatted here in appalling condition, starving and dying until the camp was set up and the UNHCR could begin to develop some systematic approach to dealing with them. It’s still not in very good shape, having been moved twice as it swelled in size, threatening to engulf the town.
Mandera itself sits in a triangle in Northeast Kenya, with Ethiopia just to its north across the river and Somalia just to its east, all three countries visible as we descend.
The unusual colors I spotted are pieces of blue plastic sheeting that have been issued by the UNHCR and placed on top of many of the small, round, stick-framed huts, known as “tukuls," which define the camp’s two and one-half by one and one-half square kilometers. The sheeting is an attempt to ward off the effects of the rainy season that has just begun.
Swinging once around over the town and the camp we come down toward the strip (which looks like a dirt surface from here), passing over the backs of a camel herd tethered below us. A smooth landing on a rough surface and we’re down. Suddenly the air, which had been quite cool up high, is very close and hot and Panos asks me to open the door to let in whatever breeze there is as we taxi toward a waiting Land Rover.
We’re greeted by Gert, a Swedish UNHCR representative who heads what is known as the Cross-Border-Operation up here. The other plane lands and, as we’re waiting for the refueling to take place, Gert offers a ride to the UNHCR compound’s latrines for those in need of such a stop while the rest of us walk over to an open walled structure where a few uniformed Kenyan soldiers are taking a break in what is apparently their recreation room. It has a couple of broken-down easy chairs and a dirty sofa and a very welcome supply of cold soft drinks. It’s hot! We’re introduced around and soon a couple of us are engaged in conversation with an off-duty lieutenant who speaks good English.
He says we’re lucky to have come today because yesterday it was really hot (!!) and dusty. The rains last night cooled it off and put down the dust. He seems to be a very sweet guy. Likes his job. Says he was studying to be an economist, but decided to drop out and try the army. Not a minor decision because the minimum enlistment is 9 years! Says he’s from western Kenya and speaks of having gone to school right on the rim of the Rift Valley, which is supposed to be fabulously beautiful. He says the Kenyan Army is a good place to be, says it’s kept out of politics, says members of the armed forces can’t even vote. Phil asks when the Army was last involved in warfare. He says he thinks it’s when Siad Barre wanted to annex northern Kenya, but he wasn’t in then. Says Kenya has a unit in Bosnia-Hercegovina with the UN troops there. Nice man. Seems very gentle.
The airstrip is on a Kenyan Army Base, hence the troopers. He seems to think it’s pretty good duty. Seems a bit out of the way to me. It’s pretty spare. Dilapidated buildings, some made of wood, some with corrugated tin siding or roofing, some, like the rec. room, made of mud bricks. Though the foliage is still not lush it does feel more like the tropics here. There are a number of big trees in the compound and some very beautiful, brightly colored birds flitting around. The tops of the trees are laced with very large nests made of twigs and sticks. The lieutenant says the birds “help us keep the compound clean” by picking up all the fallen wood for their nests.
We get the signal and head back for the planes. The USA Today guy, Scott, leaves us here, having some things to look into.
Back in the air, we pass over the border into Somalia. It looks even more desolate than the land around the camp. The drought’s effects are very evident. Dirt and scrub brush abound. The land is uneven, but could hardly be called hilly. We share a boxed lunch that Panos was clever enough to have prepared at the hotel. The pilot declines my offer to share, saying “later.” I guess he’s busy. As we pass through more clouds the ride is even bumpier than before. Once in the clear we occasionally pass over a road that crosses the landscape, running straight as a string as far as I can see, going off God knows where, connecting God knows what.
Now patches of ground below appear to have been marked off in some fashion. It doesn’t appear that they are tended in any way, but maybe they once were. Perhaps these are the lands that the Somali nomads were driven off. Certainly no signs of agricultural activity from here. No livestock.
Now we come across patches that show signs of having been used to grow something at one point.
Now compounds. Groups of huts, tukuls, as we begin our descent toward the airstrip at Baidoa. Compounds below are surrounded by trees and within them more trees mark divisions of land, huts.
We’re below the clouds now, but being tossed around quite a bit by what seems to be a good wind. As we approach, it’s clear that this strip is a more solid surface, asphalt or concrete. Also, we see US C-l30 cargo planes that have landed to unload food and relief supplies. The US does nine or ten flights a day into Baidoa and three other small airfields in Somalia. Good for us!
Landing, we taxi over toward two waiting vehicles and climb down to be greeted by a striking blonde woman, a Finn named Nina Winquist, who is head of the ICRC operation here. (Probably in her early 30s, Nina is great looking, smart, dedicated and emblematic of the impressive crop of people we continue to run into. Mostly younger than one would expect, they come from all parts of the world and evince a quiet courage, commitment and humanitarian understanding without in any way appearing to be self-conscious or self-aggrandizing. It is very impressive and utterly humbling.)
Nina manages to squeeze us and our gear into the four-wheel-drive vehicles she brought and, as our pilots head back to the safety of Mandera for the night, apologizes for the gunmen she has with her. Machine-gun toting young men load into a lead vehicle while others clamber on the roofs and into the backs of ours. These, she explains, are “technicals.” The term derives from the fact that UN paperwork requires an explanation for all expenditures and, since there is no provision on the paper provided for armed protection (such a thing never having been deemed necessary before), one of the first people out here wrote them off as “technical assistance,” and the name stuck.
Nina explains that as a matter of policy the ICRC refuses to use technicals, but sometimes (and this is apparently one of those times) they just have to hold their noses and go along with it. So, our heavily armed caravan proceeds out of the Baidoa airstrip and toward the city.
Baidoa, which before the war had a population of approx. 60,000 people, now holds between 80,000 and l00,000. It was, we’re told, a beautiful place, considered a resort city. That is no more the case. Streets are lined with wretched humanity, dirt is everywhere, many of the buildings are in ruins (not all, we’re told, as a result of the fighting, but as much from people tearing down deserted buildings to find materials to build or repair their own dwellings, or for firewood). It is hot, and sweat and dust and pain fill the air. The vehicles that travel through the streets, and there are many, race along at a break-neck pace, apparently given to the concept that a moving target is harder to hit. People walk along the road, carts drawn by animals move in and out of the traffic and children play, causing me to wonder how many have died just from being run over. The honk of a horn is clearly understood to guarantee the right of eminent domain and anyone who doesn’t so understand will suffer the consequences.
Guns are everywhere. Casually slung over a shoulder, hanging off an arm or out of a window, automatic weapons dot the landscape. And between the racing vehicles and the omnipresent guns, impoverished people slog along, trying to simply survive.
Our first stop is at a gate, behind which is a cluster of buildings around an open compound. Alighting from the cars we pass under the watchful eyes of their technicals (and, I guess, leave our technicals to watch their technicals) and into the hospital run by the IMC. This facility has l00 beds and treats as many gunshot wounds as it does anything else, we’re told. The first face I see upon coming through the gate is a surgeon from Kansas named Charlie Livingston, who has come here for two-weeks to do what he can. “MASH was never like this," he greets me. “We operate under worse conditions than you guys ever showed.“ In conversation he says he’s done five tours for this organization in different parts of the world, but has “never seen anything like this.” In response to my questions about the situation he begins to choke up while describing the lack of sterile conditions, materials, the condition of the people. He echoes Gwen’s statement that fear of amputation keeps people from coming in until it’s too late to do anything else.
In the women’s ward, amid the overwhelming smell of soiled bodies and human feces, everyone looks underfed. Some are almost skeletal. Many of the women have strikingly beautiful faces and wear colorful clothing, often with the head wraps traditional in Muslim cultures. Flies are everywhere.
A young doctor named Mike Boutin shows us around. He describes the men’s (often young teenagers) proclivity for holding an automatic weapon like a spear, one hand on the butt of the weapon and one hand on the trigger mechanism, so that when they pull the trigger the recoil causes it to simply spray bullets in every direction, out of control. Many self inflicted wounds, many unintentional.
Into the men’s ward. Again, the smell. Many gunshot wounds. All appear to be well fed “because these are the guys with the guns.”
He shows us the OR (Operating Room), but because they use the English model they call it the OT (Operating Theatre). For them, the Emergency Room is “Casualty.” OT is rudimentary. Livingston was right.
We meet some of the staff, all Americans. Great bunch. All described the conditions here as awful and the people’s situation as pitiful. One gray-haired nurse, asked why she had volunteered to come here, said, “I retired back in Pennsylvania a while ago and got bored.”
Boutin spoke of some of the problems they encounter living here. He says, “Most of the food we buy in the store is looted food from America or the European Community.” He says, “More food in the area (US air shipments, convoys) has meant more guns.” Then what ‘s the answer? “So much food that it takes the value out of having it. Flood the country with food.” The biggest problem they have is “dealing with the men with the guns.“ Gunmen extort supplies from the NGOs. “We don’t have the funds to meet their demands.” As an example, he told us that IMC had negotiated a contract for renting the house where the staff lives in town. The landlord told him they had to renegotiate. He refused. The landlord demanded a meeting. He refused again. (He says it’s standard here for them to demand to renegotiate everything once it’s agreed to. Also standard to demand meetings when you can’t agree.) The landlord then made a shooting gesture to let him know what would happen if he didn’t cooperate. He again refused and they found themselves locked out of their house. Finally a meeting with the clan/village elders resulted in resolution of the deal. Another time the guards at the hospital (their own technicals) demanded more money. When he refused, they threatened to shoot him.
His favorite guard was killed four days ago, the fourth one they’ve had killed in squabbles with guns.
Back outside we load into our vehicles. As we’re waiting for the others, those of us in the lead car are transfixed by the sight of two of our technicals, in the pickup truck directly ahead of us, fighting over an automatic weapon. It’s one of those times when you can’t believe that what you’re seeing is actually happening. Can they be joking? Don’t they understand the danger to themselves, to everyone around? Another runs up, jumps onto the truck and tries to separate them as we sit there, dumbfounded. I’m tempted, on impulse, to run up and at least get the weapon out of their hands but then, in a wink, it’s up in the air, being swung around, then flying out of the grasp of whichever one had it last and cartwheeling to the ground. Somehow, it doesn’t go off, no one is hurt and we all just sit and look at each other for a moment, considering.
Nina takes us by one of the two springs in town. Like everything else, it is controlled by the men with the guns. She says Siad Barre occupied this area from November of ‘9l to April of ‘92 as he was battling Aidid’s forces. He conducted a reign of terror here to the extent that villagers fled, farmers left their land and everything fell apart.
Next stop is a feeding center run by CONCERN/Ireland, or Irish CONCERN, the parent organization of my group, CONCERN/America. The intention of the center was to deal with the needs of malnourished children 7 and under, providing them with special nutrients to build them back up from the near-starvation level to which they had sunk. The problem is they found so many starving adults that they’ve had to alter their program and deal with them. This is one of ll feeding centers CONCERN runs in the country with 22 Irish volunteers and hundreds of local staff.
Again it is a compound, this time with only one small building behind the gate and a large stable-like area, covered, with straw on the ground and mats for the people being fed. To walk through the different “stalls” is to visit hell. The stench of diarrhea permeates, skeletal bodies of children and adults lie on the mats, some not moving, hardly alive. Flies gather at their mouths, their nostrils, the corners of their eyes and they’re too weak or uncaring to even brush them away. Two Irish nurses work among these wretched souls, dispensing small amounts of a specially prepared porridge-like mixture. The stalls are arranged to try to separate those with what appear to be contagious diseases from the others, or to set apart the most desperate cases, or very young children, or nursing mothers. It is staggering. Those who notice you look up, their eyes beseeching you to do something to alleviate the suffering. I move out of one stall, into a passageway, fearful that even my breathing will deprive someone of life-sustaining oxygen, and come face to face with a heart-breakingly beautiful young girl, obviously a teenager, whose shining eyes and endearing smiles belie the condition made evident by the sharp outlines of the bones of her arms threatening to pierce the skin.
I spoke to one nurse, whose name may have been Catherine, who said that conditions are very much better now than they had been. They are getting fewer children now, more adults. Adults were apparently being overlooked because of so much focus on starving children, until adult deaths overran child deaths, causing them to change focus. It is possible, she says, that most of the severely malnourished children have already died. She says they find a gap. Children over six years are around and children under one year of age can be found. The children between those ages seem to be gone.
Their focus here is feeding, thus they don’t have the expertise or the equipment to deal with the terribly diseased ones. They watch for signs, for example those with watery diarrhea can be helped by oral rehydration, those with bloody diarrhea have amoebic or bacterial complications and must be hospitalized.
25% of the children in the country have died, she says.
“It’s a disgrace to humanity,” Nina responds.
Back in the vehicles, we head off to an ICRC kitchen. A crowd of people is gathered in front. Men in cars with weapons are in evidence, but this is hardly unique any more. A young man named Pascal, French or Belgian, tells us that the ICRC has been in the region since the war in the Ogaden (area of Ethiopia). He says ICRC decided to focus on kitchens because they meet the needs of the people and “we don’t have the need for so much security.”
Through the gates we go into a large, open yard that has a roofed structure on posts under which squats a crowd of 300-400 people, mostly women and children holding cans, pails or other containers, waiting to be fed. Pascal says ICRC has 770 kitchens in Somalia that feed approx. l,500,000 people daily. Here, he says they feed 500 to 600 per day. To ward off the possibility of looting they set them up simply (there is an earthen oven and simple, open kettles on an open fire at the side of the lot facing the waiting people). There are 22 such kitchens in downtown Baidoa and 56 around the outskirts. They provide two meals a day (250 grams rice, 30 grams beans & oil to mix for each meal). They aim to achieve the WHO (World Health Organization) standard of 2200 calories per day per person. He emphasizes that this is not a feeding center (as is CONCERN, the one we just left) but a kitchen. The intent is to supply a daily ration to maintain health, not to revitalize those in severe distress. He says they operate without the use of technicals, but gunmen have tried to force themselves in to provide security in exchange for food.
At this point there is a loud burst of automatic weapons fire from a short distance down the street. While we’ve been hearing the occasional shot or burst of fire off and on since we’ve arrived here, this is both the nearest and the most serious sounding. It appears to be an exchange of gunfire. Pascal, apparently unimpressed, introduces a Somali woman whose name sounds like Anous Hadan. She tells us that this kitchen is special because they don’t allow weapons here. She says they prepare food, show others how to do so, how to wash the food. They give medicine to the children for skin diseases. She is known as the “mother” of the kitchen. She lived in the city with her family, was driven out by the war. She returned to find everything gone; her house, her livestock and her children. Some are dead, some are gone.
At one point in the discussion a man with a weapon comes into the compound, but with no more apparent concern than one would have in shooing away a pesky crow the staff sends him away. He’s welcome back without his weapon, is the obvious message.
A sad fact that somehow underlines the stark reality of life in Baidoa is the realization that this crowd patiently awaiting the next meal has been squatting here, in this yard, apparently in the same posture, since the last meal. Their lives are described by when food will next be made available and they’re not willing to leave and risk missing it.
After a bit more palaver, we again load up and this time are taken to an orphanage run by a local Muslim organization. Open for 5 months, it takes in orphans from a 30 mile radius. It has 675 kids now and, the man says, there are l,000 more in town. They get funding for their operation from the ICRC and CARE and try to meet the needs of the children as best they can. They have a regime of 8 hours of study per day, mostly the Koran, and they are preparing other study lessons. A woman from another Irish organization, GOAL, is there as a nurse. She distributes vitamins and tries to deal with the health and comfort concerns of the kids. She says they haven’t lost a child in the last three weeks.
Inside this compound is a yard ringed by structures which provide shelter for the children. The rooms are bare, with wooden platforms raising the sleeping surface about 6 inches off the concrete floor. The platforms have straw mats for the kids to sleep on and they house about 20 to 30 kids in each room (less than the size of my garage). Outside I mention the “beds” in a less than enthusiastic voice and the Irish woman admonishes me in a tone suggesting pride of craftspersonship, saying, “they’re beautiful beds.”
One has almost gotten used to the smell, but the sight of all these kids in the compound is, again, almost overwhelming. As is true with kids everywhere, they are noisy and antic, which gives one hope, but many are in rags, some disfigured, others clearly handicapped. One little girl has an enormous growth on the side of her head, one emaciated child squats in the dirt dribbling watery diarrhea, crying, looking around apparently helpless. Soon another, older child comes over and tosses a handful of dirt on the puddle to cover it. One boy, skin pulled so tight over the bones that his every skeletal detail is vividly exposed, rises and moves so slowly and painfully that it is almost unwatchable. His legs move in a manner reminiscent of a stork; that painful, awful, almost regal, slow motion.
Through it all a chorus of young voices parrot that of their teacher, repeating over and over today’s lesson from the Koran.
As I’m standing taking it all in, Richard comes over and points out the irony of the two beautiful trees that blossom in the center of the compound.
Again we go to the vehicles. Again Nina leads us to another of the horrors of Baidoa. This time it is a displaced person's camp. (The term refugee only applies to those who have left their country, so those still in country, even though driven from home, are DPs.) Bay Camp has about 4,000 to 5,000 people. The area where they have squatted (or perhaps been directed to squat by some agency) is broken into 8 clan areas, or zones. Though there is a well here, there is no water currently available at this site because the water pump, provided by SCF (Save the Children), was stolen. They live in tukuls, most covered by the same blue plastic sheeting we’ve seen, this time provided by UNICEF. These people have to walk into town (to the well controlled by the men with guns), pay for water and carry it back. Food, distributed by the ICRC, is given to clan representatives who distribute it to their people. The dilemma currently being pondered is, how do you deal with meeting the needs of these people while at the same time avoid making the situation here so attractive that they stay, thereby adding to the burdens already imposed on the city? These people made the 4 to 5 day walk here because of war, drought and famine. If they could be talked into returning to their home area (and if the fighting would not start again) they could be better provided for there.
As Nina is explaining the situation the people gather around us in the waning light, as though in expectation that we can somehow ease their plight.
(Phil, Richard, Jonathan and Del said later that of all the horrors to which we had been witness, this situation was somehow the most troubling to them. It occurred to me that each of the other situations, though displaying horrifying, grievous conditions, were presented in a context somewhat limited, understandable and from the point of view of someone who was addressing, however unsatisfactorily, that problem. Here, as all these silent, dignified people stood before us, we were faced with naked, undifferentiated need.)
Again we move off, this time to our resting place for the night: the Bikin Hotel. Built during hoped-for good times, it fell into disuse and has now been opened again in the hope the NGOs will bring in people who have need of a place to stay. We are just such a group. Middle Eastern in appearance, the hotel is a white single story building with two war surplus howitzers out front. Its tiled porch doubling as a lobby, double wooden doors open onto a hall off which open ten high-ceilinged rooms, each with two single beds. Its tile floors and white-washed walls give at least an appearance of cleanliness and, given what we had seen of the city so far, come as a relief. At the end of the hall are two rude showers complete with windows (and, I discover later, lizards), and on the left is a bathroom with two sinks and, separately, two toilets. I put my bags down in one room and am joined by Phil. The bare mattress on each bed is covered only by a single sheet (does one get under it or lie on it?) and has a hard pillow. A pair of go-aheads (shower shoes, thongs) awaits. (Of course, they’re too small.)
Barbara has schlepped in with us some pasta from Nairobi, along with sauce, and arranges for it to be cooked, along with some chicken, next door at a small bar and restaurant owned by the proprietor of the hotel. She and Panos and Nina have arranged for a party this evening, to which people from all the local NGOs are invited.
It’s a nice party and a good group. Interesting conversation. The local head of UNI-SOM (United Nations, Somalia) echoes the sentiment that Sahnoun was good and will be missed. (Is being, already.) He adds that the new guy (whose name I missed) is also supposed to be very good. And tough. He says there are two de facto governments in Somalia today. They are the NGOs and the clan structure. To try to force a political solution through military power without working in concert with the clans would be “a disaster.” Says things are getting better. Deaths are down. The situation probably won’t reach the l,000,000 deaths projected. Clan elders, if dealt with appropriately, will reestablish order and, working with the UN, can get the guns out of the hands of these kids (which is a major problem). He says the convoy from Mogadishu that was due in today didn’t make it, but should be here tomorrow. Supplies of food coming in these convoys always raises the tension level. There will be looting. “Stay out of the way.”
Mike Boutin of IMC continues to maintain that we should “flood the country with food,” thereby reducing its value.
Dr. Said, local head of UNICEF, has just set up a program to vaccinate 5,000 kids against measles. There had been danger of an epidemic.
A young American (from Wyoming) is working with the WFP (World Food Program), air-dropping food to people in outlying areas that are either (l) inaccessible or (2) so far from feeding centers that they want to encourage them to stay home (to keep them from converging on the cities and over-stressing the system, a la the DPs we saw today at Bay Camp)
Two young guys from MSF/Holland (Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders) are talking about a medical program they’re setting up to meet the needs of the people such as those in the CONCERN feeding center who aren’t wounded and therefore can’t go to the IMC hospital. They’re also full of stories about the fact that their HQ is next door to one of the biggest looter’s warehouses. Said these guys have an armored vehicle they simply pull into the street and threaten convoys with. People give them what they want. “The guys with the biggest guns get the most and the best stuff.”
Pretty soon my eyes are closing in the middle of sentences, so I head for bed. It’s hot. Decide to stay in my clothes on top of the sheet and hope for the best as far as mosquitoes are concerned. The heat demands that the window be open. Two drivers sitting right outside the window seem intent on talking through the night. Drives me nuts, but they’re the guys with the guns, so I decide not to complain.
Wednesday, November ll, l992 - Baidoa, Somalia
Not much sleep, so up early. Only cold water, so the shower (complete with lizards) is an experience. Forget shaving. Tea, boiled eggs and bread for breakfast. We find that some thought the loud voices coming from our room meant that Phil and I talked all night. Might as well have. A few minutes to reflect on what we’ve been seeing reveals a fairly sober group.
-Phil, with his ever-present CamCorder catching everything, is gentle, contemplative.
-Jonathan maintains his good humor, is dogged about fact-checking, noting people’s names, jobs, ferreting out information, logging it all.
-Del is steadfast, never flinching, has remarked a couple of times already how important this experience has been for him.
-Stephanie, intent on finding the personal aspects of these tragedies, zeroes in and gently probes.
-Richard, also able to maintain his humor, is intense, searching, all antennae out.
-Ofra is quiet, always there, alert. The documentarian at work.
-Barbara and Panos, with very different styles, seem to compliment each other nicely. She is high energy, concerned about everything, in touch. He’s more low keyed, but seems to miss nothing.
We’re scheduled to check out the Red Crescent Society’s (Islamic Red Cross) body pick-up detail this morning, but there’s a delay as our inn-keeper wants to renegotiate the price of the hotel and meal. (Sound familiar?)
Jonathan, who has made a good connection with Andy (AP), is about to take off with the reporter and his technicals to dig up Nina so we can square away this dispute and get moving. (Andy has his own car and his personal technicals here - they came in from Mogadishu to meet him) I go along.
It’s a hair-raising ride through the center of the city. If we drove fast yesterday, we’re flying today. It seems that Andy’s technicals are a bit nervous here, don’t know, or trust, the people. (Oh, good.) I’m sure, as we race through the dusty streets, that we’re going to add to the death toll ourselves. The city is a bee hive - people lined up at the various feeding/treatment centers or going about the business of life in Somalia. (Or perhaps that is the business of life in Somalia) Donkey carts cross the road. Trucks pull out, turn, pull back. Children and cars are the only things that seem to move quickly. Some people wave at us as we go by, others simply stare. Someone shouts “Galla!” (Infidel!) We hear shooting, but it doesn’t seem to be aimed at us, so what’s new? We arrive at the ICRC, meet more of the young, bright staff and find that Nina has already gone to the hotel, so back we go.
On the ride back, Jonathan suggests we ought to think about going to Mogadishu. Andy says we can use his “guys” there for protection. Jonathan thinks we can hitch a ride with an IMC flight from Nairobi. Question is when. It seems to me that the best possibility might be toward the end of our stay in Africa, perhaps instead of the overnight in Mombasa. We’ll think on it.
Nina rides to the rescue and takes the proprietor on. Much hair pulling and upset, but we finally are told to take off, leaving Nina to patiently explain that he can’t do this if he expects the ICRC or the UN to bring people back here.
Stopping in front of the IMC hospital, we watch as the Red Crescent truck makes its way down the road. A small body wrapped in filthy rags is carried out of another CONCERN feeding center across the street and placed on the truck. This an intensive feeding program for children in particular distress. Can anything be worse that what we saw yesterday? Yes. This is. It’s a small building, the smell is overpowering. Four rooms filled with human beings in extremis (mostly small children and their mothers). Awful. Skeletal, oozing, whimpering, pitiful creatures. An Irish nurse/volunteer named Margaret is clearly overwhelmed and discouraged by the daunting task that faces her daily. This is the only place where we aren’t told it’s getting better. She sees no let up of the horror. She feeds these children every two hours with a special mixture that is hopefully going to save them, but too often doesn’t. Again, the sights, sounds and smells are almost more than one can bear. How she works in these conditions is impossible to understand. Stephanie and some of the rest of us step outside, overcome.
Outside isn’t better. Through the waiting crowd a figure is carted forward on a wheelbarrow and removed, left to wait in front of the building. As we gather in the street I explain to those who couldn’t hear what Margaret had told me. The tiny, frail body we saw carried out to the truck minutes ago was the fourteen year old daughter of a woman who had walked 45 kilometers yesterday from her home, with two sick children - one babe in arms who was still in there and the daughter now dead. After leaving the two children with Margaret, the woman turned around and began walking the 45 kilometers back to get her other three children who were in the same condition.
Richard, moved by the obviously desperate condition of the figure we saw deposited at the door of the center, suggests we might want to go back in and tell Margaret about her (we assumed it to be a woman). Reluctant to add to Margaret’s burden, but unwilling to let this woman, who seemed very close to death, simply expire on the doorstep, unnoticed, we go back in. Margaret, bless her, never bats an eye at our request and comes out immediately, only to have placed in her arms another baby who is, literally, bones. Holding the child, she looks over the woman deposited there in a heap, determines that she is in fact a man and directs that he/she be taken inside.
The hotel problem resolved, Nina then scooped us up for a trip out to see a local village about 45 minutes drive south. The driver whose car I got in was named Ahmad and he was a maniac. Someone must have told him it was important to get there first. We raced down the rutted dirt road that serves as a highway, swinging from side to side as Ahmad tried to avoid the worst of the washboard surfaces, spewing rocks the size of small boulders in our wake (those that didn’t embed themselves in the bottom of the car while trying to come through) as we sped along. Occasionally we’d slide to a near stop as we’d come to a depression in the road meant to serve as a culvert to keep the road from washing out in the rainy season, maneuver our way gingerly through, and then tear off madly down the next section of “highway.” (I came to long for those culverts. I was sure their irregular occurrence was the only reason we maintained contact with the ground) Before long it occurred to a couple of us that if security was truly a concern this might not prove to have been the best idea in the world. We were as far out in front of everyone else as could be and the cars behind us, wherever they were in the flying dust, didn’t have any technicals with them as far as we knew. Ah, well.
Shortly, out of the dust behind us, came a second car, honking. (The idea that someone could actually catch up to us made me tremble for those in the company of that driver.) We stopped and drivers got out and poked around for a while under the hood of the other car, then a can of brake fluid appeared (brake fluid!?!), was poured in. And we’re off.
The countryside is very flat, very hot and very dry. The scrub brush is fairly plentiful, but again, far from what some would expect in Africa. We occasionally see camels and camel herders. (Camel milk and camel meat are regular fare among these nomads.)
Aliomumin, Somalia - Wed. morn., Nov. ll
Pulling into town, all the cars together now, we are greeted by a crowd. Dismounting, I see by the coating of red dust on Phil, Del and the rest that being in the lead car had its advantages. Nina asks one of the town elders, Haji Mustaf Yusuf, to show us around.
The village is the largest of some 40 or 45 in the area. 10,000 people live here now, having lost 2,500 who either left for treatment, for food or died. The buildings are made of sticks and leaves, or reeds. Some are the traditional tukuls (which usually sleep 3-5) and some are larger. There are some more oblong shapes here, too.
The first thing we’re shown, clearly a point of pride, is a field of sorghum. The seeds have been provided by the ICRC and the crop is coming up nicely - should be ready for harvest in 3 months.
As the Hadji explains to us the mechanics of planting and that the fields are owned by individuals and/or families, Stephanie is surrounded by a group of children with whom she is trying to communicate. By the time the Hadji is finished telling us that this is the first crop they’ve been able to plant since coming back to the village, having been driven out by Siad Barre’s people, Stephanie and Barbara are in the midst of a song fest, which then turns into a dance, with a large group of children, and then their elders, taking part. It’s a lovely sight.
(One young man at the edge of the crowd catches my eye. Some of these people are so beautiful it takes your breath away. This kid has the features Michael Jackson longs for.)
We’re shown an ICRC feeding center, where most of the nutritional needs of the people are met, and will be until the crop comes in. Then we sit in a circle on rude benches under a tree where the Hadji says that things are much improved and getting better, thanks to the NGOs. He tells some of the history of the village, the cruelty of Siad Barre, the suffering. He’s asked if the famine or the fighting was the bigger problem. The fighting, he says. Without that, they could have handled the famine.
We’re joined by a group of men and the Hadji steps down, yielding the floor to two who are Ugaas’s, apparently religious leaders. Aboli Isak Mohammed appears to be the head man. Yusuf Aboli Momlim does most of the talking as Ugaas Isak rests his elbow on his (Yusuf’s) shoulder in an interesting posture that suggests friendship and superiority at the same time. They say, in answer to someone’s question, if Gen. Morgan comes back here with Siad Barre’s forces, “We will drive him away.” Further, a unified position on the part of international powers is needed. More aid is necessary. In an interesting allegory, he says “if a mosquito is handed from one to another, it will die.” (Somalia is the mosquito, and the reference is to its delicate condition, or structure, not to the mosquito’s nature.) If General Aidid will accept the presence of UN troops in the country, it’s OK with them. A political solution to the country’s problems is possible. Unity against the return of Siad Barre is the prerequisite. Siad Barre occupied this land, looted, raped the area and its people.
The two Ugaas’ and the Hadji then escort us around the area, pointing out huts that had been destroyed by fire, areas where stored food had been dug up, looted. They take us into one of the larger huts. Surprisingly cool. Dirt floor, place for fire in the center. Not unlike a teepee, once inside.
We walk over and see another feeding center, this one run by the Irish organization, GOAL. Also another intensive feeding program for malnourished children. Interestingly, the structure for this kitchen and a small clinic nearby is made of the very prickly thorn bushes which grow here in abundance. (You don’t want to lean against the wall.)
We’re being rushed into the waiting vehicles now because we have to catch our planes. Jonathan is the only one to check out the small infirmary, which is also run by a woman from GOAL. He says she has a minuscule amount of the most basic medicines - aspirin, band-aids and the like - and is in there doing her best with it.
We’re lucky enough to get Ahmad as our driver again, so I close my eyes. The ride back is identical to the ride out, except this time we’re not the lead car and we almost run down a camel. My theory is that Ahmad is angry that some of us took too long getting into the car so he’s taking it out on the camel. He’s definitely a candidate for a New York City cab.
On the way back it occurs to me that we’re again strung out far enough to be perfect targets for the bandit types who are in the area, but evidently they have bigger game in mind. (We later learn that the much-discussed supply convoy from Mogadishu is hit on that very stretch of road a little later that day. 4 people were reported killed and over a dozen injured. Of the 40 trucks of supplies, only one got through to Baidoa. 25 turned back and the others were hijacked.)
Once back in Baidoa, our cars have to split up for a few minutes in town, which drives our technicals crazy. (Someone had to go by the hotel for something, I think.) By this time, with no one having attacked us personally, we’re feeling pretty much in the clear. We head for the airstrip and our rendezvous with the planes. At the edge of town, we’re stopped by an armed crew who insist that our technicals can go no further, or if they do, they have to do so unarmed. Gen. Aidid’s forces are not allowing any weapons into the area of the airstrip because, they say, they don’t want to take the chance of having anyone firing at the arriving C-l30s, fearing that it would stop the relief flights (and, adds one of the reporters, thereby cut off Aidid’s chance to rip off the relief supplies). Though it seems strange that the rules have changed from one day to the next, our technicals drop off (though we find out later that one driver smuggled an automatic weapon in with him) and we proceed.
The planes come in right on time, the other car catches up and we prepare to load up. (While waiting, Richard asks if it’s true that the ground on each side of the strip [off the concrete] is not safe to walk on because of land mines. Panos says it is so [or at least that’s what he has heard], Andy says it isn’t. Richard, who has a full bladder and isn’t looking forward to a long flight in a small plane, deliberates, then decides that Andy knows best. Fortunately, he appears to have been right.)
As we’re saddling up a small plane lands on the strip. It is, we’re told, the chat shipment from Kenya.
An intense 24 hours. We say goodbye to Nina, wish her well, thank “the guys,” and we’re off again. My old seat in this “little” plane seems just roomy enough, thank you.
Mandera Camp, Wed. afternoon, Nov. ll
The flight back is uneventful. The strip here looks just as uninviting, but the pilot puts it down smoothly one more time. If possible, it’s hotter than it was here yesterday.
We load up in the UN wagons (mostly 4 wheel drive Nissans, I think) and are whisked away to the UN compound. Gert is there again (UNHCR) and we meet the UNHCR rep. responsible for the camp, Jack Myers. (American, probably early to mid-30s, nice looking fellow. Seems to be a very aggressive, take-charge, type-A kind of guy.) The camp, originally set up by the Swedes and taken over and run by the IRC (International Rescue Corps) for the UNHCR, is a sight for sore eyes. It’s straight out of MASH. Tents, latrines, an open sided Mess Tent, a volleyball court, a Jimmy Hatlo-type rig providing water for a shower, the works. It’s all very neat and ship-shape. The first things we’re pointed to on the way to lunch are soap and water (solar heated), which have never looked better. There is a refrigerator (!) with cold water that is safe (!!). All the comforts. We’re assigned a tent (Phil and I are put together again - as I walk up to the tent, he says, “Beej, Radar’s at it again! Let’s go tell Sherman!”)
After lunch (they actually have peanut butter!) we head out to look over the situation in the camp. Refugee camps are tough. This one is very tough. Because of the way it happened, a large group of people effectively squatting by the town after having been driven from their country by the war, the facilities were the last thing to come in rather than the first. That being the case, most of the services are on the outside rim of the large central area that is simply a jumbled mass of humanity. As Jack tells it, the camp spread out from the town, eventually threatening to engulf it, until the Kenyan authorities ordered it moved. It now sits, sprawls rather, on a flat about one half mile from the edge of Mandera town, covering an area about a mile and a half long by a bit less than a mile wide. A hell of a squeeze for 55,000 people. Their tukuls, many with the tell-tale blue plastic sheeting, are flung together in no apparent order.
This is the other side of the coin of clan warfare. These people are, in large part, those identified with Siad Barre. Whether they were involved in the war or not is anyone’s guess, but the hard fact is that they’re here now and they’re here for the foreseeable future. Nothing to do but wait until things are resolved at home. There is very little work, there is no room for farming, be they so inclined, so they just wait. It’s a lousy existence and a depressing sight. (Though, again, speaking of sights, one is stuck by the beauty of these people. Bright smiles, fine features, vivid, startling dark eyes, colorful garb.)
Our first stop is a medical facility run by MSF/Belgium. Four large tents separate patients, some by age, some by medical problem. It seems very well run. The medical problems are essentially of the same nature as the ones we saw in Baidoa (though no gunshot wounds here, at least now) and are the usual maladies associated with malnutrition. Most of these people, having been here for a while, appear to be in better condition than those we saw in Baidoa. Some of the more recent arrivals, of course, are just as critical because of the conditions they have had to deal with in getting here.
It is so hard to look at some of them. The amount of pain evident in their eyes, let alone their emaciated bodies, makes one need to step aside once in a while, to reflect, pray, take a deep breath, weep, maybe all the above. Sometimes, out of respect, there is a need to avert the eyes. Sometimes I just want to scream.
We drive past the area where they have buried their dead. CONCERN is here, tasked with moving the bodies to a different place, one designated by the Kenyan Government.
We go through the area designated for the slaughter of animals. Carcasses, bones. It is here we see, for the first time, the Maribou, the stork-like vultures that gather where there is dead flesh to feast upon.
Jack shows us an area set aside for new arrivals and a water distribution area (water tanks provided by OXFAM), then we stop for a minute and meet staff members registering those refugees who are willing to be repatriated in the cross border program (also trying to coordinate communication between lost family members).
Food distribution in the camp is a problem. They don’t like the food provided by the relief agencies, as it isn’t what they’re used to eating. Many of the refugees try to sell the rations in town in order to be able to buy the camel’s meat and milk they prefer. Food distribution, as with all communication and distribution of supplies, is handled through clan elders, which poses problems of its own. (Clan elders exaggerate size of their clan groups to get more, for example.)
In as many ways as possible, Jack’s thrust is to try to get around the clan structure in order to equalize distribution and alleviate social problems such as issues pertinent to women.
Sanitation is another problem, a big one. Latrines are being provided, but nomads have no experience with latrines and have to be educated in their use. They have to be brought to understand that urinating and defecating at will, as they are used to doing in the open country, creates health problems in such a tightly packed living situation. CONCERN is also dealing with that end of the sanitation problem. An experiment being tried is an open field set aside for that purpose.
We stop at another MSF medical facility. A refugee assistant who shows us around was once the Somali Ambassador to Ethiopia in Siad Barre’s government. He says they want to go home. Says peace can be achieved, must be. Still a Siad Barre supporter, he says Gen. Aidid is a bad guy.
(Hoss, the Kenyan photog working for AP, says Daniel Arap Moi [Pres. of Kenya] and Siad Barre had a mutual back-scratching relationship. Says when Aidid’s people pushed Barre out of the country Moi sent Kenyan military help to the rescue. [He certainly didn’t want Barre and his armed people making trouble for him in NE Kenya] A Kenyan helicopter was recently shot down l00 miles into Somalia, evidently there backing Gen. Morgan’s people [Aidid surrogate, many say], causing a flap. Kenya claims it was “lost.” Hoss thinks Gen. Aidid would be better for the country than any of the current alternatives, but thinks he will lose. Says Ali Mahdi and Gen. Morgan are rumored to have made some kind of deal. Kenya military still rumored to be secretly helping Morgan.)
The ambassador also went on at some length about security problems in the camp. Says at night, after curfew (at 6PM all non-refugees are supposed to be out of the camp and all refugees in. This is a result of problems in the town and with bandits, local or otherwise. Jack says security problems have lessened since imposition of curfew, though there are still problems inside which may stem from clan rivalries, turf struggles or general tensions arising from the situation. A murder a few days ago was turf oriented, he thinks.) “bandits” come in from outside and terrorize people. Rob, etc. When I ask where he thinks the bandits come from, he says, “Somalia.” When I ask him how that can be because western Somalia, as I understand it, is controlled by Gen. Morgan’s forces, he says he doesn’t know.
In fact, except in instances of personal or clan retribution, there is fear that some of the so-called “bandits” are soldiers either coming in for re-supply or R&R. In actual cases of banditry, and there is a good deal of that, no one seems to know for sure whether they’re Somalis, Kenyans or even Ethiopians.
On the way out of the camp we go through the “marketplace.” It is amazing. You can buy food (rations or some fairly recently slaughtered meat), sandals, personal family things that someone decides to part with, implements, clothing, colorful cloth, a bewildering array of goods.
Back at the compound we have a chance to clean up before dinner. One decidedly un-MASH-like accommodation stumped me for a bit. It’s a rubberized tent-affair, about 4’ by 4’ and maybe 7’ high, with a zipper in the middle of the front flap. Assuming it to be a latrine, I knocked (not easy to do on rubber), unzipped it (from the bottom up) and stepped in. The ground was covered with a kind of broken-up rock, there was a bucket with no bottom and that was it. I stood there like a fool for a minute trying to figure out just how this operation worked before I realized that it was only a pissoir and that the real latrine must be somewhere else. (It was.) And, for those who care to read on, this one was composed of the regular elements that usually make up such a convenience, with the rather unique distinction that it had no roof! Given the heat of the direct sun and the variety of flying things that tend to occupy such an area, the best time to make use of such a facility, for those taking notes, is just about sundown, but before it is completely dark.
And the shower. The shower, once you got in it, felt great (what with the solar-heated water), but it posed certain logistical problems. It was about l00 yards from our tent, across a dirt compound. The lack of shower shoes, even the too-small ones from the Bikin Hotel, posed one problem. The dirt around the shower, being around a shower, was more like mud. Changing out of one’s clothes in front of the shower wasn’t as big a problem as one might suppose (understand we’re not talking about a changing room, here), because, after all, it was dark, but keeping one’s newly, squeaky-clean feet from being covered with mud and corrupting the point of the exercise required a fair bit of agility.
It is nice, having been where we’ve been and having seen what we’ve seen, to be able to laugh. Especially at oneself.
Keeping the mosquitoes out of our tent proved to be a focus of attention. Flaps up to let air through, flaps down after dark when lights are on so as not to invite in hostiles. I teased Phil unmercifully about the fact that he got mosquito netting and I didn’t. (Poor man, he ended up feeling so bad about his advantage that he never draped it over his bed. I’m praying he avoids malaria.)
Dinner is a treat, from every point of view. Food is good, plentiful, and safe. The company is fabulous, inspiring, amazing. Representatives from all the local NGOs are present and Gert, acting as MC, asks a representative from each group to stand and explain what they do. ICRC, CONCERN, IRC, Catholic Relief Services, Ibrahim al Ibrahim (an Islamic group), yet another Irish group, this one called Trocaire (which, we’re told, means “compassion” in Gaelic), etc. Phil, in an inspired moment, asks if anyone is willing to stand and say why they’re here. What follows is some of the simplest, most eloquent personal testimony one could ever hope to hear. None of it self-important, all of it about the value of the experience, what is being learned, how enriched they are by the people they serve. People from Ireland, Germany, Sweden, the U.S., Belgium and elsewhere, speaking in simple, very dignified human terms, from the heart. It is a night to remember.
Out in the black, black night. The stars in the African sky are exactly what you’d imagine them to be - only you can’t imagine it. Outside the tent, Phil, Richard, Jonathan and I discuss Mogadishu. They’re interested as well. Jonathan is going to check on possibilities.
A not very good night’s sleep on a too-short army cot. In the middle of the night, as I’m searching for something in my bag, a creature scuttles away from my hand. It’s awfully big for a bug, too small for a rodent. Ah, Africa. Remembering talk about scorpions and the like (though I’m fairly sure this isn’t a scorpion), I sweat it for a while and decide to wait until it’s light. (My flashlight, of course, is in the very same bag.)