Thursday, November l2, l992 - Mandera Camp, Kenya
At first light - and what a glorious light it is - I take the bag outside and set it carefully on a table. The African pre-dawn is magnificent! An orange and gold sky, dotted with brilliant white clouds. The purple landscape stretches off toward a horizon broken only by the occasional acacia tree. And, off in the distance, the rolling hills of Somalia.
Searching carefully (very carefully) through the bag, I discover that my brilliant decision to not stick my hand back in there and upset whatever it was that was scuttling around has paid off. He, she or it is gone and nothing seems to be the worse for wear. Ahh, me.
The ICRC’s Cross Border Operation, assisted by the UNHCR (which usually doesn’t work in country, only with refugees out of country), is step two of the process. Relief is done to save lives. It is a quick response. Development, on the other hand, is intended to reestablish a society that has been, sometimes, ruined. In this case it is their intention to jump start a society and to renew an economy.
We drive out through Mandera town and across the Somali border into Bulla Hawa. It is a typical Third World border town; busy marketplace, much evidence of destruction, incredible squalor. We have to negotiate our way around huge pools of water left by the recent rains. The soil, very much composed of clay, doesn’t absorb the water very well.
Poverty is evident here, as is destruction from the war and the same kind of cannibalization we saw in Baidoa. Structures are ripped apart for building materials and/or firewood. Also once again visible are the automatic weapons atop pickup trucks and jeeps, or in people’s hands.
We stop at the local office of Trocaire to pick up our interpreters. The one who rides with us is a boy of perhaps l3 named Mohammed. A very bright kid. We cruise through the town eyeing the awful destruction and Jack points out areas in which various programs are centered. UNHCR is providing, for instance, material to rebuild the local school, which was totally gutted in the war.
Once on the road we stop at a DP encampment. Trocaire has set up a feeding center for these people and again we see cases of dire need. These are people who, depending upon whom you listen to, either didn’t want to go on to Mandera Camp, couldn’t make it, or chose, in some organized political way, to stop here and “learn self-sufficiency.” This last from a man we meet, a self-described intellectual, member of the Somali Intellectual Association. He says they’re stopping the flow of refugees to Mandera Camp and are trying to help people here so that they won’t go there and become dependent. They don’t want to be “spoon-fed.” He is a Marehan and says, when I ask him what has to be done to solve the problems in the country, that General Aidid is the problem.
The Trocaire nurses are struggling to deal with the number of severely malnourished people here. Again, the skeletal forms are painful to look upon. The children are heart-breaking. Skin stretched over bones. Too weak, in many cases, to cry.
Across the road from the feeding center, tukuls are set up in haphazard fashion and extend out in a semi-circle for quite a distance. I don’t know how to even estimate the numbers involved, but a prodigious amount of work will have to be done to meet the need and this small staff, with its one feeding center, seems ill-equipped (except in spirit) to do the job.
Again, we move on, a four car caravan. Gert is driving another Nissan 4 Wheeler and is in the lead. Out here, the dusty roads split the scrub brush and the country looks very bleak and inhospitable. Jack says he wants to show us a particularly lush area later.
After about an hour’s drive we pull into the village of Melkahari. Before the war it was a thriving community of 6,000. Now it is a devastated ghost town. But there is a happy throng gathered around a truck, assisting in the unloading of scores of sacks of flour provided by the UNHCR. The UNHCR and Trocaire have joined forces here to try to rehabilitate this village. 1,000 people from Mandera Camp have agreed to come back here with the promise of food supply for 6 months and provision of machinery and materials to allow them to set up farming, schooling and a health care clinic. It is a happy gathering, almost a carnival atmosphere, and very nice to see after the camp we just left.
A heart-tugging sight is to see women marking out the circles for the tukuls they will erect; digging the holes for the framing sticks out of the hard earth. What guts.
Next we go down to the river where we’re shown a farm that has been in operation for some months. UNHCR sponsored a pump to pull up water for irrigation and the results are spectacular. There are quite a few acres of thriving crops here and the hope is that, if the war doesn’t come back, this will be replicated throughout the area. (We’re shown around here by a young Irish pair who seems to be completely undaunted by the task ahead. He’s been here for some months. She just arrived.) Directly across, on the opposite shore of the river, is Ethiopia. Though it’s flowing pretty strongly (they tell us it will be completely dry by January), we joke about being able to swim to another country. The reply is, “No. Crocodiles!” A small boy was eaten here a week or so ago. (Walking back along the river bank Phil, Richard and I try to spot one, but to no avail.)
Back in the wagons and on down the road. On the way to Bulla Hawa we pass a group of people who try to flag us down, but we don’t stop. I don’t understand why. (Later we hear of a group of Islamic fundamentalists who are unhappy with some of the work being done, so that might explain it.) Once back in the town we go to an area where a group of disabled people awaits us. Amputees, some crippled by disease, a few apparently mentally retarded, they are, literally “the poorest of the poor.” (The phrase “Jesus wept” comes to mind.) These people have a request to make of the UNHCR. They want to be included in some sort of work program by which they can use the talents and abilities they have to earn some money and improve their lot. (One simply wants to sit down and cry.) Jack, who had worked in Iraqi Kurdistan before this, squats down to talk to the leader (who has pads on his hands and knees to get around as he can’t use his lower legs) in Arabic. They talk, seem to argue, to bargain, for quite a while. Jack tells us that he has a program for their peers in the camp, but it is hard to set one up here. Finally, they come to some agreement. As we leave, Jack says, “All they want is a little respect.”
(Jack is a hard one to figure. Strong personality, very assertive, he has a tendency to see things as a contest; refers to Mandera as “my camp,” doesn’t want the clan elders to finagle more than their share of “my food.” Some of it is a bit off-putting. On the other hand, to see him hunkered down with the spokesperson for this group of disabled people, bargaining respectfully and trying to find a way to work things out which will give them “a little respect,” is tremendously impressive.)
Before going back to the camp Jack wants to take those in our car out to see an area he calls “Banana.” With Mohammed’s help, we maneuver our way back through Bulla Hawa and out another road, past a number of wrecked vehicles, in what appears to me to be a southeasterly direction. Sure enough, just as he described it, we are suddenly in an area of abundance, with green growth spreading out from the road, willy nilly, and fields of some sort of crop looking ripe and rich. All the rain that collected on the surface back in the town has apparently soaked in here and made for a kind of banana belt of agricultural possibility (hence the name). The dirt track is getting progressively muddier and as we’re marveling at the change in the landscape Jack slows to a stop, not, apparently, altogether voluntarily. A bit of maneuvering (or I should say attempted maneuvering) back and forth and, sure enough, we’re up to our axles in thick, gooey red mud.
The group of us pile out and survey the situation. Jack gets on his two-way radio and hollers for help to the other cars that are now on their way back to the border and we set about trying to pry the car out of the red glue. Soon, the hot, sweaty and very muddy group of us, aided by a number of locals who seemed to appear from nowhere, are able to dig deep enough and lay enough broken thorn branches (flat tires are better than being stuck in the mud, aren’t they?) under the tires and voila! out it comes. Celebration and muddy high fives all around! Another of the cars from our caravan has pulled up (but stayed on the dryer ground) at about this time, so our colleagues join in the celebration and try to lend a hand scraping the huge gobs of muck off our boots
Back in the car, Jack is a bit chagrined that his side trip got into a snafu, but we’re all OK, so what the hell. Then a call comes over the two-way radio that we should sit tight and not come to the border. What’s this? Sketchy, but the indications are that one of the cars in our party got through the border but the other was stopped and held for a while, at gunpoint, before being released. The understanding is that someone in our party was seen taking a photograph of a mosque and a group of fundamentalists had gotten very upset and there’s hell to pay. We shouldn’t try to make it through the border crossing. Just sit tight while Gert tries to iron things out from the other side. Ah.
After a while, another message comes through. Go to the Trocaire compound where we had picked up Mohammed earlier, get inside and wait there. Weird to have all this tension in the air and not have a full understanding of what the ramifications might be, but there’s nothing to do but follow instructions. Making our way back toward Bulla Hawa, Jack tries to make clear to Mohammed that he wants to go to the Trocaire compound without going through the center of town. No sense pushing our luck. He says he knows it’s possible, but isn’t sure which way to go. Much nodding and agreeing on Mohammed’s part, but he doesn’t get it and pretty soon we’re right back on the road into town. Jack is clearly frosted, but doesn’t want to get mad at the kid (and, I suspect, doesn’t want to worry us), so in we go, trying to work out what to do if we are busted. Jack says be ready to hand over a roll or two of film and hope that will satisfy them. Hide cameras?
We have a moment of tension (sort of your high pucker factor) as a pickup truck with a very large machine gun mounted in the back pulls out from a building beside us, but it moseys along on its merry way and we proceed unmolested. It’s curious how much more dangerous the town seems now than it did before. The not knowing is a bitch. We arrive at the Trocaire compound and Jack jumps out, opens the gates and the cars pull inside. The gates are closed and, again, we sit.
Jack tells us he knows a way we can get back across by going over the hills and skipping the border station, if it comes to that. The problem is that could make it tough for the people (from Trocaire, for example) who are over here all the time. So we sit some more.
Phil, Jonathan, Del, Richard and I trade yarns about other weird spots we’ve been in as we wonder how this will resolve. Suddenly, we get the all clear. Head for the border! As we move through the city and out to and across the border, the story comes out. It wasn’t a mosque that someone shot a picture of at all. It was the house of one of the local clan chieftains. (In fact, I remember when we slowed down in front of the house, hidden by a high stockade-type fence, and there was a very unpleasant looking guy with a submachine gun posted in front. I think everybody took a picture of that place!) The sense is that the chieftain, or sheikh, was pissed off because we didn’t hire him or his people to “protect” us, so made trouble.
Through the border without so much as an ugly glance.
When we unload at the compound there is all kinds of excitement. Apparently, calls had been made to Geneva about our being stuck over there, about guns and threats at the border, etc. People were evidently moving mountains, concerned about an international incident, as we were snug as bugs in the Trocaire compound, trading yarns, confident. Well, sort of.
In the midst of the excitement at our being back and much talk about the border guard’s waving his weapon around and yelling at the people in the one car that did get stopped (Stephanie and Barbara among them), Barbara says we’re now late so she has sent the five journalists out to the airport to go ahead in the small plane and we’ll all catch up later in the ten-seater... Whoops! Phil turns and looks at me as I probably go very pale remembering the sensation I had when I got into that plane before (could it have only been yesterday?). Barbara, sweet soul, says, “Oh, God, Mike, I forgot!” and looks stricken. Then, seeing Sonya on her way to the car, I quickly run over and ask if she would mind if I took her seat. As she very graciously accedes, I holler at the car that I’ll be a minute and take off running to get my stuff (feeling like an utter dunce the whole time).
So, unreasoning phobia winning out over good manners, I grab my bag, jam in the laundry the IRC people were kind enough to do, pay my bill (something like $15 for the whole shebang - tent, cot, stars, meals, shower, bugs, open-air latrine, critter, the works) and race for the car with hardly a chance to say thanks and goodbye to the kind people who were our hosts. (God, it’s embarrassing to look back at that. Blind, senseless panic rules all.)
I was surprised to find Ofra in the car, as well. She was very quiet as we drove to the airstrip and loaded into the little plane. I got the impression that she was tense, perhaps with the accumulated weight of the experience, perhaps the difficulty at the border. Things were quiet as we took off once again and swung out over first the town, then the camp. An ironic note below is the sight of tukuls in Mandera town, identical to those crammed together in the camp, attesting to the shared heritage of two people separated only by an artificial boundary line.
It’s a quiet flight back. Two and one half hours at l50 MPH and for the most part we travel over relatively flat, sparely covered ground showing almost no sign of life or development. The clouds are fabulous! I keep expecting the pilot to make an adjustment, to go around or over or under some of the bigger, darker, scarier looking ones, but no. Instead, it’s a carnival ride. Inside, lights out, uuuuup we go, then doooowwwnn, then back uuup and out we pop, into the daylight. At a point about two-thirds of the way back there is a change. The land becomes much more green, rivers wind about and in the distance rise the highlands that cradle Nairobi.
Back at the hotel we have to check into new rooms and get our bags from Barbara’s. Ofra is still rather quiet, but seems OK. We’re to get together for dinner, so I have time to ponder. Can’t let this claustrophobia thing run me. I think there is a good chance we’ll only take one plane tomorrow to the next camp and if so it will probably be the ten seater. I know I can do this. The small plane was no problem once I got used to it. So knock it off!
Weather has necessitated a change in the schedule. We’re supposed to leave in the morning and fly to Ifo, visit that camp, then go overland to Hagadera and Dagahey Camps, then fly on to Liboi on the Somali border and spend the night in the UNHCR compound there. Rain has flooded the airstrips, per Panos, and may make it impossible to get in (or once in, out). An option is the Kakuma Camp, up in Northwestern Kenya. Problem is that camp is for Sudanese refugees and our focus, at least thus far, has been on Somalia. We decide we’ll wait until morning and play it by ear.
Dinner is at an Indian restaurant. While waiting, Panos comes up with a copy of a piece Andy (Reuters) did on the Baidoa trip. Lead line is something like “Tinsel Town Comes to the City of Death.” What a disappointment! We all had the sense that Andy understood who we were and that this wasn’t some sort of Hollywood publicity caper, so it really stung. Dinner, however, was great. Good food (though many spoke of feeling guilty and/or inappropriate in being able to eat well in a nice place given what we had just seen) and what amounted to a “joke-off,” primarily between Phil and Jonathan, with Richard, Del and a few of the rest of us throwing in an attempt occasionally. The two (Phil and Jonathan) were hilarious. Both very adept story tellers with great dialects and wonderful timing. It was a warm, funny, relaxing and much-needed evening. Barbara very sweetly says to me that they think it will only be the one plane tomorrow, but that they’ll do whatever is necessary to make it work for me. Feeling more and more stupid about it all the time, I say let’s just go on down to the field in the morning and give it a try. Hell, if worst comes to worst, I’ll rent my own damned plane.
Friday, November l3, l992 - Nairobi
We’re going to Ifo but, because Liboi is still flooded, will come back to Nairobi tonight and see if it’s safe to try to land there in the morning. It’s just us chickens, (no reporters and, apparently, no Ofra) so we’ll fit in the ten-seater. So, OK. In we go. I take the seat next to the door and do a lot of concentrating, on the floor, on my knee, on my notes, on almost anything but the sense of panic that crowds up into my chest, my throat. Jonathan, that dear man, takes the seat behind me (probably the least comfortable seat in the plane, where the tapering fuselage makes it impossible for him to sit up straight) and talks to me about Operation USA, about our friend Margie, about his son, about politics, about, I’m sure, whatever comes into his mind. And it works. We seal up the door, taxi out and take off. Once we’re committed, I’m OK. It’s actually a great trip!
Coming into the Ifo airstrip, though, is almost a different story. After we’re in the air about an hour and a half we start down. Again there is no strip in sight (actually there’s almost nothing in sight) until the last minute. We come in lower and lower, but, it seems, without throttling down. For a moment it appears that we’re going to go straight in at full throttle, which is not at all what I had in mind. Finally, much too close for comfort, we level off and it becomes clear that the pilot is buzzing the strip, apparently to check it out visually and make sure it’s safe to land. Well, what a good idea! I just wish I’d known it was on the agenda.
The sun is blistering as we’re met at the strip by Maureen Connolly, the UNHCR rep. for these three camps. She’s probably in her late 40s, has a great face and a wonderful laugh. One of those people who gives you a lift purely through the sense of competence she emanates. Wherever or whatever, you know she has the situation well in hand. Maureen apologizes that her vehicles are in use, may have to ask us to ride in a truck. Everyone rushes to assure her that we’re here to learn, not to get in the way, and we don’t expect to be pampered. But can she do anything about the heat?
Enough jeeps to get us back to her compound at Hagadera Camp where we await the truck. Similar to Mandera’s, this compound is smaller, a bit less militarily precise. There is an open faced tent that serves as a bar where water and soft drinks are available. In the mess tent we meet some women who will travel with us as interpreters. One is a strikingly beautiful Somali named Safi who, herself a refugee, is now working for the UNHCR. Another, Asha, also a refugee from Somalia, is a Bantu (a different people, about which more below), also bright, gorgeous (though without the striking Somali features). These women and two counterparts explain that their biggest concern in the camp is security. Bandits are regular visitors to the camps after dark who loot and rape with impunity.
The truck arrives, a large, open-backed stake-bed (the kind with the sort of fence-rig on the sides) and we pile in the back for the hot, dusty, bumpy ride (reminiscent of putting the kids in the back of the truck and taking off for camp, it turns into a lot of fun) to the center of Hagadera Camp. Much better organized than Mandera. The advantage, of course, is that they knew these people were coming and had the chance to set up for them. The services are in the center and the huts stretch out in clearly delineated areas around them. Opened in June, intended for l3,000 refugees, this camp now serves a population of 45,000 and, despite the overcrowding, gives a sense of order, if not comfort.
The man in charge of camp logistics gives us a rundown. They have almost completed a program to give each family its own latrine. MSF runs the medical program, UNICEF the water, CARE prepares food, issues some non-food items, and a provides a social services program (for elderly, handicapped, unaccompanied children, social needs, etc.). UNHCR handles overall management of the camps and provides most of the food and goods that the above agencies distribute.
It’s hot as hell and sweat makes the flies like you even more.
Inside Hagadera we go through an MSF intensive feeding center for malnourished children. Everyone seems to be clear that things are improving, but it’s hard to believe it when you see these pitiful souls. Most of the infants have mothers near them or holding them. Some wave pieces of cloth or their hands over the babies to keep away the hordes of flies. The room, divided into two by a partition, houses maybe twenty children and their mothers, all wasted, all imploring the visitors with their eyes to do something, help my child, ease the pain. One child lies there, limp, unmoving. Is it breathing? Yes, a faint movement of the diaphragm. So fragile, held to life by a thread, its face grotesquely distorted by flies clotted, thriving on traces of fluid seeping from mouth, nose, eyes. A four year old the size of a two year old is measured on a rack-like device as it screams, miserable.
Next, the doctor (a neat guy from MSF/Belgium) takes us through the medical center, which is full of cases of the more critically ill or injured. He introduces us to another doctor there, a Kenyan, who impresses everyone with his manner. He is incredibly optimistic, showing us children who look to be at death’s door but, he says, can rally rather quickly once given the proper treatment and nourishment. (As with so many of the other volunteers we’ve met, these gentle, daring, caring people go about their business, bringing health, vitality and hope back to the lives of desperate people without exhibiting an ounce of self importance.)
In this camp we hear of the difference between the Somali nomads, who, as we’ve heard elsewhere, have a great deal of trouble adjusting to the food that is being given them by the relief agencies, and the Bantu, also part of the refugee exodus. Bantu had been brought into Somalia in decades past by the Italians, who colonized the region. Originally from the area to the south now known as Tanzania, these people have intermarried and settled down, now consider themselves Somalis. They have different eating habits (not based on the camel’s meat and milk diet of the Somali nomads) and find it easier to convert to the rations supplied by the UNHCR and other relief agencies, thus making a better adjustment, health-wise, in the camps. (Some Bantu are also choosing to resettle in Tanzania, rather than wait for the fighting to end in Somalia. If they can find a relative to claim them, offer a home or a job, they can get out of the camps right away.)
Scurvy is now a problem in the camps. Vitamin C and fresh fruits and vegetables are being brought in to deal with it. Measles was epidemic, but has been brought under control through a vaccination program.
We see a warehouse, laden with food-stuffs. These camps are in good order.
We’re given a demonstration by a group of Bantus of some traditional dancing, some steps of which are deftly converted by one of the younger dancers into a Michael Jackson-style routine. A delightfully positive reminder that life and beauty, tradition and hope continue, even in the face of such depredation.
On to Dagahey camp (another 40-45,000), where we are given an opportunity to meet with some newly arrived refugees. Squatting with Richard and Del in the heat beside their tukuls, we marvel at an incredibly hardy people. They tell of the misery of having walked for days without finding anything to give them hope, little food, no comfort, yet they continued, finally crossing the border at Liboi, being checked in by the UNHCR and brought here. Many of them lost family members to starvation on the way, or to the war, and yet they demonstrate an impressive sense of purpose, of hope, of the will to survive and return to their homeland “once the fighting stops.”
Back at Maureen’s compound we sit down for lunch and hear from some of the staff about the set-up and operation of the camps, the problems they have had to deal with in the past and those with which they’re still struggling.
Beyond things already discussed, there is much concern expressed about the continuing influx of refugees and the environmental degradation associated with establishment and maintenance of camps in an area with such poor resources. Generally, the discussion reflects the state of the camps. There are too many refugees and grave logistical problems, but an able and dedicated group of UNHCR professionals is dealing with the situation to an astonishingly successful degree. They’re currently wrestling with the dilemma of how to bring in fresh meat periodically to try to ease the dietary dilemma of the Somalis.
Maureen introduces the Kenyan Director of Security Operations, who indicates he is doing the best he can with an undersized staff. He has only l5 men per camp to provide security for 40 - 45,000 each. Some of the refugees have brought in arms with them, he says, which complicates things tremendously because it suggests that some of the misbehavior comes from within the camp rather than without. He says (and Maureen acknowledges) that the UNHCR has been slow in providing the vehicles he needs to give his men better mobility and that the Kenyan government has been slow about giving him additional personnel.
Rape and looting have been a problem. Per the complaint of our interpreters, it is true that bandits have come in, looted, forced women to carry their loot out of the camp and then raped them afterwards. He says the crowded nature of the camp creates another problem. If his men know bandits are operating in a certain sector, they can’t move in on them for fear of starting a fire fight that will inevitably cause injury to innocent parties, so they try to cordon off that sector and wait for the bandits to come out. (What goes without saying is if they’re from inside the camp they don’t have to come out.)
Someone suggests that even though conditions are horrible, in terms of numbers it’s actually no worse here than NY City. I don’t think that’s particularly satisfying to the women in the camp.
Maureen, while agreeing the problem is real, suggests that they’re starting to make some headway by getting the refugee population to begin to put some energy into the community, to begin to act as if it is their home, even if it is only (hopefully) temporarily so. She tells us that they have recently distributed whistles to women in the community to use as a distress signal and are trying to develop other programs to meet some of these social needs.
After lunch we load again into the back of the truck and take off to see Ifo Camp. The ride to Ifo takes us through the same kind of scrub we’ve seen before, but here there are a number of camels, evidently grazing, and, beside a muddy pond, a large number of the Maribou birds we had first seen at Mandera. An eerie creature, except for their bright coloring they are reminiscent of the pterodactyl of ancient times. Graceful in flight, they are ungainly in take-off and landing, putting me in mind of the “gooney birds” of Midway Island.
After a hot and incredibly rough ride (they specialize in washboard surfaces here) down a long dusty road, we arrive in Ifo Camp. A mixed population of Somalis and Ethiopians, there are about 45,000 here. Since two of our interpreters live here, after showing us around they will stay behind. (One, Asha, the Bantu woman, has applied to be resettled in Australia, Canada or the U.S. I hope she makes it. Her husband was a Marehan [Siad Barre’s clan] and she suffered much ill treatment before being driven from Somalia. Once they arrived in Mandera she found she couldn’t stay with him there because she wasn’t a Marehan [she didn’t explain, but social pressure was the implication], so they divorced.) With little time, they take us through the marketplace, which is stifling and aswarm with people. At first, unwilling to impose, we just walk and look. Then, one of our interpreters says the people are upset because we aren’t talking to them. Once engaged, these people tell us of their security problems, their distaste for the food, their hope to go back home (“once the war ends”). The marketplace is full of dust, smelly and popular. The range of wares displayed is surprising. Soap, ballpoint pens, various articles of clothing (some still new, wrapped in cellophane), colorful cloth, food, spices, knives, cards, drinks line the make-shift shelves of rude wooden tables or lay displayed on pieces of cloth on the ground. Much of the food is that distributed by the UNHCR. It is being sold to obtain money to buy the scraps of camel meat (and God knows what other kind) that hang from a line in the meat-sellers stalls or lay, fly-covered, on wooden trays. As in every market we’ve seen, chat is big business. Some of these wares, we’re told, came in from Somalia with the refugees, some come in every day from the local towns and yet more are brought in by traders who go back and forth, war or no war, famine or no famine.
As we’ve got to fly back to Nairobi tonight, we say thanks and offer best wishes to our friendly interpreters and get back into the truck.
Making our way out of the camp we see the differences in the styles of huts, tukuls for some, square buildings built by the relief agencies for others, a kind of triangular arrangement for some of the Ethiopians. Richard and I note a field, evidently set aside as a place to excrete bodily wastes (the idea of using latrines continues to be resisted by many of these people) being used by some children.
Back at the compound we collect Phil and Stephanie, who stayed to interview Maureen, and head off to the airstrip. The plane is no longer a problem, I’m happy to note, and the flight back, after waving goodbyes to another set of inspiring individuals, is great.
We’re beginning to show signs of wear and tear. Phil is feeling a little rugged and I think Stephanie is as well. Something in the food or water has caught up with at least one of them. Barbara, who has been operating at full tilt since before we got here, is exhausted, and the pace isn’t easy on any of us. Ofra didn’t make today’s trip at all.
Jonathan, I find to my amazement, had back surgery only a matter of weeks ago! Except for some caution about where he sits (and I’m certainly not one to make much of that point!) and a bit of care getting in and out of cars, planes, etc., which I had attributed to his height, there hasn’t been the slightest sign of any problem on his part, much less any hesitation to go anywhere or do anything. (That knowledge gives extra meaning to his willingness to sit in the cramped seat behind me and talk me through my jitters earlier.)
Del continues, in his quiet way, to be a steadfast campaigner. Never complains, never misses anything. Though obviously tired, he seems to be getting younger as we schlep along, as if he’s drawing inspiration (as I guess we all are) from the people we’re meeting. Richard, too, seems to be savoring the adventure. His sharp eye and quick wit have never flagged. I get the sense he’s taking as many mental pictures as he is photographs, and I suspect the captions, were we to be able to read them, would be searing.
Friday, November l3, l992 - Nairobi.
Landing at Wilson again, Panos explains tomorrow's problems. The ten-seater we’ve been on today has already been booked by someone else. We can get the smaller plane, but they don’t have two of them available. All they can give us is an even smaller, single-engine, wing-over Cessna (the old Piper Cub style), and the problem with that is it’s slower. Whoever rides in it tomorrow out to Liboi (the border camp) will have to be willing to come out here an hour earlier and ride for an hour longer each way. Feeling pretty cocky as a result of the earlier victories, I volunteer. Jonathan asks, “Are you sure?” and I quickly go outside and have a look. Undaunted (or only a little daunted - Damn, that thing is small!), I stick with it. Barbara and Stephanie check it out, too, but finally it’s arranged that Jonathan, Richard and I will be here at some ungodly hour to cram into the puddle-jumper and head for Liboi.
Back at the hotel I check with an old friend I had called earlier and find out that dinner is on at his house. He is Ray Bonner, an ex-NY Times reporter who was one of the heroes of the early days of reporting in El Salvador and was finally let go by the Times because they couldn’t stand the heat the right wing put on them for continuing to run his Commie-subversive articles. (Ray was one of the first on the site of the El Mozote massacre and called it as he saw it, naming the Atlacatl Battalion of the Salvadoran Army as being responsible for the murders of over 700 unarmed men, women and children in the rural Salvadoran village. Anyone interested should try his book on Reagan’s policy in El Salvador, “Weakness and Deceit.” When the Times turned cowardly and pulled him off that beat he went to work on the Philippines. See, “Waltzing With A Dictator.”) I found out he’d been living in Nairobi for four years with his wife, Jane Perlez, who has been covering East Africa (and doing the best coverage on Somalia) for the NY Times. So Del, Richard, Jonathan, Stephanie and I (Phil was trying to rest, hoping he’d feel better) went out there for dinner.
Jane and Ray have a wonderful place out near the US Embassy. I won’t say too much about it because he insisted the one requirement he lays on when anyone comes out is that the Times doesn’t learn about how well they’re living. It was a great evening. Ray was as loud, irascible and charming as ever, full of pronouncements about the UN and Somalia and politics everywhere. He had been receiving congratulatory calls of late because UN human rights investigators had finally looked into the El Mozote massacre (lo, so many years later) and verified everything he had said about the Salvadoran Government, the Atlacatl Battalion and the Reagan Administration’s policies. Ah, revenge can be sweet.
Jane is terrific. A saucy, pert Australian, she matches Ray growl for growl and generally gives a good account of herself. (They’re about to take off for Poland, where the Times is assigning her next, to look over the situation there and find a place to stay. Then they head to NY so she can be schooled on the vagaries of converting a collective economy to a market economy and the other Eastern European problems she’s going to have to understand to be able to do the kind of in-depth reporting there that she’s been doing here.)
The evening is rich and fun. Many laughs, lots of stories, lots of food (all of it, Richard reminds us later, the kind we were told not to eat but did anyway, assuming they had taken appropriate precautions), lots of information. They know and like Sahnoun, think the UN blundered terribly by letting him go. The new guy will take a significant amount of time to get up to speed and he’ll never be as good as Sahnoun. The UN screwed up very badly in Somalia, could have been tremendously helpful in the early going, was asked to get involved a couple of times during the interregnum between Barre’s fall and the collapse of everything, but didn’t. (The UN position was that they have to be invited in by a government and since there was no government in place there was no one in a position of authority with whom they could interrelate.) When the fighting got fierce the UN agencies pulled out and let the country collapse. The courage of the ICRC and the few other NGOs who stayed in and tried to help is responsible for having saved countless lives. UNICEF is the one UN organization for which they had good words, as I recall. They haven’t had much experience with the UNHCR, so didn’t voice an opinion. (Ray did say that many UN types were in very highly paid positions and were unwilling to do anything to rock the boat. He prefers the NGOs.) Jane doesn’t feel there is a saviour waiting to rescue the country. She thinks General Aidid is just as big a crook as the others.
It was a great fun evening. Ray and Jane were such great hosts that we all threatened to come visit them in Warsaw.
The cabbie who brought us out from the hotel in an old English style cab said he’d be back for us at l0:30PM, so at about that time we went out looking and there he was, sleeping. We woke him, piled in and took off, soon to realize he was just as drunk as he could be. After a hilarious, hair-raising ride we finally got safely back to the InterContinental for not enough sleep before heading off to the airstrip for our next adventure.
Saturday, November l4, l992 - Nairobi
Up at 5AM and collect downstairs (at least, since we’re coming back here tonight, we don’t have to check out again). Jonathan, Richard and I head for the airstrip for our ride in the puddle-jumper, only to arrive at the charter office in time to hear the woman at the desk saying on the short wave, “The strip is flooded?” Uh oh. Yes, it turns out, she’s talking about Liboi. After quizzing her about all the options we can conjure up, it appears that there’s no way for us to get anywhere near the Liboi border camps by air and there’s nothing for us to do but go back to the hotel, connect with the rest of the company and figure it out from there. As we go out the door, Panos pulls up, having been rousted by a call to alert him of the problem, and he gives us a lift back. Talking over the possibilities, we decide that, rather than waste a day, we’d like to take advantage of the plane (the bigger, twin engine, in which the others were to follow us to Liboi) we’ve gotten set up and fly to Kakuma, the camp in Northwestern Kenya for refugees from Sudan. Problem is, no one there expects us and, since it’s too far for the single engine craft, we’ll only have the one plane. Only five of us, plus the pilot, can make the trip.
Panos drops us at the hotel to grab some breakfast. He’ll see if he can arrange things at Kakuma.
An hour later, Panos, Del, Richard, Jonathan and I head back for the strip and set out for Kakuma. Phil is still not feeling too well and is happy to have the time to try to get his system in order. (A two and a half hour flight in a small plane is not fun when you’re having stomach trouble.) Stephanie and Barbara are both feeling pretty ragged as well, with the beginnings of the same problem, and we still haven’t seen Ofra, so the shortage of aircraft in this situation isn’t an inconvenience.
Kakuma is a bit farther away than Mandera (NW rather than NE), so we settle in for a long ride. Our pilot is new to us. He’s not exactly unpleasant, but certainly isn’t as friendly as the other fellow. Intent on flying the plane (which, when I consider the options, is probably a good thing), he’s uncommunicative and eventually becomes rather invisible.
Kakuma Camp is populated by refugees from Sudan and is situated in NW Kenya about 60 kilometers (35 miles) south of the Sudanese border. It is populated by about 20,000 people, half of them unaccompanied teenaged boys who have been either orphaned or separated from their families. Sudan itself is governed/controlled by the Moslem/Arabic north (Khartoum is its capitol), who comprise 80% of the population and who are reportedly mounting a massive Jihad (Holy War) against the 20% in the south who are black African Christian-Animists. A revolutionary army known as the SPLA (Sudanese People’s Liberation Army) operates in the south, claiming to represent the black African population (though there are apparently many who aren’t happy with their tactics or their leader, Colonel John Girang). Some suggest that the best resolution of the problem would be to split the country in two (Ray Bonner, for one, suggested that), but apparently there are important natural resources in the south that are coveted by the north, so their preference is that all the black Africans be simply killed or driven out.
After a couple of hours we circle over yet another refugee camp, this one on the banks of a small river, set within a number of large trees, and settle onto a dirt airstrip. We’re met by Ian Etheridge, the UNHCR rep. in charge of Kakuma, and loaded into his vehicle. As we pass out of the area, Ian introduces us to a young man, a physician from MSF/Holland, who is going back to Nairobi for a few days for treatment of the malaria he’s contracted here. (Hmmm.)
Ian takes us to his compound, which has a more permanent feeling than those of the other camps we’ve seen. He actually lives in a house with a roof and windows and doors (and a toilet inside, of which we make quick use). The compound also has trees, other buildings for equipment, housing and a mess hall. There is, for some reason, an empty swimming pool beside the mess hall. This facility was erected, I think we were told, by the Lutheran Church, which is active in this area.
Ian, who has been in the Sudan for 5 years, is from Australia. He is, of all things, a marine biologist (which makes sense, being out here on the cusp of the African desert) who had a fascination with Khartoum, wanted to see it, and did. He says it was a terrible disappointment, is dirty, drab and he wasn’t happy there. He evinces a real love for the black Africans, 95% of whom, in this camp, are of the Dinka tribe and are cattle herders by tradition. He is probably in his late 30s or early 40s, is a nice looking guy (says his wife and family are in Nairobi - he sees them once every 3 weeks or so) and is another one of these dedicated people who make you wonder about life choices.
Ian says l8 months ago 300,000 Black African Sudanese, who had gone into Ethiopia to escape the war in their country, poured back out because of deteriorating conditions there. Back in Sudan, they went in many directions, were attacked by the military (from the north), eaten by wild animals, drowned in rivers, etc. Some 22,500 made it to Lokichokio, on the Sudan/Kenya border, where a camp was established by the UNHCR. 10,000 of these were unaccompanied children. Because of the war in Sudan, and because the SPLA was using the camp as a hideout, for R&R and for recruitment of fighters, the UNHCR decided to relocate the population to Kakuma.
Here, among other things, the UNHCR has a program to match these unaccompanied kids with existing families. As is the case everywhere, the younger ones are easier to get families to take. Each family that agrees to take one of these youngsters is given a certain amount of land and materials to build with, help with planting, etc., as incentives. These kids, he says, have lost their families, lost their culture. They have also, he says, been very much politicized by the SPLA, who are an ongoing problem in the camp. They are trying to reacculturate the kids, he says, to teach them self-sufficiency and to prepare them to reintegrate into society.
The social problems they deal with are exacerbated by the war situation in Sudan. The government is expected to make a major push by the end of this year that will probably flood this camp with refugees because there are already l00,000 DPs (displaced people) in Southern Sudan situated directly between the government forces and the Kenyan border.
Ian reiterates that the north is Arab, Moslem, the south African, Christian. He says the people of the south get short shrift from the government in the north. The south has oil, minerals and other natural resources the government wants.
Services in this camp are provided by various organizations, as in the others we’ve visited. MSF/Holland handles medical care, the IRC handles health promotion, Radda Barnen (Swedish Save the Children) has a program working on registering the children (reuniting them with family, if such exist) and the Lutheran World Service does food distribution and general monitoring.
The main problem here is security. That which they have is provided by the Kenyan Government and the concerns are that the SPLA comes in to recruit, to steal food and medicine and to exact taxes. Ian says these problems have been eased by the move to this location, because the terrain is harder for the SPLA people to move across without being seen and the Kenyans control the only road in.
He says that there is internal dissension in the ranks of the SPLA, with factions splitting off. One is led by Rick Macha (sp?), another by William Nawan (sp?).
Primary health problems here are TB, dysentery, malaria (as we discovered earlier when meeting the doctor) and something called guinea worm. (He later mentioned rampant eye infections, saying he’d just come back from being treated for one himself in Nairobi. He said, “All you’ve got to do is touch something, then rub your eye and you've got it,” a notion that struck Richard and I as being hilariously late, since we had by that time been meeting people, shaking hands, swapping high fives and generally feeling our way through the camp for hours.)
We load up and take a ride through the camp. A sign as we enter says, “Drive Carefully, l6,000 Children Playing!” The camp seems pretty well organized. The incredible number of boys running around quickly makes itself evident. Despite the horror of the stories of the suffering, these kids seem to be in good shape, high spirits. “Very well disciplined,” Ian reminds us. The Dinka people are quite distinctive in appearance. They seem to be quite tall and many have very long, thin legs which at first glance seem disproportionate to the rest of the body. (Think of the basketball player Manute Bol, who is a Dinka, and you’ll have the picture.) They generally have a round head, a somewhat flattened face and generously spaced teeth. The space between the front teeth is very important, considered something of a beauty mark. Ian says the value of a daughter, in computing the dowry she might bring, is often based upon the degree of separation of those teeth; the wider the space, the higher the value.
For many of the people in this camp Western style dress seems to be the preference. Most of those we see in traditional African garb are locals, from a northern Kenya tribe, who come here to trade. (Those outfits are quite intricate, as are the hairstyles. Richard keeps trying to take a picture of one of them, but is met with an unwillingness to cooperate. It’s unclear whether they find the idea offensive in some way, have a cultural or religious reluctance to having their pictures taken, or are simply shy. Richard, to his credit, asks courteously each time and honors their response.)
This camp is laid out in sections, is well spaced and neat. The huts are of different shapes, most rectangular, but some round. (I wonder, in seeing all these teenaged boys running around, how some of the parents of families with girls must feel. Hormones aswirl!) We stop at a woodworking shop where refugees are being taught to make chairs, tables and other pieces of furniture. The work is very good (Ian points out that the furniture in his house came from here) and everyone seems well-occupied and happy. There is a hut across the way from the shop bearing a sign that identifies it as a restaurant.
We walk across an open field where a group of boys is playing soccer and stop to talk to one of their teachers. Soon a large crowd of eager-faced boys is standing around us, quiet, smiling, curious. Many of them, it turns out, have a common name (I shake hands with one boy and ask his name. He replies, “Michael,” to which I say, “That’s my name,” and a number of voices reply, “My name, too.”) which strikes me as curious until Ian reminds us that these people are very much Christianized. That’s borne out by asking a few more names. Archangelo, John, Gideon. A few pictures are taken, some laughs and some high fives are exchanged, and we head back toward the car. Before we get there, we’re stopped by a very large man, in the company of two others, who welcomes us and gives us the story of the boys, the camp, the political situation. He’s well spoken, clearly a leader. Walks with a limp which Ian identifies later as being the result of a prosthetic. He lost a leg in the war. This man complains to us of scarcity of rations, not enough for the people to eat, but otherwise says things are relatively OK. After a bit of conversation, they move away and Ian explains that the two men flanking him were SPLA cadre so, Ian says, the man was clearly constrained in what he could say. Says the big guy is a fair and decent fellow, respected in the camp. Ian says there is no shortage of rations. They simply want more so they can pass it on to the SPLA.
Next we go over to an area where Ian wants us to meet a group of Nubans (I believe these are the Nubian people from the central Sudanese highlands mentioned in the Bible). Different in appearance from the Dinkas, the Nubas are much more of an Arabic mixture, judging from their features. They are the camp’s bakers and have large, earthen ovens from which they produce breads that, we’re told, are delicious (they were all gone, so we couldn’t taste for ourselves). Moslems, these people have traditionally co-existed with the Arabs without problems. The man we met, a wonderful, warm fellow with a great smile, expressed sadness at the fact that their Arabic neighbors had simply driven them out of their homes, pushed them off their land. He said they had tried to negotiate, to work it out, but all the Arabs wanted was the land (oil, minerals), so as a result these Nubian African Moslems have joined forces with the African Dinka Christians against their fellow Moslem Arabs (who, for their part, claim they are waging a Jihad, a holy war - and are reportedly getting support from Iran and Libya).
Ian says the human rights violations against the Nubas were horrifying, as was the case with the Dinkas. He indicated that many of the Dinka had gone north to avoid the fighting, attempted to settle among the Arabs, and were terribly abused for their efforts. He went on to suggest that he has no particular use for the SPLA either, indicating they’ve been responsible for more than their share of cruelty
After riding around a bit more we head back to the compound and have some lunch in the mess hall. Jonathan, ever inquisitive, sits with some of the staff and gets their story as Del, Richard, Panos and I talk further with Ian.
After lunch we ride back into the camp, pass a class in session under the trees, and take a look at the marketplace, which is very similar to the others we’ve seen. It’s smaller than those at Mandera, Ifo, etc., reflecting the relative size of the camps. I don’t see any chat here, but there is the usual supply of items available. One young man who speaks good English leads a small group up to us and proceeds to try to hustle us out of something, in fact anything. He’s having a great time, as are his friends. Give me this, give me that. Ian suggests it’s not a good idea, but it’s hard to refuse. He’s got all the moves of a downtown hustler, complete with the guilt trip about, “You’ll never come back here, will you? You’ll forget about us when you get home.”
It’s sad how quickly young people learn the language of manipulation in this situation.
After checking out the hospital (which depresses me for some reason - I guess it’s because with everything else being in such relatively good shape I wanted this to be more than a primitive, open-sided tent with a lot of miserable looking people in it.), we head back to the compound. Due to the length of the flight and the fact that we’ve a schedule to meet tomorrow, we’re required to head back to Nairobi early. Back at the airstrip the plane is waiting, so it’s goodbye to Ian and we’re back in the hands of Mr. Invisible.
The sky is more clear on the way home and we’re able to see a good deal of what is apparently the Rift Valley. Fabulous green trees and rivers and a very large lake end abruptly at a sheer rocky verge. Atop the cliffs the land again is lush and clearly very productive. What appear to be banana groves and other crops surround large plantation-style buildings. (Some, at least, live very well out here.) An unending green carpet sweeps across the top of a hill and dives into a gorge, only to pop up on the other side, ripe and rich. Beautiful!!
The trip to Mogadishu has become something of a problem. Once the idea got around, pretty much everyone wanted to go. Panos and Barbara are trying to accommodate us, but there are difficulties. The UNHCR has no programs there, so no formal connections. (There is also some concern, I think, about possible danger.) Plans had been made for the days in question, so, if we go, things will have to be rearranged. Nothing is easy.
Once again safely back at the landing strip in Nairobi, we head for the hotel. There isn’t much time to clean up before we’re due to take off for a cocktail party at the home of Carol Faubert, the UNHCR rep. we had met.
The toll of the incredible schedule we’ve maintained is beginning to be more evident. Richard, beginning to feel a bit queasy, decides to pass on the event. Phil, feeling a bit better, but still not l00%, comes, as do Barbara, Stephanie and Ofra. Barbara isn’t feeling very well, though it’s hard to tell if she’s sick or exhausted or both. Stephanie is the same. I’m feeling worn to the bone, so don’t intend to stay long. Del and Jonathan, though tired, still seem to be firing on all cylinders.
The situation as regards the possible trip to Mogadishu has come down to this: If we are willing to pay for a charter flight (between $6 & $l0,000), they’ll make the necessary arrangements for us, but can’t do more than that. That’s not really what anyone had in mind, nor is the idea of causing the UNHCR to have to cancel the upcoming trip to Mombasa anything we’re comfortable with, so we’re back to square one. Jonathan and I will go if we can hitch a ride there on an IMC flight tomorrow (which Jonathan is pretty sure we can do) and the rest will continue on as scheduled. The one possible problem for me is that I have to be back in Nairobi by Monday night for the flight out to Paris in order to connect to the next leg of the trip. Since Jonathan isn’t going to Bosnia that isn’t a concern for him, but he doesn’t want to screw it up for me and is having trouble getting assurances that there will be seats available on a flight out of Mogadishu on Monday to get back here. We leave it that he’ll keep trying. Richard says if it doesn’t work out for me, he’d like to go with Jonathan. I’m hanging onto the hope that we can somehow work it out.
Faubert’s house is a nice place on a hill in the same area where Ray and Jane live. There are a people all over the place, most of them congregated by the bar on a covered patio/balcony overlooking a large, overgrown yard.
Bits of conversation pierce a foggy brain -
- A man from the German Embassy tells Ofra and I of problems here which stem, he insists, from the aggressiveness of the Somalis. He says there are Somali gangs creating problems in Nairobi. Says the Somalis are, by temperament, very demanding. (??) On another subject, there is a UN program now being discussed which will have the UN moving into Somalia in increments, with the current thinking having them first in the extreme northeastern portion of the country (where there is no fighting), then the northwest (which is also relatively calm, though a problem there is presented by the continued existence of thousands of land mines which will reportedly take years to clear), before eventually moving into the areas now in strife. Doesn’t sound particularly promising to me. At that pace, the death rate will make their job a lot simpler.
- A woman comes up and reminds me we had met in the camps on the Thai/Cambodian border years ago when she was a volunteer there for CONCERN. She’s now the regional coordinator for CONCERN/Ireland and feels good, if overwhelmed, about the work they’re doing (as well she should).
- Del and I are approached by a man, a Kenyan in some sort of position of responsibility, who “wants to write.” He knows he has it in him to be a writer and is looking for help. (You can take the boy out of Hollywood, but you can’t...) As I look at this earnest face, feeling as though I want to scream in it, Del begins to respond very sweetly, giving him suggestions as to how to go about realizing his dream. After a couple of smiles and nods in appropriate places, I sneak away, abandoning Del to his diplomatic chore.
Phil is hanging in there, engrossed in conversation with a priest, and everyone else seems happily involved, so I make my weary way toward Panos and beg a ride back to the hotel. As we’re heading toward the door, Jonathan comes up, having just gotten the definitive word that there is to be no definitive word. Tired as well, he joins us for the ride back (Del, too, having extricated himself from the clutches of the aspiring writer) and explains that, as we knew, there are definitely two seats on the IMC flight to Mogadishu that leaves tomorrow morning. There are “technicals” available on that end, a car, and sleeping space is available either at the IMC compound or with the UNICEF group. The problem is that even though it is clear that there are both UNICEF and ICRC flights coming back to Nairobi on Monday, no one can say for sure there is space available on them. Jonathan is willing to take the chance, is going to have Panos change his flight out from Monday night to Tuesday night in the event he can’t get back until Tuesday (IMC has a flight coming back Tuesday that they can assure him will have room if he can’t get out Monday.), but as for me, “It’s your call.”
Shit. I really can’t take the chance. I hate to miss the opportunity to see Mogadishu for myself, but it would be nuts to get stuck there, miss the connections to Zagreb and blow the last half of the trip, so we agree that we’ll try to reach Richard when we get back and see if he wants to take my seat (he’s not going to Bosnia).
Back at the hotel, Richard, Jonathan, Del and I confer. Richard is frustrated because his stomach is giving him trouble (he keeps wishing he hadn’t eaten all that stuff at Ray and Jane’s) and he’s worried about being a drag on Jonathan if it gets worse (as has happened to Phil and, it now appears, Barbara and Stephanie). On the other hand, he very much wants to see the situation in Mogadishu first-hand. The poor guy is obviously torn. As is Jonathan, who would like to have someone with him, but, naturally, isn’t eager to have to deal with taking care of someone who is sick in what might prove to be a tricky situation.
Finally, Richard decides he won’t make the trip either. (A tough choice, clearly, but, I think, the right one.) I’m surprised a bit, and more than a little impressed (and worried), when Jonathan indicates he’s going to go anyway. I’m torn between envy at his going and fear that he shouldn’t go alone. Having said that, there isn’t anything to do but wish him well (it seems inappropriate to try to talk him out of it, having spent so much time talking about what a good idea it is), but I’ll miss him. He’s been a real soldier throughout the trip. A good man. Smart, funny, caring, very much committed to helping where, when and if he can. A mensch, as they say.
To bed. Awakened at some incredible hour by a call from a writer in the States who has been trying to reach me for a magazine article she’s doing about Shelley and me in a world that seems so far away as to be almost incomprehensible right now. I beg off, saying I’ll try to talk to her when we get back from Mombasa, and try for a couple more hours of sleep.
Sunday, November l5, l992 - Nairobi.
Up early in order to check out again. Leave the big bag in Barbara’s room. A quick bite and into the van (it no longer seems to be a problem where I sit, happy to note). Panos produces a paper that has an article about a shooting at the Mogadishu airport yesterday between Aidid’s forces and the Pakistani detachment of UN troops there. Also mention of an ambush (probably by Aidid’s people, but who knows?) of some relief workers from the IMC hospital there who were either going to or coming back from an outing at the beach (an outing at the beach?). One person was wounded. We all think of Jonathan, hope he’s not heading into trouble.
Barbara and Stephanie are both sick as hell. Richard is still queasy, but seems to be holding his own (!) and Phil is improving. Del is fine and, after a few hours sleep, I feel a lot better. Ofra seems OK, too. I’m not sure how good an idea it is for Barbara and Stephanie to try to keep up with this schedule, but no one can dissuade them. An impressive amount of determination is about the only thing keeping them going.
Moi International Airport. Through the necessary hoops and out the gate, then it’s an unbelievably long walk to the plane. Not much forethought here, I must say. This is not doing either of the women any good, but they don’t complain. The Kenya Airlines flight to Mombasa is crowded, but OK. It leaves about on time (9AM) and it’s a bumpy hour and a half ride.
Sunday, November l5, l992 - Mombasa, Kenya.
Now this is Africa! Where Nairobi is relatively cool, being a mile high, Mombasa is a seaport, muggy, hot, tropical. Palm trees. Lush vegetation. Feels a lot like Hawaii.
We’re met by the local UNHCR rep. for Utange Camp, a Swede named Lars Jonsson, a sweet, soft-spoken man who loads us into a mini-bus and heads into the city. Much of this area looks like Hawaii, as well, except for the dirty, underdeveloped-world appearance of the city. Diesel exhaust coats everything, is the feeling. But beautiful bougainvillea abound! Buses, clots of people on the roadside, cars and trucks racing to and fro. The air is so moist it feels as though you could grow anything here.
The place we’re staying, the Nyali Beach Hotel, is very nice. It’s very open and sprawls on the beach, with a pool, large baobab trees on the grounds, any number of restaurants and bars and about everything the contented tourist would expect from a coastal African city. Ceiling fans in the lobby smack of colonial times. Panos asks that we be given rooms with solid windows as opposed to the louvered types because the mosquitoes here are supposed to be fierce and dangerous. (Somewhere back in time someone, maybe it was Jane Perlez, said when we mentioned Mombasa, “Yes, cerebral malaria.”) (!!) (One of the first things you see upon getting off the plane here is a giant poster of a mosquito with a warning on it.) After a bit of a wait, we’re assigned rooms (Mine has louvered windows, a big spray can of something called “DOOM,” and a welcoming party of poster children) and given a short time to rest (or defend ourselves) before taking off for Utange Camp.
Back in the lobby, Lars is joined by a colleague, Roger, another Swede, who helps him run the camp. Both are UNHCR professionals. Lars and his family have just signed on to a 3 year stay here, having been in South Africa and somewhere else on the continent before this. Roger seems to have been here for a while, knows a fair amount about the Somalis. (As we’re waiting for the rest I notice a number of what are clearly American servicemen coming in and out. Apparently they’re part of the US airlift operation we’ll see tomorrow.)
Everyone accounted for (we convince Barbara, despite her attempt to come with us, that she’d be better off staying put for the afternoon) we head off for Utange Camp.
Originally populated by a primarily urban, professional class of people who left Somalia when the fighting erupted in earnest a year and a half ago, Utange was initially intended to house 8,000 people and had the capacity to expand by another 9 or l0,000. Today, the sprawling camp looks more like a city as we drive down the rutted dirt road leading to its center. The driver works his way around potholes, pools of water, pedestrians, bicycles and at one point has to make room for a bus as we wend our way. The tropical foliage and lush growth around give a much more hospitable appearance to this camp than many of those we’ve seen thus far. Some people are stretched out on a grassy slope at the side of the road, lending an air of indolence to the atmosphere, an air that is quickly dispelled by the crowds that appear ahead of us as we get closer to the camp’s offices. The population here now runs to over 33,000 souls and they are everywhere visible, washing, hanging clothes to dry, carrying, lifting, walking hand in hand (as is the custom among men here, much as it is in the Middle East), going about their business, whatever it might be today. The road is suddenly lined with shops, restaurants, displays of various kinds of wares. A thriving marketplace. Apparently big business is done here. All the construction is the traditional wood framed, reed-roofed structure typical of refugee camps in this type of climate. (The huts all appear to be rectangular. I don’t see any of the usual tukuls, and wonder if that reflects the class difference.) The expanding population simply set up their own huts on the outskirts of the original camp, swelling its size and causing logistical problems until the UNHCR simply decided to take on responsibility for the whole group, creating a sort of inside/outside, new camp/old camp appearance.
Pulling up at the gate that once described the outer limits of the camp, we are surrounded by a crowd of curious faces. Roger and Lars lead us in through the gates to a small building, the office of the local ICRC representative, where we’re introduced and given a brief description of the operation of the camp.
Once outside again, Roger introduces us to Professor Yusuf, one of the camp elders, who leads us through crowded lanes, down narrow paths between huts and finally into a separate compound where a school has been set up, with three separate, open-sided buildings and a play area. Filing into one of the classrooms, we’re seated on benches, before regular wooden school-type desks (complete with carved initials, though no recognizable swear words), as Professor Yusuf and four other members of the Elder’s Council seat themselves at the head of the class.
Professor Yusuf, a second man who is introduced as a former colonel in the Somali Army, another who is introduced as “Governor” and a fourth man whose name or rank I miss, sit four abreast facing us. Interestingly, a fifth man, also a professor, sits at one side of the room, apart from them. Yusuf launches into a brief history of their situation and a description of the camp, its problems, its relationship with the UNHCR, etc. It would appear he’s done this many times in the past. Most of his focus is on the difficulty they face in having to share their food. He claims that they get rations for only l8 - 20,000 refugees in a camp that actually houses over 50,000 and this creates many problems for them. (Lars later explains that this is nonsense, but fairly typical nonsense. The elders want to maintain their positions within the community, so attempt to do all the negotiating with the various agencies. They understate the amount of food they’re getting and overstate the numbers in the camp in the hopes of getting extra rations they can then use to enhance their own power. Refugee politics. One of the things Lars is trying to do, in fact, is find ways to open new avenues of communication into the community to try to facilitate relationships outside those favored by the clan elders. As was the case with Jack in Mandera, this is an attempt to try to bring some more modern opportunities to the people.)
Asked about finding a resolution to the war, the talk turns political and the four present a united front indicating that one particular warlord is the problem in the country. Pressed, they name General Aidid as the main obstacle to peace. (This isn’t a great surprise considering the origin of this group. The “Colonel” must have been in Siad Barre’s army and, one might assume, the “Governor” would also have been a political crony of Barre’s.)
Finally, when there is a pause, the man sitting off by himself speaks. In a soft voice, rarely raising his eyes, he admonishes them, saying they shouldn’t single out any one person as an enemy or as the major obstacle to peace, but should deal with all equally. He says a UN force should come into the country and impose a peaceful resolution to the problems by dealing with all the warring factions on an impartial basis.
(Some very interesting stuff then goes back and forth between these men. Much of it is in Somali, much of what is in English is hidden between the lines, but there is a clear political rift here and I find myself really liking this quiet man. He is, it turns out, a Professor of Veterinary Medicine, whose name is Abdihraman Makhtal Dasir.)
The four continue to maintain their position that Aidid is the bad guy who is causing all the problems. With the clear intention of establishing his credentials, Prof. Yusuf tells us he was jailed for two years by Siad Barre for “speaking frankly,” evidently saying things Barre didn’t like.
The “Governor,” (whom Roger later tells us is nicknamed “The Killer” for having ordered the bombing of his own city when the war was being lost) pipes up that the international relief organizations all favor General Aidid, only giving aid to areas under his control. (Whether he actually believes this or is maintaining a political position is impossible to know, but I’m surprised he doesn’t know that we know it’s baloney.)
I raise the issue of General Morgan, suggesting it’s my understanding that he represents the forces of Siad Barre, at which point the colonel gets huffy, saying General Morgan fought against Barre in the revolution and how could anyone say such a thing? It’s a very interesting discussion, finally, with sides being clearly delineated, when Prof. Dasir speaks up again, saying that there are people in the camp (present company included, it is clearly inferred) who supported Siad Barre up to the bitter end, just as there are some who supported others. That is, he says, beside the point. The dictatorship was brutal and ugly, but it is now gone. The warlords who joined forces against Barre then fell to fighting among themselves. People of the clans have been set against one another. The problem now is that people in Somalia no longer trust each other. An outside force, the UN, must come in and impose a peace, equally, and see to it that the distribution of relief is done equally all over the country. Clan leaders must be brought into this process and as much as possible the warlord types should be left out of it. This would reestablish trust through communication and negotiation and reestablish the traditional process of inter-clan negotiation, called (a Somali word, something like egharte [?]. Roger explains later that this system had worked very well in the country for years, is one of the many things lost during the time of Siad Barre.)
As we walked out of the meeting room later, I suggested to Phil that Prof. Dasir had my vote to be president of Somalia. His response was, “How about the U.S.?”
(During the above, Stephanie was pulled out of the meeting by a Somali woman named Europe, who told her a harrowing tale of rape, torture and bestial behavior which Stephanie related to us later.)
Heading back toward our vehicle I make a point of walking with Prof. Dasir. Bearded, he appears to be in his early 40s, is very self-effacing, walks with a stoop. Soft spoken, he is clearly in great pain about the situation in his country. He speaks of what he calls “The Lost Generation;” boys who were l0 years old when Siad Barre took power, grew up during his 2l year reign of chaos, disorder, disrespect for the law, for tradition, a time of brutality, degradation of the educational system, despair. Now, he says, they are 32, 33 years old and are the architects of the violence, lawlessness and chaos that besets Somalia. The Lost Generation: Siad Barre’s legacy.
God, what a breath of hope this man is! How sad that he’s stuck in this lousy situation. Somehow, making a contact on that level, one feels even more guilty about being able to get in a van and drive away. But we do.
A brief stop at the hotel to drop off those who want to rest and Panos, Del, Richard, Ofra and I head off with the driver to look at the Old Town in the center of Mombasa. Fort Jesus, established by the Portuguese in the l500s, was later taken over by the Arabs, then the English. A fascinating structure overlooking the harbor and the Indian Ocean. High, thick walls, cannons, gun ports look out on the beautiful beach below. Excavations of earlier portions of the fort are nicely laid out, a museum houses some artifacts of the various periods of control and many buildings, dating from different periods, remain. With the warm breeze blowing and the blue sky above, it’s no wonder early explorers found this spot worthy of their attention.
Outside, we walk through the Old City itself. Narrow streets, many beautiful, ornate, intricately carved wooden doors on crappy, dirty old buildings. Africans, Arabs, East Indians and mixed bloods are everywhere around us. The stench of raw sewage. Such filth. Such poverty. It’s very sad to see the way the majority lives.
We make our way to the old port area and see dhows (local boats) filled with material that has been stripped from buildings in Mogadishu and brought here for sale. Telephone poles, roofing materials, lay stacked in heaps. An armed guard (after fees are paid) allows us access dock-side. A wedding party is enjoying a celebration aboard a boat at anchor. Refugees come in by the boatload as we watch. It’s one of those scenes that can be picturesque until you see the grief beneath the surface.
Back at the hotel, with time before dinner, Phil, Del, Richard and I take a moment to have a drink and relax. We sit in a cabana-style restaurant on the grounds and watch colorful parrots flying about and then, to my amazement, Richard points out a monkey! Unbelievable. Wild monkeys roaming the grounds, swinging in the baobab trees, loping across the lawn.
Lars, his wife (a very nice woman, a Swede, probably in her early to mid 30s, who loves this life and the work they do, doesn’t mind schlepping her two kids all over the world) and Roger take us to a beautiful restaurant on the opposite side of the harbor from the fort. Barbara tries to come along, but has to give up and leave before we’re into the meal. Poor thing, she’s having a hell of a time. Stephanie too. Phil is easing back into it, but not fully here yet. Richard seems to be maintaining. Del too. It’s quite warm here, even in the evening. Still pretty sticky, as well. A nice evening.
Back at the hotel, a leisurely moment to take stock of the physical and mental toll. Can’t help wondering how Jonathan is doing. Stephanie and Barbara sick, Phil is recovering. Del is exhausted, me too. Richard seems OK now. Says last night he dreamed of killing people.
It’s the first time I can remember on this trip when we haven’t had an impossibly early call. Now, of course, it’s time to deal with the mosquitoes. I get to my room and find they’ve hung mosquito netting, so I “Doom” about a dozen of the little blood-suckers to oblivion and creep under the net for the night. (God, I hate to use that crap, but it’s them or me. Maybe, considering what’s in it, it’s them and me.)