Updated: Sep 4
Somalia - December 1992
This was neither a joke nor a line from a Hollywood Western movie. My nine years in the Israeli Army didn't prepare me for the frightening encounter at the Port of Mogadishu early morning on December 9th, 1992.
We have just returned to Israel after a week-long of reporting for NBC News from Mogadishu, Somalia, when we were tipped off by the NBC Pentagon correspondent that American Marines and other special forces are about to land in Mogadishu to ensure food security and restore public order in Somalia, a country that has been embroiled in a bloody civil war for the past two years.
I pack my bag with my personal stuff, T-shirts, and jeans. I stick a pack of Reporter’s Notebooks and pens into the Billingham, and throw in over-the-counter medications; Eye drops, antibiotic ointment, anti-diarrhea, and paracetamol pills.
Taking my laptop and communication kit; Everything needed to establish a minimal communication line using a home phone in Mogadishu to the NBC Bureau in London. This time I take with me in the bag also the office's small 8mm video camera in case we split up when the Marines arrive.
In the early morning hours, we take off on a BA-166 flight to London where we will board Kenya Airlines Flight 101 to Nairobi. A night flight of almost nine hours will bring us very early in the morning to our destination. Something is exciting about the fact that we're on our way to Somalia once again, a sense of returning to the familiar 'crime scene', with a half-smile. The previous round there was very successful. The story is a heartbreaking human story. A human story that is photographed well, a story in which it is clear who is good and who is bad, and in between, hundreds of thousands of children are being kept hostage and suffer.
Every journalistic assignment overseas is an adrenaline rush. A journalistic mission in a war zone is double or triple the dose. We are a good team; Martin, Yossi, and Amikam, who is traveling to Africa for the first time.
I am not afraid traveling again into a war zone, as in previous cases whether in Europe, Central America, not even in Gaza or the heart of the West Bank during the first intifada back home in Israel, the high adrenaline levels suppress the fears and eliminate them.
"Returning to the crime scene" is the beginning of a tradition, and tradition is a good thing that you observe. It helps you feel better and strengthens your self-confidence. You were there, you did it - so to do it again is a "Piece of Cake".
Landing at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi at 05:30 am a six-hour stopover in London & nine-hour flight. We pay £ 5 for the one-time entry visa to Kenya. Collect the equipment cases and the personal bags. A driver is already waiting for us outside to take us to the Hilton hotel in the center of the city.
We stop at the hotel bar before going up to the rooms. In the early morning, the barman serves only the local version of Arabian coffee, the spicy African dark black coffee with a tingling touch of ginger.
In my room, I check my communication gadgets, move the nightstand by my bed, disassemble the lid of the phone socket on the wall, and connect with two crocodile clips, a pair of wires I brought with me, to a dialer connected to my laptop. It works! I have the London bureau on the line.
After dinner, we return to the hotel and stop at the bar for a drink and a bit of mingling with colleagues, before going to bed. The bar is crammed with cigarette smoke. The audience is a mix of local young women with long hair extensions cuddling up to older white men, and a bunch of experienced veteran foreign journalists.
We sit down at a bar at a low table on armchairs joined by other foreign journalists drinking local beer, the Tusker lager. A Reuters news agency cameraman who came from London and a French print journalist from Le Monde. For them, too, it will be the first time in Somalia. I think I have met the British photographer at least once, if not twice before, in Yugoslavia. It feels like we are all members of a traveling circus moving from country to country, from continent to continent, and from one war to another, while only the scenery changes.
It is getting late and Yossi our cameraman is retiring to his room. "I'll call home and go to sleep he apologizes." Amikam and I stay a few more minutes and wait for Martin to come back and hear from him if he has heard anything new from his British colleagues he met at the bar before we take off tomorrow morning to Mogadishu.
In the morning we meet at the entrance to the chartered jets terminal just outside Nairobi with several other TV crews who came here on the way to Mogadishu. The Namibia Commercial Aviation's Cessna-210 single-engine aircraft is already waiting for us on the runway. We load the equipment into the cargo bay of the small plane and take off.
An hour and a bit later we hover over the Indian Ocean with its turquoise waters, the plane lowers and lands on the makeshift landing strip 50K Strip which is 50 Kilometers from Mogadishu city center, the same place where we landed the previous time. Welcome back to Mogadishu.
This time, too, we prefer Ibrahim's villa over the Alsahaffi hotel which is located on the main road at the entrance to the city - we are comfortable staying away from the crowd, and after all, we understand that the other three American TV Networks that arrived were each independently located in their rented compound. We have three days to get organized before the "landing" so we go out to check out the seaport where the special forces are planning to land from the sea, U.S Marines, and the Navy SEALs.
At the port, the gate is UN soldiers from Pakistan.
They realize that something is about to happen if only because of the growing number of TV crews who come to film at the entrance to the port. And until that happens we take the time to visit again the camps closest to the city the ones we visited just two weeks ago. And as I promised myself, this time we came equipped to meet the kids; Yossi and I brought bags of sweets and letters prepared by the friends of the fourth graders in Herzliya Elementry School of our girls. We return to the camp closest to the villa, the camp of the Irish CARE and Anette who accompanied us the previous time. Two weeks is not a long time but for the children here 14 days is a full life. Here every day is a war for survival.
I ask Annette about the mortality rate in the camp and whether the improvement trend continues. Annette sighs and explains that indeed, there is a slow improvement but it is impossible to stop for a moment. Their war here in the camp is daily, the battle for the supply chain. The food warehouses shipped here from Europe by donor countries are full. The port is not far from the camp but the violence on the roads and the war for control of the supply routes between the gangs threaten the continuation of the supply chain. Annette like many of her colleagues here is waiting for the U.S. military to come and rule order and ensure the continuity of supplies to the camps.
Tonight the Marines are expected to land from the sea.
We arrive at the port gate about an hour before sunset. Tonight will be a full moon night. Lone lights on the docks, dozens of media, TV, and press crews, with restless camera crews roaming the harbor and the nearby beach area, looking for a good position for the cameras facing the sea. On the main dock, the Somalis, together with the UN soldiers, erected a protective wall made of containers about six meters high, so that in any case we have no line of sight to the water. We understand that some crews leave around 22:00 and move to the beach area to wait for the main deployment of Marines to land there.
We decide to stay in the port anyway .. sitting in groups, a British crew takes out bottles of beer. It is silent around us. The only noise is the sound of the sea waves crashing into the wave breaker at the entrance to the harbor.
Midnight and still nothing happened. A long night awaits us and we catch a nap on the concrete docks. I hug my Billingham which serves as a pillow in one hand and hold the small video camera with my other hand.
I can not help but think of the situation here at the Mogadishu port. The last time I lay like this in the dark on the pavement waiting for an unknown "enemy" was during my basic training in the Israeli army, twenty-two years earlier.
And then when the moon has set and the sun has not yet dawned, they emerge... Shit, the U.S Marines landed from the sea, and we slept over ... I look around trying to see who is around me. Where is Martin & the crew?
I press the power button of the small camcorder next to me and start recording the scene. You see almost nothing but shadows lit by the moonlight, and you hear voices. Yes, you hear the screams, the screams of the American soldiers who are surprised to discover that the silhouettes lying on the pier are hurds foreign journalists, dozens of us ...
I lie on my stomach, legs spread wide, trying to hide the camera, the little red light that indicates that the device is recording. I'm not sure how the Marines would react if they realized there was a recording camera here. I am unaware that a second deployment of the U.S Marines that has swept the beach south of us, was taken by surprise when the TV lights were turned on upon their landing on the beach...
We all lie on the exposed concrete docks in front of the water. The battle cries of the Marines freeze the blood. At least mine.
“Don't you move your fucking hand, or I'll shoot you”! “Keep your hands above your head, hands above your head ...!”
I try to squint while my head kisses the concrete looking to see Martin, Yossi, or Amikam and someone above me is screaming at me.. “Heads down don’t you dare look around! Get down! Get down!”
I try to move a leg and find an American Marine a meter away from me with a weapon aimed at my head.
The faces of the Marines are painted in camouflage colors. Although the edge of the sky is already fading in almost first light, it is still not possible to notice the facial lines but only the silhouettes of the soldiers.
I squint at the camera lying next to me and it's still recording. Damn! I notice I put it on its side! I hesitate whether or not to try to tilt the camera, but a silhouette armed with a long weapon immediately barks at me “Put your face in the dirt, Put your face in the dirt!”
I give up on the idea of changing the position of the camera...
Fifteen minutes maybe more that seem like an eternity and the American special forces take over the port area, taking positions when meanwhile the sun has not yet shone but a full first light is hurting.
The noise of the diesel engines we hear not far from us is the noise of hovercraft and landing crafts bringing the tanks and armored vehicles from the sea to the shore south of the port.
As the sun sets in the east the American soldiers at the port decide it's time to evacuate the media from the area. The Marine Colonel, the commander of the force that took over the port, arrives and explains to us politely but also firmly that the situation that may develop here between the Marines and the locals may be "ugly" and there may be casualties on both sides and he would not want the media in the middle. At first light, we start to leave the area when the walk out of the harbor is slow, without too fast movements.
On the way out of a port that has become an American naval base with disembarking helicopters, and the first large Galaxy cargo plane to land at the nearby international airport, which also became a secured area, controlled by the Americans alongside the UN-Pakistanis.
Martin stops at the exit of the harbor and we are shooting him On Camera summing up the night's events. This could be the section that will close the report or a bridge to - what will happen to Somalia now that this morning there are about 2,000 first soldiers of a multinational force that is expected to reach more than 30,000 soldiers in the coming days.
This is what viewers in the United States saw on the NBC News report aired the morning after ...
THE DAY AFTER:
Residents understand that this is the only chance to restore calm to the city and state, resume food supplies to the refugee camps, and stop the civil war.
The local gunmen, on the other hand, understand that the Americans, who lead a multinational force of twenty-three states, are coming to establish law & order and take the power from their hands. Take out of their hands the control over the distribution of food and stop the ransom payments made by the donor organizations to the gangs.
The American Marines, unlike the Pakistani UN soldiers, have no sense of humor and are armed from head to toe with heavy weapons. They are afraid of the unknown and therefore operate mainly in armored vehicles and helicopters. Trying to reduce the friction with the locals.
American forces find a city where the destruction is great. A city that even before the war was not a proper western city stands today destroyed. There is no building that remains intact and stands on its own. What could have been looted - looted, stolen, smashed, burned, and destroyed. Stone wires next to scrap iron and garbage. The ruined infrastructure and the few roads that were in the country were plowed by the chains of the weapons of war. Falls of shells left scars on the asphalt. Burnt vehicles, and of course the refugee camps planted in every vacant lot. Straw huts are covered with green plastic sheets and remnants of nuclear sacks donated by American and European relief organizations.
The Americans do not intend to rebuild the city. The locals are not interested either. Club-Med Mogadishu will probably not be opening here in the coming years despite the long beach, white sand, sunny weather all year round, fine Italian cuisine remnants of Italian colonialism of the early twentieth century, and live Lobsters jumping to the plate straight from the waters of the Indian Ocean. A paradise that will no longer be here ...
All the photographs in the post were taken by me!