Updated: Sep 4
We arrived in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, by chance ...
In Noah's barbershop in Herzliya, in the basket of old newspapers between back issues of "Women's" magazines and a pile of yellowing evening newspapers, I read a short article, a few lines in an old issue of the weekly “Ha'olam Hazeh” magazine. I read about Israeli merchants who buy the copper wires that once formed the infrastructure of Somalia's telephone network and pay in return with assault rifles and machine guns. The state of Somalia is dismantled, stolen, looted, and sold by weight for as much as possible. The journalist mentions the humanitarian crisis in the country; the famine that is expected this year as well. Additionally, the civil war has been raging between the residents of the north and the south of the country for a second year.
Having read the article, I see that there is a golden opportunity to get through to the Somali power to be and to do a meaningful story through an Israeli source. It is a story that has already been told in world newspapers but one that has not yet received television coverage, if only because of the difficulties of foreign TV crews to enter the country and operate there in a way that does not endanger their lives and knowing that the story they will tell will meet accepted journalistic criteria. Without fear and prejudice!
I knew very little then about Somalia, the Horn of Africa, summer 365 days a year, murderous temperatures all year round, an ocean with sharks and pirates, arms smugglers, slave traders & human traffickers.
The Israeli military, economic and political involvement in Africa in those years was routine but the combination of Israeli weapons in a Moslem country that has no relations with Israel, which is dug deep in a civil war with millions of its citizens endangered by malnutrition, a failed medical infrastructure; this deadly combination immediately aroused interest in me both as a journalist and as a human being.
I read an updated UN report for 1991 and realized that it’s a country with seven million inhabitants and a national product of about $ 80 per person per year, a country with half the population being children under the age of 15 with a life expectancy of under fifty years per person. Most of them are women, men, and children whose only sin is asking for food to live another day, just to survive one more night. A land whose young sons are mercenaries recruited to the private army of a tribal leader living on his sword, in exchange for a hot meal and self-respect.
I contact the Israeli journalist who published the article in “Ha’olam-Ha’Ze" and after hearing my request, he opens his phone book and gives me the name and phone number in Nairobi, Kenya, of Muhammad a local contact. "Tell him”,," he says "that Eli has given you the number and he will help you with what is needed."
Somalia is a land-dependent on the grace of the Creator to give them rain when they need it, more than that they don’t need but the God of Africa is uncooperative. There is no agriculture now, wheat will no longer grow in their fields this year, nor legumes, nor other protein substitutes. Nothing grows there, which leaves millions suffering from malnutrition, underweight, hungry, in existential fear, and at the mercy of the international community, refugee aid organizations, and the United Nations.
A population which lives through continuous trauma. Whole families wiped out and those remaining unable to carry their own body weight, even if it is only 13 kilos like the girl we met in the refugee camp behind our "villa" in Mogadishu, in November 1992, when we first arrived.
"Selling" the story to our foreign news editor in New York is a breeze. The stories of starvation in Somalia are already appearing in the New York Times as well as in all the other leading newspapers that decide the agenda and media discourse. Somalia is not an easy country to enter, much less to develop connections and much less to buy the trust of those who rule the capital and who can ensure our security if we arrive. The fact that we are coming with a key contact already, thanks to my Israeli passport, makes it easier for the system in New York to confirm the story. We begin to get organized for the departure.
A couple or three phone calls to Nairobi, the Israeli contact, and the Somali contact in Kenya can guarantee that we enter safely but, more importantly - that we can leave safely and tell the story as we think it should be told - as we know it should be told and make sure that Martin, my correspondent, doesn’t get lost on the journey. We depart on a flight to London and from there to Nairobi.
This is my first time in Africa and great excitement. Aside from this, I am extremely apprehensive. Based on an article in a shady Israeli weekly magazine and two or three phone calls with a contact person in Nairobi, I have brought Martin the correspondent, a cameraman, and the sound tech here. I hope we won’t be betrayed. Hopefully, they will not endanger us, the trip will be short and we will be able to get the story we want to tell. Yes, it’s a kind of make or break, win or lose.
We are checking into the Hilton in Nairobi, and I call Muhammad, the contact I spoke with from Israel. A woman on the other end of the line answers in broken English and explains that Muhammad is not home and asks me to call later. In the evening Muhammad answers and we arrange to meet the next day for coffee at his offices in the city center near the big market.
In the morning, with coffee, we meet Muhammad - an impressive man who smiles and greets us in Hebrew. “Hello and good morning”, a small vocabulary he learned from fellow Israeli guys, he explains. He will be happy to drop us over the border during a flight of about an hour and a bit when he takes groceries, packages, and other mail to his depot there. He flies in, in a small plane, once a day. The local ruler will provide us with accommodation in one of the alleyways near the main street of the “prestigious” neighborhood, where the fortress of Muhammad Fara Aidid is located. He has already spoken to whoever is needed and one of the ruler's assistants will pick us up with his men from the airport and bring us to the "safe house", he is also the one who will take care of all our needs. “Sounds good”, says Martin. We say goodbye to Muhammad, and he promises to update us about the flight date the next day.
We meet again with Muhammad, this time at the small airport in the suburbs of Nairobi, the next day at noon. We are carrying our gear (camera equipment and sound) and Muhammad arrives at the twin-engine plane with his van, takes out four jute bags, and loads them into the Cessna’s small cargo hold. It is only later that we discover that the sacks loaded on the small plane are laden with " Khat or qat” plants on which the locals chew, holding it in their mouths to exhaust the active ingredients: substances that "do good" to the guys at Mogadishu.
Somalia, we understand very quickly, is a tough place at any given hour, but becomes even more dangerous each day in late afternoon when the " Khat or qat " that the guys chew on regularly, intensifies and causes its consumers to become aggressive and fearless. These guys are the ones you want on your side, young people carrying RPG rocket launchers and driving vans on which heavy machine guns are mounted, mostly remnants of Soviet weapons.
Muhammad's agitation indicates that he's in a hurry to take off. I hold tight to the back of the seat in front of me as the plane shakes as it soars and reaches altitude. The flight path passes over the forests of Kenya, flying over vast expanses of Safari land.
Yellow prairies which alternate with green forests and here is the great river, the Blue Nile? From this height, you can’t see the crocodiles in the river. I will not deny the thoughts that go through my mind are what happens if the plane is forced to make an emergency landing in one of the clearings? This is very far from a safari trip without a doubt ... We cross the border into the airspace of Somalia.
And when you see the shoreline of the Indian Ocean, I imagine the sharks looking up at the Cessna and calculating the chance of winning white meat for dinner ...
The plane circumnavigates the city's international airport and heads towards the fields to land on a kurkar strip prepared in advance as a landing strip for light aircraft. The local ruler controls his dominion with his own people. He doesn’t need government officials to see what he brings in in his planes. The Cessna touches down on the short landing strip, bounces, and stops at the end of the occupied runway... Welcome to Mogadishu! There is no sign and no terminal here, no government Border Inspection.
Coming to a small wooden table with a large parasol beneath it, sits a "clerk" who wants to peek at our passports. He identifies us as having three Israeli passports and one British one.
Having unloaded his treasures from Nairobi in the jute bags, Muhammad calls one of his men on his cell phone and indeed a few minutes later three pickup trucks arrive, each mounted with a machine gun. Standing next to the gun was a young kid who just finished reading this week's Bar- Mitzvah’s Torah portion - and joined the Aidid militia.
"I have arranged a shuttle for you to the city. Ibrahim is your man from here until you leave the country in a week. He will take you to his house, take care of your safety, coordinate your meetings, and accompany you wherever you go. It is very dangerous to walk around here without local security ..." he explains, in unambiguous language. “Get into the middle Toyota”. He asks for the white van. We load our boxes of gear in the back and the four of us get in. Martin is next to the driver and Dubi Yossi and I are in the back. The other two vehicles, one in front and the other behind us are the escort vehicles. Ibrahim drives our crew and we head out into the city with a squeak of tires that raises a cloud of dust from the kurkar track. I look back and see the boy-soldier standing in the back of the pickup truck holding a machine gun - and smiling at us.
At dusk, we enter the main street of the city. I'm ready to peek out the window. Street vendors with wooden stalls on wheels like little huts form a market. There are no shops along the main street. There are armed young men on the street. Almost no women are seen at this time. A local cafe on a street corner and then another on another corner. Low tables, hookahs, chewing gum and I notice everyone has a swollen cheek. Note to self - then ask Ibrahim who is also trying to be a chef, host, security guard, and later a tour guide.
There are no traffic lights in Mogadishu. There are barriers in Mogadishu. Local police. Representatives of the ruling gang by their side. The soldiers are searching for infiltrators from the north of the city, where Aidid's bitter rival holds sway.
We take a sharp turn into an alley, then arrive at a large iron gate that opens like a magic headquarters as we approach the house. The front vehicle stops outside the "villa" as well as the vehicle behind us. Their two vehicles will remain outside to make sure “no body bothers you”, Ibrahim explains with a smile.
Our white Toyota goes inside the wide yard, and the gate closes.
We arrived safely, we met the contact person, he drove us to his house, we put the equipment in the rooms and Ibrahim suggests that we meet again in about an hour for dinner in the big yard. “So far so good” Martin smiles.
The house is large and our wing contains several bedrooms. We place our backpacks each in his own room. We unloaded the equipment in the main room, the "living room," which I will arrange later tonight as an office before we all leave tomorrow morning for a tour of the neighborhood. Martin has already identified a couple of huts made of branches, blankets, and cardboard covered with nylon sheets erected just around the corner. To the left of our villa ...
"Welcome to Somalia" Ibrahim comes out to us in the yard with a large tray with plates on it with a mountain of rice, chicken legs, pitas, and tomatoes cut into quarters.
In the distance, we hear the voice of the muezzin calling for evening prayer. In another corner of the wide courtyard, two of Ibrahim's workers roll up their prayer rugs and come down to kneel in the direction of Mecca. Each of them has an assault rifle that he places next to him, just in case.
We banter about the situation, taking some still photographs for memory. Our first dinner in Somalia.
I guess that there are millions here in Somalia who are not eating chicken or rice tonight.
I ask Ibrahim how it is that the UN and donors' organizations send thousands of tons of food by sea but the people on the streets remain hungry. Ibrahim explains to us that in Mogadishu's port there is enough food stored to feed a million people for a month but because of the gangs’ wars the food is not distributed. The heavy price of this is evident in the hunger seen everywhere in the big city. And what happens at the airport, I ask? “Dozens of planes can land here a day”, he says,” but no aid enters here - Children will continue to die of malnutrition and disease”.
Ibrahim brings the coffee. Black coffee with ginger - that's how he explains drinking coffee in Africa. The coffee is warm and the tingle of the ginger is delicious. Finalizing arrangements and turning off the lights we’re left with the monotonous noise from the generator that supplies electricity to the villa. It’s like a lullaby. With a small V, you can mark the end of a long day... So far so good.
To be continued