First night in Mogadishu, November 1992.
As the small single engine Cessna 208 Caravan descended towards the war-torn heart of Africa, I couldn't help but wonder if I had just ventured into the most perilous assignment of my life...
The Cessna flying across the border into Somali territory November 1992 Photo Credit: Hanani Rapoport
November 1992, I have just returned from another working assignment in Zagreb, a trip to the breaking Yugoslavia. it was great to be home after spending three or four weeks on the road in Croatia, chasing the unfolding story of the Serbian army fighting neighboring Croatia.
The first thing I did the following morning after I took my little girls to school and kindergarten – was to go and get a haircut at the neighborhood barber shop...
I Never thought that a haircut would take me all the way to the most dangerous city in the world – Mogadishu. Nevertheless, that would celebrate my 40th anniversary there.
Noah's barbershop, like any other small neighborhood barbershop, had a pile of old newspaper and women’s magazines to entertain the cliental. I went through the pile as I was waiting for my turn, and in one of these back issues of “Ha’Olam-Ha’Ze” magazine, I read a short story about an Israeli businessman who bought copper wires from Somalia and paid for it with surplus military equipment and ammunition. Somalia, the country that had been dismantled, looted, ravaged, and humiliated sold its infrastructure by weight to the highest bidder. The journalist mentioned the humanitarian crisis in the country, the expected famine again this year, and the civil war that had been raging for over a year between the northern residents and those in the south of the country.
I read the story and immediately understood that this lead would be a golden opportunity to try and reach a good story through the Israeli connection. An important story, one that, although covered in world newspapers, hadn't received television coverage. This was mainly due to the difficulties faced by foreign television crews trying to cross the border into a country with no central government, no diplomatic infrastructure to issue entry visas or working permits for the free press. The lack of stability in the country, the number of different militias each controlling a different piece of land – made it nearly impossible to guarantee the safety of TV journalists. As opposed to a single print reporter travelling on his own – a TV crew would need to move in a large vehicle, with equipment – all which would have made it a “moving duck in a shooting range” for the opposition militia looking to seize an opportunity to make their voice heard or worse – to try and blackmail the Western agency pay ransom or else….
I knew I would have to plan with someone I could trust, to guarantee our safe entrance into the country [… and the departure too] as well as the crew’s ability to operate on the ground without risking our lives. Additionally, I needed assurance that the story could be told without fear."
At that time, I knew very little about Somalia located in the Horn of Africa, a place with a 365-day summer, temperatures to kill all year round, an ocean with sharks and pirates. Arms smugglers, slave traders.
The Israeli military, economic, and political involvement in Africa during those years was something that was relatively common, but the combination of Israeli weapons in a country that had no relations with Israel, deep in a civil war where millions of its citizens were facing life-threatening conditions due to malnutrition, failingmedical infrastructure, and this deadly combination, aroused my interest both as a journalist and as a human being.
I reached out to the Israeli journalist who had published the story and asked him to connect me with the Israeli businessman or even better – with the Somali’s contact person in Mogadishu.
The Israeli colleague who was a senior military affairs correspondent with very strong ties to the Israeli defense establishment was also a friend of my Dad. They both worked previously for the same newspaper… He didn’t think twice and gave me the name and phone number of a local contact in Nairobi, Kenya. He said, "Tell Mohammadthat Eli gave you the number, and he would assist you with what you need."
Somalia, a land dependent on the kindness of the gods to provide rain in its season, needed no more than that, and even that was not forthcoming. There was no agriculture, and the wheat would not grow in their fields that year, nor the sorghum or any other alternative sources of protein. Since nothing that would allowmillions of Somalis suffering from malnutrition, underweight, hunger, and existential fear - grew there, they had to rely on the kindness of the international community, refugee aid organizations, and the United Nations.
A traumatized population, disappearing families, and those left unable to carry the weight of their own bodies, even if it was only 13 kilograms like that girl, we met in the refugee camp behind our villa in Mogadishu in November 1992 when we first arrived.
"Selling" this story to our New York-based editorial office was easy. Stories about hunger in Somalia were already in the “New York Times” and other major newspapers that set the agenda and the media discourse, so they were happy with the opportunity to get a documented testimony on tape with our award-winning bureau correspondent, Martin Fletcher on the Network's flagship Nightly News broadcast.
Somalia was neither a country easy to enter, nor to establish contacts, or acquire the trust of the rulers in Mogadishu, the only people who could guarantee our personal safety once we got there. We have been covering “hot spots” continuously in Yugoslavia for nearly two years by that time. Our executives knew that they could count on us, the “A Team” – and they indeed approved the assignment.
Little did I know, this decision would lead to a series of preparations that felt more like a military operation. The crew and I got the necessary and the additional recommended vaccinations and bought medical supplies; wide range anti-biotic pills, water purifying tablets and anti-mosquitos’ ointment among others. Printed my notes and gave Martin a copy, just in case I lost mine… and of we left for the airport.
Once again, I left behind my two girls and wife, at least this time I could promise the family I would be back in time for Hanukkah candle’s lighting.
We arrived in Nairobi the morning after, exactly one week before my 40th birthday… Checked-in to the local Hilton hotel, and called Mohammad, the contact I had spoken to from Israel. A woman on the other end of the line, speaking broken English, explained that Mohammad was not at home and asked me to call back later. I called back after dinner, and he agreed to meet us in the morning for coffee at his office in the city center near the main market.
The meeting went well and Muhammad who greeted us with "Shalom" and "Boker Tov," a small Hebrew vocabulary he had learned from the Israeli partners he worked with said he would be happy to arrange for us tomorrow morning to fly across the border from Kenya on board his small plane, as well as to secure a safe place for us to stay in Mogadishu, at one of his Somali allies’ guarded compound, off the main street. Mohammad was obviously very close to Mohammad Farah Aideed, the "war lord" whose private forces controlled the Southern part of Mogadishu and all the way to the South of the “horn” shaped geography torn country.
Mohammad said that one of Aideed's "people" would pick us up at the airport and take us to the "safe house".
"Sounds good", Martin said confirming the plan.
The following morning, we met Mohammed again, this time at the small airport on the outskirts of Nairobi. We had our equipment cases with us, and Mohammed was waiting for us already by his single-engine plane.
The Cessna being loaded Nairobi November 1992 Photo Credit: Hanani Rapoport
He loaded four Burlap [Jute] sacks onto the back of the Cessna. It was only later that we discovered that the sacks contained Khat leaves which the Somalis as most of East Africans used to chew on to extract substances that "do good" for the otherwise hopeless people of Mogadishu.
Mohammad started the small aircraft’s engine and begun taxing on the runway, increased the speed as he pulled the stick and took off. I griped the seat in front of me tightly as he ascends and gains altitude. The landscape changes rapidly below us, shifting from vast yellow plains to green forests, and there it was, the great Blue Nile River. From this height, you couldn’t see the crocodiles in the river. The frightening scenario hit me -- What if the plane had to make an emergency landing in some forest clearing? It was a far cry from a safari trip, that was for sure. We crossed into Somali airspace, seeing the coastline of the Indian Ocean, I imagined the sharks looking up at the plane, calculating their chances of a white meat dinner. The plane circled over the city's international airport and veered towards a makeshift runway prepared in advance for light aircrafts. The Cessna raced along the short runway, slowed down, and finally came to a stop at end of the landing strip.
"Welcome to Mogadishu" Mohammad looked at us grinning as we disembark. A small wooden table with a large umbrella was the “official” passport control. The "official" asked to see our passports. He identified the three Israeli passports and the one British passport. Mohammad, who has already off-loaded the treasure he brought from Nairobi in the Juta bags and made a quick phone call. A few minutes later, three Toyota Land Cruisers arrived, each one was driven by a young boy who looks like he just finished reciting the weekly Torah portion at his bar mitzvah, but they were armed to their teeth with AK47 and machine guns, proudly presented it when they discharged from the vehicles.
An older guy approached us as the three gunners were left behind.
"Hello, I am Ibrahim and I'll be your host while you are in Mogadishu. Hop on the middle white SUV, while my guys loaded the equipment cases. I will give you more details once we started driving" He promised.
Once in the car Ibrahim explained to us:
"I would take care of your safety, help you arrange your meetings, and accompany you wherever you go. It’s very dangerous to wander here without local protection..." he summarized the do’s and don’ts.
Our escort a driver & two armed kids with automatic weapons Mogadishu November 1992 Photo Credit: Hanani Rapoport
Ibrahim drove the big car. As we entered the city I peered out of the window, observing the scene. the barren landscape, the oppressive heat, and the bustling streets of Mogadishu. I could not avoid thinking about Noah’s little barbershop back home and the pile of back issues magazines which brought us all into the hottest spot in Africa those days – downtown Mogadishu.
Vendors with wooden stalls on wheels lined the streets in makeshift markets. There were no shops on the main street. Young men armed with guns were scattered about. There were hardly any women in sight at this early afternoon hour. We passed by a local café on a street corner, and another one further down. Low tables law chairs and a couple of hookahs heating or vaporizing with burnt marinating cuts of tobacco placed above the water and covered by pierced foil with hot coals placed on top, and the smoke is drawn through cold water to cool and filter it. coal, smoking either tobacco, hashish or opium. Others were sitting, chewing monotonously, what I found out later were the Khat leaves. There were no traffic lights in Mogadishu, only barriers, local police, and the dominant militias by their side. They were looking for infiltrators from the north of the city, where Aideed’s rival's stronghold lied.
Local market shoppers between the rubbles Mogadishu November 1992 Photo Credit: Hanani Rapoport
We took a turn onto a side street; a large iron gate opened at the bottom like magic as we approach the house. The front car stopped outside the "villa," which in fact was a large compound, as did the car behind us.
The entrance to "our" compound in Mogadishu November 1992 Photo Credit: Hanani Rapoport
“Both vehicles would stay outside the iron fence to make sure no one disturbed you guys” Ibrahim our Jack of all trades explained with a smile.
Our wing had several bedrooms. We each deposited our backpacks in our respective rooms. Our equipment was stored in the central room, which I would make into a makeshift office later that night before going to bed.
Martin has already identified a hundred different story possibilities as he looked around the neighborhood.
"Tomorrow morning, we would go and visit the small tent city which was just to the left of the compound" Martin suggested. "It is a big yard covered with makeshift tents, green nylon sheets, and cardboard boxes. Just to the left of the villa..."
One of the makeshift tents cities
Mogadishu November 1992
Photo Credit: Hanani Rapoport
"Welcome to Somalia," Ibrahim greeted us as he joined us in the courtyard once he parked the SUV in the back of the compound. He carried a large tray loaded with plates of rice, grilled chicken, flatbread, and quartered tomatoes with onion and olive oil.
From a distance, I heard a muezzin calling for the evening prayer to a nearby mosque. The courtyard, lit up with a long line of bright light bulbs on a cable gave the impression of a night on the fairground. On the other side of the large courtyard, I noticed a big humming power generator. Two of Ibrahim's men rolled up their prayer rugs and knelt facing Mecca, the holiest city to the Moslems. Both had their AK47 automatic guns placed next to them, for added security.
We engaged in a conversation with Ibrahim about the food and took some still photographs for the album back home.
Our first dinner in Somalia.
I wonder about the millions here in Somalia who won't eat chicken or rice tonight. I asked Ibrahim how the UN and aid organizations sent thousands of tons of food by sea, yet people in the streets were hungry. Ibrahim explained that the warehouses at the port had enough stored food to feed a million people for a month, but the militias control the warehouses, and the trucks were used by the militias as a bargaining chip despite the heavy price the city's hungry residents paid. And at the airport, I inquire? Dozens of planes could land here every day, he explains, but no assistance comes here. “Pilots are frightened to fly large planes into Mogadishu’s once International airport due to the instability and the lack of central authority, whether it's the police or a trained army. Meanwhile, children continued to die of malnutrition and disease.”
Ibrahim went back and came with the coffee. It was black coffee with ginger –
“That's how we served coffee in East Africa” he said. It was warm, and the kick of ginger was nice. We entered the house for our own “evening prayers” discussed final details to what and where we would go out tomorrow morning. I hooked up the video equipment, prepared a box with raw tapes for the crew to pick up in the morning and headed to my room. The monotonous noise of the generator powering the villa hummed like a lullaby. It has been a long day, but all in all, I could make a note to myself - "So far so good".
To be continued