This post is from Reese’s travels to Somalia. The East African nation has been devastated by factional fighting that has lasted for two decades and has been without a functioning central government since 1991. About 1.5 million of Somalia’s people are internally displaced.
The sun burned my skin through my t-shirt and the ocean wind was relentless. The beautiful white sands were thrown with each gust to batter me inside the bombed-out building that we called home.
I was worn after only two days in the world’s most dangerous city – Mogadishu. Small arms and anti-aircraft fire were the sounds of nature. I’d never been in combat and had only recently fired a weapon, but these blasts quickly became background noise.
Just two days before, I had jumped off the ramp of an IL-76 Russian cargo plane at Mogadishu International Airport. A tall Somali greeted me, loaded my bags into a pick-up truck and carted me off to an abandoned building, sluggishly refurbished.
“It’s not much, but we once lived in tents.” he apologized.
I learned that he had once lived in Canada and the United States and was part of the Somali diaspora, (seemingly more far-reaching than the entire African diaspora). It was comforting that I’d already found someone that had at least known the world from which I came. Now I needed to learn his reality.
“Do you know the AK-47?” he asked as he handed me a rusty Beretta.
“It works the same,” he said, referring to the Beretta. “This is for protection. If the insurgents penetrate the perimeter, take this and hide until real help comes.”
Learning about Death and Tanks
In the morning the boss asked me to return the weapon. I handed it over. He explained that the camp was surrounded by 1,700 African Union troops, and there was no need to worry unless the tanks started up; that had never happened. The tall Somali’s name was Abdulqaadir. I told him that the boss took my gun.
“He’s a retired Marine. Maybe he knows something we don’t.”
“How do you deal with the fact that you can die at any time?” I asked.
“It’s not up to me. Allah decides when you go, and you can only accept.”
I wondered how one could accept death with such indifference.
A week passed and every night our team of eight sat down to watch “24” on DVD. The Somalis sipped tea, browsed the internet, and chewed khat. We watched at least two episodes a night.
Fighting was unusually heavy in the city one night. Some blasts were too close for comfort. I watched for a reaction from the team, but no one seemed to care. I continued to watch Jack Bauer when the next blast sent pieces of the ceiling crashing to the floor of the structure.
The mechanic was sent to switch off the generator.
We sat in complete darkness with only the glow of laptops to fill the void of the night. Each one slowly packed his laptop and tea cup and retired to his room. Suddenly the void was filled by the deep growl of a tank. I missed my Beretta. The tanks sped out of the compound destroying a concrete barrier. The boss had been asleep for an hour.
Since the tanks had first stormed out of the base there had been only twenty minutes of intense fighting, but it was now 3 a.m. and I hadn’t closed my eyes (too busy planning my escape). In reality I was pinched between a violent society and a shark-infested ocean.
“An idle man is a wasted man …”
I awoke in the morning. Life continued: we joked, we argued, we worked as if no one could have died the night before.
It was then that I opened the discussion with Abdulqaadir about why he returned to Somalia.
“Do you think you are here to help Somalia?” he asked.
“I know my personal effort won’t make an immediate impact, but in the long run I guess every bit counts, right?”
“Absolutely not. These warlords disturb lives to make money, and they make too much to stop now. As long as no one intervenes, Somalia will continue this way. They are all rich, but now it comes to power. They could go to Europe or America, anywhere, and be satisfied. But they continue … everyone has his time. It is you and only you that will become your demise.”
He continued, “I don’t want to die here. I am here because there is a job here. I risk my life for my family, but there is no risk really.”
“How is there no risk?”
“The risk would be not to come here. Although mortars pound our camp, insurgents are only a kilometer away, I am providing for my family. An idle man is a wasted man. Everyone, everyday must seek their daily bread, no matter where or how.”
Johnathan Reese is a contractor for a private company that focuses on nation-building, infrastructure and stability worldwide. He has been working in Somalia since 2008.