War, Famine and Drugs: Behind the Lines in Somalia

November 1992: In a state of mounting anger, frustration and disorientation, Gavin Hills and Zed Nelson head to Somalia.

To celebrate the long-awaited return of The Face, we have selected a stand-out story from each year of our extensive archive, from 1980 to 2004.

Remembered by photographer Zed Nelson

I was working in my darkroom and heard a report on the radio about war and famine in Somalia that had so far been completely ignored by Western media. I remember thinking on the spur of the moment that I should go there. Then I was standing in someone’s kitchen with [writer] Gavin [Hills], and I told him that I was going to go. He said: I’ll come with you.’ At that point, Gavin had been writing in The Face about things like football hooliganism. He’d never done foreign news reporting. But he pitched it to The Face and the Editor said: Yes, do it.’ I remember thinking: Really? For The Face?’ It was an extraordinary trip, starting with Gavin shitting himself – literally – on the aeroplane as we landed. Not because of fear but because of a stomach bug. Then we hitched a ride on a four-seat Cessna into Mogadishu. You landed in the airfield and you were immediately surrounded by young men with guns who demanded money from you as payment for entry. We were both completely inexperienced but well-intentioned. To cut a long story short, Gavin wrote an extraordinary story that was unlike normal foreign reporting: personal and funny and sad and surprising. It cut through all the normal bullshit of news media. It was reaching an audience that this sort of story would never have reached before, and it was handled with respect by the magazine. It started a little template that we continued – after that Gavin and I went to Angola and El Salvador for The Face. It profoundly affected both of us doing that story. It was unlike anything I had ever done, and have done since. The same with Gavin. It was a very unusual situation.” 

Gavin Hills died in 1997. Zed Nelson is an award-winning London-based photographer who has been exhibited and published around the world.

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Like the rest of us, The Face freelancer Gavin Hills watched pictures of Somalia on his TV in a state of mounting anger, frustration and disorientation. Unlike the rest of us, Gavin decided to go see for himself. But the Somalia he experienced first-hand was scarcely more real than the confusion of images available nightly on the TV news.

You are driving down the road when you see a family walking along in front of you. They look tired, so you decide to give them a lift. You pick them up and they sit happily in the back. With them is everything they own: assorted blackened pans, a yellow plastic bowl and three small bags of split peas. They’re a normal family, they’ve walked for days, for miles, seeking relatives they think are still alive and food that is rumoured available. The father limps along because he’s been shot in the leg. The mother bemoans the loss of their cattle to the looters. The five hungry children sit silently, brushing the flies from their faces, stroking their magical eyes at the aliens in the front seats. When the time comes to drop them, you slip them some cash. They depart waving and smiling, trudging onwards to their pathetic parallel universe. Your gunmen return to position on the roof rack, you place your Walkman headphones back on and as The Orb start playing you drive on. A Toyota Land Cruiser, a dusty road, a normal family and another bloody guilt trip down memory lane.

Darkness has a Disneyland. By miles of golden beaches, through lush river valleys, across wondrous plains, lies a fantasy world of plague, war, pestilence and famine. Want to ride through towns of dying children? Want to walk through the city of gunfire? Want to witness live snuff as the bodies drop in the camps of the starving? Cheap holidays in other people’s misery: sweet Somalia. Come now, hear the thunder of hooves on ochre soil. The four horsemen ride!

Body and soul were calm when I first landed in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu. The hungover pilot had swooped then dived kamikaze-like onto a runway covered in armed bushmen. In normal circumstances, I would have been risking the Persil whiteness of my underwear, but a bizarre sense of humour and an overdose of travel sickness had left me in a serene state of mind. This wasn’t real anyway – I had nothing to worry about. This was all too far gone, too trippy, too dreamlike. Too culture-shock clichéd. I was watching a movie or shooting a video. I was in Somalia, sweet Somalia. Here to see the sights and take in the horrors of a world gone crazy. A Third World Westworld; a post-apocalypse country, year zero. A Disneyland of Darkness. An ideal place to choose to live life in the abstract.

Somalia has the dubious merit of being the most screwed-up country in the world. Though country” is a misleading term. It suggests a place with a government, an army, borders, a basketball, that sort of thing. But Somalia is just a fated area on the horn of Africa. A race of people and problems that sit in the continent’s top right-hand corner and spill from the west into Ethiopia, and from the south into Kenya. Somalis are a distinct ethnic race, a cross between Arabs and Africans. Tall, stunning-looking people with straight noses but ebony skin. All from the same tribe, with the same language, they have divided and subdivided into a network of clans. 

It may be screwed now, but for centuries the clans lived a life of pastoral egalitarianism: a have camel, will travel” kind of deal. They drove their herds, sang poetry (Somalia had no written language until 1972), and fought with each other. Two sub-clans would fight over a watering hole. Then perhaps they’d join up and fight another clan over grazing rights. Spears were thrown, then the elders would get together under a tree: brothers would sort things out. Centuries of colonialism by the British, French and Italians did little to affect the Somali lifestyle. When the various colonial powers had raped what they could, they called it a day. In 1960 Somalia, as we know it, was formed. Its flag was a white five-pointed star lost on a sky blue background.

The five points on the star were there to represent the five traditional areas of the Somali race, but of those five areas, only the old British and Italian Somaliland were united. French Somalia became the ridiculously small country/​port of Djibouti. The Ogaden in the west was nicked by Ethiopia years ago and remains in their hands despite a bloody Seventies war. And, to the south, the area that became dubbed the Northern Districts of Kenya is lost to that country despite being full of Somalis. So a potential five-stroke has only ever fired on two cylinders. It didn’t help when, after a military coup in 1969, the only democratic government in Africa was blasted out of office. The man to get Somalia’s number-one job and lead his country down the road of half-baked dictatorial kill your comrades” communism was a certain Siyaad Barre. He misruled for 20-odd years, plundering the national treasury for the benefit of his own clan, the infamous Marchan, and massacring all who were against him. Which, unfortunately, was practically everybody. He got away with it for so long by playing the old Cold War game. First he got big backing from the Russkies, then, when they went sour on him and backed Ethiopia during the Ogaden war, he snuggled up for Western favours. These were soon forthcoming and dollars poured in to prop him up. Pol Pot, Pinochet, Saddam the man, Siyaad Barre: the whole world loves a dictator. Your enemy’s enemy is your bosom buddy.

Over the years, Siyaad played off clan against clan. With the use of a goon squad called the Red Caps, he squashed rebellious rivals and, on occasion, fed them to the crocodiles. At a football match in Mogadishu towards the end of his reign, the crowd booed him. He ordered his troops to open fire. They killed thousands, but the boos weren’t silenced for long. A revolution swept the country in a bloody frenzy.

Over the months that followed, Siyaad, the Marehan, and all the president’s men were slowly driven south out of the country. Driven away in tanks with them went all the wealth: all the dollars, the gold, the gifts. And as they retreated, they destroyed and they murdered. Some they didn’t need to kill. Why waste bullets? Smash the wells, steal the livestock, and leave the land to starve. Siyaad did a thorough job, then retired. He is now rumoured to be living in Zimbabwe on a large cattle farm purchased with his ill-gotten gains. He left Somalia with nothing, save guns and disputes. Somalia rejoiced as one when Siyaad fell. A brief unity – for the corpse of Somalia has many militias. Every clan has its men with guns and scores to settle. Disputes that used to be sorted out with spears are now fought with Kalashnikovs. The campaign to be the new president has been fought for the last two years, and there’s enough weaponry there to keep the bandwagon rolling until well into the next century. Meanwhile, with no means of supporting itself, the nation starves. There are few jobs except that of the soldier. Food aid comes in, and if you’ve got a gun, you eat. Sweet Somalia, and I was standing calm at Mogadishu Airport convinced it wasn’t real.

The airport, and the areas around it, is controlled by the Hawiyidi clan. They were bushmen, camel herders, some had never even seen a town. Then, come the revolution, they did their bit to oust Siyaad and flocked into Mogadishu. Where others had departed, they moved in. With the president gone, the real fun started. Life in the bush is hard, whereas running an airport and playing with guns is a right laugh. Old fire engines lie derelict, joyridden to the point of destruction. Goats graze where the duty-free ought to be. The air traffic control tower has sheets over the windows, someone’s sleeping there now, for Somalia is one big squat. Quick to learn the ways of the world, the bushmen are charging a $100 landing fee, taxes, assorted handling charges, and various departure taxes. They’ve never had it so good. Cash from chaos. Fat chance of them going back to a life of long walks to watering holes.

Staying in Mogadishu, you’ll hear gunfire all the time. I mean all the bloody time, non-stop: rat-a-tat-tat, peoww, crack, bang, ddrrrr, ush-dush. Morning, noon and night, the ambient warfare continues. It’s reassuring to know the city is currently harbouring a ceasefire. A no-man’s-land line separates the city between north and south. To cross from one to the other, you have a choice of two frontline checkpoints, romantically named Banque” and Hotel Guile”. In reality they’re home to a couple of dodgy barricades separated by 100 metres of bomb-blasted street. Old Cinzano signs remain pinned to Swiss cheese walls. Travel north and they lead to the domain of the interim president”, Ali Mahdi, and his loyal band of Abgaal fighters.

Before all these troubles, Mr Mahdi was a hotelier, a wealthy man who could sense the tide was turning. He backed the revolution with cash and became the self-styled interim president”. Since l was travelling with Tony Worthington, the Labour overseas development minister, I had the pleasure of meeting Mr Mahdi. Sad, so very sad, he sits – a small man behind a big important desk inside a shocking pink palace. To his left is a plastic globe, to his right a small Somalian flag perched upright in what appears to be a pen holder. The white five-pointed star is barely visible, the sky blue background has faded. And all around are ministers”, soldiers. and even an official photographer, who records with glee the meeting of such a grand man as Mr Mahdi with the humble servant of a distant court. Mr Mahdi is very pleasant, his ministers very courteous. Mr Worthington is fed flannel but he takes it with the decorum such meetings demand.

Rumours seep from Mr Mahdi’s palace. They say that he is backed by the Mafia, who once laundered money through Mogadishu big time. The Italian connection is strong in town, although Mussolini’s triumphant arches are now riddled with gunshot. Or is he being backed by the Americans? There’s oil up north, and Connoco has been drilling for a piece of the action for some time. The firm wants a deal, and if it’s deals you want, Mr Mahdi is your man. His eyes are sad, his thin moustache covers a quivering lip. He asks Mr Worthington, honoured and distinguished guest sir, for 15,000 UN troops. Mr Mahdi needs them, for without them he will surely die, blood splattered on shocking pink walls. To the south of the city lies his nemesis: General Mohammed Farrah Aideed.

General Aideed’s contribution to the revolution was blood, and lots of it. Aideed led the troops to victory and kept on leading them until only small pockets of Siyaad’s Marehan militia, the Somalia National Front (SNF), were left in the country. He then turned his attention to Mr Mahdi, the pretender president. Aideed is Somalia’s numero uno warlord supremo. He is also clinically insane, twice committed to Western hospitals. He reads poetry to visiting camera crews. A proud Somali who will bow to no one, he leads an alliance of clans and militias called the Somalia National Alliance (SNA). Aideed won’t be happy until he’s president; the country won’t be happy if he is. And while these two fight it out, the people starve and children get shot by mistake.

In North Mogadishu, amid the sand dunes that roll down to the azure of the Indian Ocean, lies the city’s hospital. Converted from one of Siyaad’s hurriedly-built prisons, it stands like a fort of the French Foreign Legion, the Red Cross flag fluttering high. It’s staffed mainly by a Somali medical team who work non-stop for no pay except food (indeed, the majority of aid workers are native Somali). Since the ceasefire, the firing hasn’t ceased and the hospital is taking in more casualties than ever. The looting and shooting leads to hectic crossfire. A rifle fires its projectile over 3km. Bullets fall from the sky, hard-deadly rain picking off the innocent, unsuspecting public.

One packed ward housed nothing but children shot by mistake. Kids like three-year-old Fallis Abdi: caught in the crossfire, her little leg punctured by a bullet, left never to walk again. They call these strays yussif”. Two stories why: some say this is the sound the bullets make as they fall from the sky; others talk of a saint who stalks the streets invisibly, a sniper from Heaven, punishing the people for their evil ways. Fallis will remember the name of Saint Yussif all her hobbling days.

The main source of casualties is the area in and around the port, where the ships dock to deliver cargoes of food aid sent to support the dying people. The organisation Care has the unenviable job of running the port and distributing the food. The only economy worth talking about in the country is food. The new blood, the new gold, the new power is food aid. Care took on the logistical nightmare of unloading and distributing tonne upon tonne of aid, all the time walking a dangerous political tight-rope. There are 14 districts to Mogadishu, and all must get their due – cause if they don’t, you’re gonna get yours.

In the spirit of fairness, Care hires three different crews to help staff the port on consecutive days. Each crew consists of unpackers. Loaders, and technical assistants”. Technical assistance is big business in Mogadishu. Aid workers and the UN found it difficult to explain to the outside world that the only chance of going about their work was to hire gunmen as security, so the term technical assistant” appeared on many an expense sheet. Times are tough and the protection racket is booming. Security ride the streets in technicals”, strange Mad Max machines, cut-down jeeps with large ack-ack guns on the back. Customised hot-rod death machines, they often have a huge 35mm cannon running down the centre, though if they ever fired one of these monsters. the whole kaboosh would immediately self-destruct. Some have even ripped off the missile system from MiG fighters: huge bloody great multi-rocket launchers and the only way you can fire them is by hot-wiring to your battery. Vorsprung durch technical.

And who are these gunmen, these security guards, these technical assistants? Just the local lads, the looters and shooters. A man’s gotta eat. Unless, of course, he opts for an amphetamine diet, which many of them do. Khat is one of the few drugs allowed under Islamic law. A leafy plant, you chew it and it gives a buzz similar to Charlie. Everywhere you go, wide-eyed people are chewing frantically with what looks like the best part of a privet hedge hanging from their mouth. Somalia’s security lies in the hands of coked-up gunmen. Khat isn’t native to Somalia. It’s grown in plantations in northern Kenya. But since the stuff is only potent if chewed within 24 hours of picking, planeloads of it are flown in fresh every day to satisfy the chewing habits of numerous insomniacs. Through war and famine, the only constant import is a narcotic. It’s dangerous down the airport when the khat is flown in. Because of its limited lifespan, it must get to the market as quickly as possible. The price declines as the day goes on. So every time the khat dealers are held up at the airport or at any of the various barricades around town, they’re losing money. When profits are at stake, life is cheap, and killing on khat is the top buzz in town.

As the day draws on, the security keep chewing, the trigger finger gets itchy, and tension rises. Down the port they load up the trucks and pen them in behind giant walls of metal containers. When the trucks are all full and up to 100 prehistoric diesel monsters are revving up en masse, they’ll make a gap in the protective barrier of containers, allowing the trucks to make a run for it to their various locations around town. Outside the port gates are a hundred grabbing hands and a score of hostile guns. I watched once as the convoy left. The gunfire rose from lift music to 160bpm of thumping hardcore. Serious hardcore. Some local racketeers drove up to the departing trucks in their Mad Max-esque technicals”, sprayed the area with all their macho juices, then diverted” seven trucks. The Care coordinators who were standing with me just smiled. No problem?” they mused ironically, mimicking the voices of their workers.

Then the gunfire got really loud and really close. A small local dispute had erupted in addition to the diversion already in progress. A group of gun-toting maimed adults (many with severed limbs, some even in wheelchairs) and a bunch of ragged kids had been caught stealing. They often bunk into the port compound, steal what they can, then hop (or wheel) off home. This is usually tolerated, as these people are often friends or family of the security. But today the security decided to take a stand for justice. Guns were fired, and the motley crew of looters scarpered. One boy in an old Leeds number-11 shirt hid behind me then bolted for freedom, leaving his stolen split peas behind him, shots ringing around his ears. Situation normal: all fucked up!” chirped Carl, a fiery-eyed Care port regular.

Day in, day out, Carl and the rest of the Care crew keep on keeping on. A few days later, three tanks drew up at the port gates and demanded the dues for a clan that felt it wasn’t getting enough. You don’t argue with tanks, so poor Carl and his crew had to hide in the hold of a ship while they waved goodbye to all their fuel supplies and 500 tonnes of food aid. Evidently things get even more frisky when a ship docks with any cargo that isn’t the lowest of the low in the food commodity stakes. Recent well-meaning gifts of pasta and mini-hampers signalled a large upswing in the port casualties.

About 200 miles west of Mogadishu lies Baidoa, famine capital of Somalia and policymakers. I voyeured there on several occasions. When you think of famine, you imagine small stick creatures lying lost and alone on an arid landscape. Well, strike that. Picture a town with streets lined with bombed-out villas and gaudily-painted shops. Fill the streets with people and donkeys and a market with stalls stocked with fruits, meats, herbs and hashish. See restaurants where Nike-shirted gunmen lay AK-47s on the table. And picture, behind every brick wall outside every house, thousands upon thousands starving. Camp upon camp of the lowest of humanity, and a graveyard with 200 new arrivals every day. Don’t stumble on the moral implications of restaurants in famine zones – I dined at one. There’s plenty of goods in Harrods in London, but the city’s homeless still go wanting. The first thing you notice in a camp is the sweet smell of human excrement. It fazes you, but you’re not really there, and this isn’t really happening. Then you hear the coughing. Everybody is coughing, great guttural slices echoing in bird-cage torsos. Thatched with discarded plastic, rags and cardboard, small dome-shaped thorn huts house skin-and-bone people. Eyes stare in hope at you. Mothers drag dying children and hang them up in front of you.

I found that particularly hard. They wanted food and medicine; all I had was a pen and notebook and the sense that I was somewhere else. Fine time to be trippy. I went through the journalistic motions, pen in hand, recording so many sad, sad, stories about families who’d walked for days from villages looted and destroyed. Of lost brothers, sister, mothers, father, and children, so many children. And while I wrote, the kids that walk in the camp, the ones with the strength to play, made zip-guns from wood and coat hanger wire.

Big smiles came on the gunmen’s faces and they started to body pop to the music”

Over the weeks, I travelled on through Somalia and northern Kenya feeling dazed, as if I was viewing life through television news. While I was there. I heard the United Nations talk a solution, and watched while America took the lead”. I flew with the US Air Force and watched as they shipped a bit of aid, to a few people, in an area only slightly affected by the whole sorry story. But things are seen to be done” and the world’s attention drifts elsewhere. Aid is a strange, complex, often perverted affair. Free food to an area not at death’s door, and you can bankrupt the local economy and condemn it to a future of reliance. Set out on a mission of mercy to a centre of despair, and you may give false hope to thousands who hear of your good work and flock in, flooding the area with just too many people, too many problems. All the aid organisations can do in such a minefield of ills is try the best they know at a price they can afford. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. At best, consciences are cleared; at worst, colonial empires are rebuilt.

The second time I flew to Mogadishu I had chronic diarrhoea. A common complaint in Somalia, though I had the reassuring knowledge that I wasn’t shitting out my only meal of the week. I was travelling in a small five-seater plane with no lavatory. An hour from landing, I really had to go. I clenched, and I clenched, and I dug my nails into the arm-rests and bit my lip, and I prepared a plastic bag in case the dam burst. I held on until landing, whereupon I sprinted past the gibbering bushmen and their stupid little guns and squatted just off the main runway. I was finally getting a sense of reality. Life is cheap and a good crap’s worth it!

It wasn’t just my bowels that rocketed me back to reality. Towards the end of my visit, it became apparent that Somalia had become big news. Press packed themselves into the safe house of the UN compound. They draped camera cables ten feet out of the gates, past an entrepreneurial souvenir seller to the foot of some makeshift thorn huts. Thus live pieces-to-camera from ravaged sweet Somalia could be done with an authentic background, yet all within spitting distance of sanctuary. What a circus, and what naughty boys and girls. Trolleys look too new in the hospitals? Make them put the old ones back! Missed a burial? We’II get them to dig up the corpse and do it all again for prime-time! You can get somebody shot for six dollars in that city. I should have spent a grand.

Things get real when people you’ve talked to, people you’ve photographed, people with whom you’ve shared some brief bond of human contact and returned to see again, don’t get better – only worse. Families visited start dwindling in numbers, friendly fathers become corpses, and sons stare with soulless eyes. You give your peanuts, you give your Jaffa Cakes, and you pass your last flapjack. Your rucksack now empty, you find ways to pass cash without causing a commotion.

At one point, I found myself helping distribute high-protein food biscuits in an emergency care feeding centre. As instructed, I gave two biscuits each to the hungry hordes. They sat in line after line, carpeting the ground with their feeble bodies, hands pointing skyward in desperate anticipation. A grabbing sea of hands, and me treading carefully as every step I took seemed to plant my great Adidas-clad foot on someone’s brittle bones. I definitely did more harm than good. Men stole food from the mouths of children. I hit one or two. Firm slap on skeletal face.

This was humankind at survival level and people pushed, shoved and cheated for that little edge that meant they’d live another day. Don’t make judgements. Don’t think you’d stay noble. Stay noble and you die.

On the last journey of my trip (the one to the big fat Red Cross Hercules that was going to fly us the hell out of there), we broke down. On a long road that stretched straight to the horizon in both directions, in the middle of the bush, in the heart of bandit country, the front axle went. While the driver got out his toolkit, our technical assistants took up anti-ambush” positions either side of the road. Sitting on the road with my photographer friend, I tuned my radio into the World Service. It was then that my brief sense of reality departed once again. The World Service has a programme that explains the lyrics of pop songs to an African audience. Today it was Rhythm Is A Dancer. I kid you not. Rhythm is a dancer!” spoke the Beeb in Beebspeak, And how serious is it? Well, let’s listen”. The music thumps onwards. Yes! It’s very serious. In fact, it’s as serious as cancer!” After various more explanations, they played the track fully, and I finally entered the twilight zone. The gunmen protecting us (gun boys, actually) stuck their heads out of the bushes. Big smiles came on their faces and they started to body pop. Guns in hand, grins on face, jacking warehouse style. I got up off the road and swung my funky hips. Sweet, surreal Somalia. And how serious is it? It’s as serious as cancer!

Now here’s the deal. I’m not a doctor, I’m not an aid worker. I’m a journalist. The only excuse for seeing such sights is to tell the world. But the truth is, the world already knows. We know the horrors that are out there, we know of hunger, pain, and misery. We know of Auschwitz, of Nagasaki, of Pol Pot, of Bosnia, and now Somalia. Yet we hide from it, and pain remains a jilted lover or a pranged car. We know right and wrong: do we give a shit or not? We must, we have no excuses, we have the luxury to love and care. It is wrong that people starve and fear the bullet of a predator’s gun. We must give a shit. In the dark Disneyland of Somalia, Mickey Mouse militias are creating the hell of fear and famine. We as nations, as united nations, have the power to enforce right from wrong. We must give our power, give our gold, give our blood, give a shit. You see, it’s all still going on. Every day, every minute of our civilised lives, the apocalypse is continuing. And unless the powers-that-be jolt from being seen to do something” to actually doing something, we may all end up sleepwalking through the gates of Hell.

I’ll get down off the cross now: they need it for firewood.


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