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.

zed​nel​son​.com

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 número 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.


Relat­ed

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