Running the Gauntlet in Mogadishu.

Running the Gauntlet in Mogadishu.
A newspaper article I wrote in January 1993 for the Cape Times in South Africa.

A burst of small-arms fire. I turned Fleetwood Mac down a bit and waited for the answering shell to explode. It burst through Christine McVie’s Songbird. Cape Town’s Sea Point on a bad Saturday night had nothing on downtown Mogadishu in Somalia, East Africa.

The M.V. Esbjerg was a ship chartered by Red Cross and built nearly thirty years ago. Tied loosely against the dock wall she’s jumpy, just like the crew. We just wanted to get the hell out. Up to three times a month, we would bring relief supplies to war-torn Somalia from Mombasa. Rice, beans, cooking oil, medical supplies as well as a hundred cases of beer for the Red Cross workers. They deserved it. Mostly, though, the beer goes in bribes to the local and devout Moslem local mafia Moslem port authority who are corrupt beyond compare. They extort money from the local workforce in return for work permits and then control and supervise the looting with rifle butts.

Then, of course, there are the Red Cross workers. They are shot regularly and if still alive taken to hospital by friends. The doctors and nurses live and work under appalling conditions. The ship’s medical locker is opened and morphine, bandages and various pills are sent. The hospital has no supplies; they were looted a long time ago.

The Somalian women, old before their time, come down to the ship carrying babies when it gets dark. They come to sift through the dirt and dust for grains of rice that are left on the quayside after the ship has discharged its cargo. Never mind the probability of rape or indiscriminate shooting, it’s worth the gamble.

The bodies that float past the ship once or twice a day causes a fit of frenzy. The body is dragged out and stripped of whatever clothing remains. These garments are sold to the highest bidder in the marketplace. The bullet holes are taken for granted.

The marketplace includes the ship. Traders line the vessel’s side, selling looted luxury cars, fax machines, video cameras, watches, freezers and microwave ovens. The temptation to buy is high but an hour later a boy of ten could hold you up with an AK47 and demand it back. You don’t argue.

I look out of my porthole and watch one of the many armed militia masquerading as port officials shooting their rifles. The direction of aim varies according to the amount of alcohol drunk or ‘dagga’ smoked. They have one thing in common, these trigger happy brigands, not uniform or age, not really any allegiance to any particular warlord or military unit. Just regular flip-flops on their feet. Boys of ten are deemed old enough- if they are big enough to carry an AK47 for looting and killing.

An Arab dhow crept into the harbour a few days ago to take away Arab refugees. Men women and children crowded on board. The vessel was shelled and the bows were blown off. Those who lived jumped overboard and tried to swim to safety. Safety to them was the shark infested sea. None made it- they were all shot before they got half way across the harbour.

Perhaps it would have done some good to have had a United Nations observer on our ship. Mixing with American captain Chris Ross, Pakistani Mate Hussain and a crew from all over Africa. I was the Chief Engineer, a Brit now living in Cape Town.
The Red Cross boys and girls on the ground in Somalia are magnificent. Don’t ask them, though, what they think of all the armchair opinion that spouts from so-called ‘”do gooders”. Don’t ask what they think of African politics and don’t even think of asking them what the solutions are. It’s unprintable.

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5 comments on “Running the Gauntlet in Mogadishu.

  1. syentumi says:

    Reminiscent of another place and time, Chris, when I observed from the other side of the pond in dismay; and you, in the middle of the strife, so succinctly depicted the tragedy before you in the rescue attempts to save victims from a never ending cycle of corruption and violation of all humanity. Brilliant writing!

    • Dear Shari, It seems such a long time ago and I hadn’t read it for years. Then Mahnaz’s post about ‘burning fire for fledgeling writers’ struck a chord, I looked it up and qwerted it out. A few days after we left Mogadishu for the last time taking as many Red Cross people off as possible America invaded the country and the ‘Black Hawk Down’ incident happened. Our American Captain, Chris Ross, an ex-Vietnam vet was a very good bloke and we knocked around for a while afterwards and we had many a pint of ‘old and filthy’ in Mombasa. I met Larissa (The memsahib) there and she looked after us, we were in a pretty bad state. She was an ex-pat Russian pharmacist and owned quite a big clinic. Chris went back to the States and Larissa and I buggered off to South Africa with her husband in hot pursuit. (but that’s another story) We eventually got married and had a few more adventures before retiring from the world and settling back here on the side of a mountain in the U.K.
      Lots of luv
      Chris

      • syentumi says:

        What an adventure, my darling friend! Larissa the hearty Pharm Doc rescues the maritime rum, bum and whacky basher! She has my ultimate respect!
        Clink, clink! ;-0

  2. Geoffrey Fox says:

    Wow! Tremendous story, well told. We all want to read more.

    • Dear Geoffrey, Glad you liked my diatribe. Yes, there is more but it all sorts of merges into a maelstrom of madness in an African adventure. Some of the tales, the humorous ones are on this website.The Somalia episode has faded from memory and I only found the press cutting recently whilst going through some old files. I long ago realised that the brain sends bad memories to the re-cycle bin. There is a love story involving the memsahib and my escape from Kenya, with prices on our head. Might write it one day.
      Thanks anyway
      Rgds
      Chris

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