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.