Borders? An Eejit and Bastard People are seamless — A Tale of Irish and English in the French Foreign Legion in Somalia and Ethiopia

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‘You’re a hard bastard’ — the lilt of an Irish accent cut in to my march up and down rows of women and girls sitting waiting to be registered.

Maybe it is the context that makes me look around as if there is Liffey Water getting to me. We were close to the Ethiopian border in the days before cash transfers and knowledge of population numbers was so nebulous we did not work on percentages of deaths since we simply did not know who was alive in the first place.

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I was working for Concern Worldwide as we, in turn, worked for people who were in dire straits after at least two years of much too much fighting and far too little rain. The idea was to register all women of child-bearing age as a rough gauge to the number of families so we could make a little more scientific delivery of rations for families. Loads of assumptions, average size of family, issues of orphans; fore there were plenty of them, word getting around so all the women were at the registration points on the given day.

I had already been in a few difficult settings before and knew the value of having good people around. Yes, the French Foreign Legion is good. Good at what they do; but I wanted at least a couple of my own team with me for what was to be a very long day. We went to this area as a package, myself and two members of my team, from 60 kilometres up the road. Does not sound far? It was still a two-hour drive even after the US Army Engineers had run a grader blade down the road. Our 1957 Willis Jeep touched 80miles per hour according to the speedometer but we slowed in many, many, places as the potholes were filled with loose soil just disguising the axle breaking qualities of the road.

Next day we travelled toward Yet, a place on the Ethiopian border where we were to register women. With us a Legion troop of 8 men and the captain who wanted to see a bit of country. No water for the women, little water for us; and the workload suddenly became of a size we were all going to struggle under the broiling sun for the day. My Panama hat and a two-litre bottle of water seemed wholly inadequate. The Legionnaires offered me food and extra water. I asked if they were feeding all my team. No, they are different was the response. I did not want to hear this since we were together and we all depended on each other. If they were not to feed and water all my team, then I would take nothing. The tone of the day was set, and, as I walked the lines, made sure we were working as well as we could to have people out of the sun and on with their day, then Legionnaire’s were wondering what the _-_-_-_ they were doing standing, guns at the ready, guarding a bunch of Somalis and some asshole English _-_-_-_ counting women and writing names on cards.

We worked hard, the paper system and issuance of ration cards was new and did not work well. The preparation work poor with little or no shade for the women and definitely no water. We had to start making arrangements as we realised we all were going to be out in the sun through four or five hours and I knew many of the women had been out far longer since their days still contained all the family chores.

So, here I was being a ‘hard bastard’ telling young girls to go home, they would not get a ration card. This is not the act of a ‘hard man’ but, rather a bureaucrat. It was the wider work chasing off men trying to push women and girls back in to the registration, stopping boys with guns from causing trouble gaining the wrath of the Legionnaires and trying to get some sustenance to all involved. We are using a number of key towns as distribution centres and this whole process was to break the misappropriation of food. People were still dying but some men were making money selling food back in to markets. Trouble, violence, was regularly organised to try and stop us from being at distributions.

We were chronically aware of manipulation by the few at the expense of the many. The town where I was based, Huddor, is famous for Mary Robinson, the Irish President having visited. One of her security team stayed after she left and I listened to stories of him running after men stealing from the town distribution site using a big knife to slash open the bags of grain. Things were so desperate, women and children would scramble and fight over the split grains. Things did not improve for months until Mother Nature came to support us NGO types. I hosted the deputy head of World Food Programme. She commented on how little food we had, asking why we were distributing inappropriate food and even bags of grain with rot in. We explained how we had so little and got it out to people with nothing offering support and guidance as best we could to clean and prepare what we had. She was aghast at the setting and how all of us were part of the setting. No two ways about it, I lost weight and gained a thousand yard stare, becoming ‘a hard bastard’.

We were nearing completion of this registration and initial pressure to make points had eased. My team were filling in sheets with names of women and numbers of children — These were the days before we had tablets or mobile phones with linked data entry points so no triangulation to look at how many men had two or three wives, no opportunity to look at the birth records for women who were often treated appallingly.

The Legionnaire with the Irish lilt came to talk to me:

‘Where you from?’ He asked adding a rasp to his singing tone voice

‘England’ I said in a tone reflecting my dehydration

‘I know that you eejit, but where’ He spat

‘Milton Keynes’ I answered

‘Where?’ He asked again

‘Newport Pagnell, a village out toward Olney’ I hissed in exasperation

‘Why didn’t you say that first time? I’m from Bletchley, the lad over there is from out the other side of Cambridge and the corporal back at base was a bar manager in Northampton’

Whoa, this really is a Foreign Legion wearing French insignia and rather reflecting the desperate employment situation of the UK in the 1980s.

I wonder where these guys are now and their views on BREXIT?

Anyhow, pleasantries done on how we both came to be standing in a village near the Ethiopian border, close to Yet Town, Wajit District of Bakool Region in Somalia, I went to see the guys finish the work.

An angry older lady protesting so hard spittle was flying from her as she sought to make her points confronted me. My guys were tired and told her to go away and not bother the boss. I said wait, let us hear what she had to say.

She told us one of the soldiers, a Legionnaire, had taken her wooden milk jug. Had he brought it from her? No, he had taken it waving his gun around so she did not argue. The Legion had mounted up on their vehicle when I arrived to say I wanted the Legionnaire responsible to either pay for the jug or give it back. The captain became involved and when my anger did not abate, he spoke sharp words and the milk jug was kicked to the ground. Not enough, I wanted the man responsible to dismount and take it back. My anger, pumped by emotion, fuelled by the absence of food save for an orange a Legionnaire had given me when we finished, drew a crowd. The captain said he could not do this so I told him to move his men out of the way before Somali guns appeared and we had bloodshed.

I picked up the milk container and returned. My credibility had gone up ten fold with the Somalis, especially the women, although I truly did not think too much about it only seeking to leave an impression since I knew some of the team I had would have to come back. And there would be no well armed and, usually, disciplined French Foreign Legion with them the next time.

The villagers thanked all my team, information was shared and my driver asked if we could go get spare parts for the Jeep. Yes, why not. We parted company with all but one of the villagers. The Legion drove back into Somalia as we went driving into Ethiopia where Siad Barre’s army had advanced and then been repulsed leaving land mines along with carcasses of American and Soviet supplied vehicles. A few detours and we watched the driver and his Spanner Lad, stripping an alternator, carburettor and a couple of other pieces from an upside down wreck. I did not get out of our Jeep wary of whatever caused the wreck to become inverted. We saw landmines but the guys were happy with our guide making sure we did not go where they knew, through bad experiences, land mines and old ordnance lay.

The return to Wajit was a long drive made shorter by the grins of satisfaction on all our faces. We had long since all been stained the same colour as the dirt and dust ingrained us in the open top windshield-less Jeep ploughing bumping and jumping us back to some brackish water to wash with.

Standing after a shower with a French Army beer in my hand, the captain came to speak with me. He appreciated my team’s handling of the situation and explained about the milk jug incident. Being a decent squad, they had stayed together in not pushing the thief of the milk jug forward. So he had the Sergeant do the necessary — the whole squad were on double guard duty for the rest of the week, night guard, day work, filling in for other squads. Discipline was there and when an individual stepped across the line, the line tightened swiftly with action taken.

Justice? In the Legion? What linkages no matter the original nationality — together, as one. In the village? I am sure the lady would have preferred a handful of money for her ‘tourist’ offering. All of us who have worked in these pastoralist areas and come to respect the hard, but benevolent, people have collected the jugs. But do it by fair trade not at the end of a gun barrel.

Power is not about forcing your presence but having the presence to know people respect when force is not used. I never returned to the village, the whole area; but the word of what happened went around, in the Legion as well as through the communities, and we gained respect for our demeanour.

My team did another registration few weeks later and spent a month planning the sites, ensuring shade, water, places to wait, and developed a more involved registration process. The value of having good people around me who were motivated to treat people as people and make a few bold statements for women’s empowerment. We made a few steps, if not strides, as we insisted no men in later distributions and women were empowered enough to act collaboratively when young men attempted to seize goods from distributions. My first time to see blood spurt a metre in the air as even the militia guarding us took up the blade and defended women against such theft. A guy was caught stealing, did not return the clothes and cooking items we had distributed so the militia acted and a large blade sliced across a thigh to stop the misappropriation. We patched up the thief, took him to a MSF clinic and then local justice took its course.

For the registration, Colonel Mawgan handed me Les Ordres de Jour and said, grinning, ‘Monsieur Paul, you are in charge of my battalion for the day’. Yeah right. No repeat of events and we delivered a near flawless exercise. The results were still being used as population figures some five years later when I returned after time in London and laughed as a young consultant told me about the work he had done to base nutritional assessments on. It was our registration.

At the time, there were much more profound repercussions as not only did women come to feel empowered and some in power knew their days of stealing food were now numbered.

The Legion left, the French Marines left and the UN troops who came to replace them were, themselves, replaced. Replaced by us, as we trusted in the local militia far more. No disrespect for the men of Zimbabwe, their government did not support them with proper equipment, paying their wages and so the Zimbabwean contingent was a demotivated bunch smoking weed and chasing chickens to supplement rations.

The militia travelled with us, looked after us as we delivered food, and then non-food items, to their kith and kin. I received further death threats. Still here to write this, paid for the funeral of the first gentleman to point his stubby finger at me and tell me I would not wake to see dawn the next day. May have been a hard bastard but to many I was the nice guy in a team who delivered life saving, life changing, things.

No questions of nationality, no demands to see passports, we were seamless.

The people we fed and sought to support taught me humility, the power to be strong inside, as adversity upon adversity has been thrown at them by nature and man; the Anthropocene, age of mankind, has not been kind to the people in semi arid lands with poor government.

I hope and trust the people we worked for in those days have gone on to savour family and gain a few steps of development.

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Prince Harry and me Captive Circumstances – Who Made Changes

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As the fall out from incarceration commenced to land, then we get the ass covering. Some of it is shameful. I think back to contemplating the death of Diana and her new boyfriend, Dodi Fayed, the manner the Queen was expected to react, the way Blair reacted jumping on the emergent social wave to ride in as the darling of the people championing ‘The People’s Princess’. I was in no mood in the latter months of 1997 to go with the sycophantic or downright unscrupulous use of people and symbols for political ends.

After we drove out of Ferfer leaving behind our captors with no returns from their hostage taking. In fact a net deficit as Ferfer lost its mobile public health support we had provided and the Quelea quelea birds were not going away until they had eaten their fill of sorghum. We sat in Belet Weyn for a day or two. The place had always held a certain charm once we had cleaned up the detritus of a past generation. When I had first arrived, the District Commissioner, the DC as he was known, came to see me in the office cum house. It had served as the expatriate meeting place during the famine response of 1992-94 and hard liquor mixed with the stresses of watching people die led to some nasty graffiti on the walls. I will not repeat, hopefully those responsible feel a shame as to what they wrote or allowed to be written on the walls. I apologised to the DC, we painted the next day, scrubbed the walls, two coats of paint and then painted our map of Belet Weyn District over the top.

The People living in a place have the right to do things that may offend outsiders but the other way around? When I first arrived, the Islamic Courts had worked with the people to clean up rampant lawlessness and what I took to be a rotten bunch of bananas hanging from the triumphal arch at the entrance to the town was in fact a hand chopped from a thief caught in the act of stealing one time too many times. The only amputation I heard of; it sent a message and I certainly savoured walking around parts of town in relative safety during my tenure as a Belet Weyn person.

All those years ago, psychosis was apparent. For all our talk of post traumatic stress disorder, I do not think many of us have the understanding to talk of struggling, suffering, day in day out, season on season as crops succeed or fail, animals fatten for profit or waste away to die or be sold at a pittance where real stressors build. All the difficulties of eking out a living compounded by a decade of conflict. We had sat during our captivity and I listened to the tales of different pieces of fighting. Of living in the bush, or where artillery emplacements had been set on the highlands to lob shells on to the road if opposition sought to resupply along the main road running along the north-eastern side of the Shabelle River.

Now we were leaving. Out to Belet Weyn airstrip now renamed Belet Weyn International Airport after the settlement of a clan militia dispute as to who was going to guard the runway. Guard is a euphemism for collect the payments required to make sure your aircraft came and went without harassment. We, Save the Children, had paid for a runway rebuild for a second time and were the guardians of the HF, high frequency, radio to talk to incoming flights. Our relationships were good with the militia and, following this two-week sojourn courtesy of a rival sub-clan, some of us were seen as having served our apprenticeships for being part of things, for, possibly, being able to understand beyond xenophobic graffiti on expatriate drinking den walls.

The aircraft appeared in the distance coming in long and low, to land at the lowest speed possible. We may have done some repairs but the stones were still big and the runway bumpy, a wrong approach and the landing gear could be ripped off. This was no Somalia experienced pilot. Standard procedure for the experienced was to circle the airstrips first and check all A O K. Instances of commercial flights being held were continuing.

Aircraft down, door opens and out emerges the Save the Children Overseas Director. With a bottle of champagne in his hands. Promptly told by our boss, in very direct language, she did not think this appropriate given the religious, Haram, sensitivities emergent. The champagne was put away, we had a series of introductions and brief conversations as this was the first time for our Overseas Director to be back here in quite sometime. The team said their goodbyes and started to think about some family time as well as getting on with work (in the rest of the region) left aside whilst we were detained to focus on one place.

Then we climbed abroad and the surreal feel continued. The aircraft had little curtains for the windows and the seats were chairs around a table. I swear it was plastic garden furniture bolted to the floor. The aircraft was for medical response and it seems the seats were bolted in quickly. Fresh fruit went down well off the picnic table as we flew to Mandera, Kenya and a fuelling point, before headed down to Nairobi. The relief with the Overseas Director was real and he opened up further as we dropped off people in Mandera to head their way home to Bardera. Bardera, the setting for my first time being held captive, another set of stories.

A driver is at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport to take us home. In those days, I regularly used to drive myself to the airport, leave the keys and the driver would come pick the car. When I returned a week or two later, he would park the car, leave the keys for me to drive myself home. Apologising if it were not in exactly the same spot I had left it the previous week! How things have changed with parking fees and security protocols. This time, he drops me home. I say thanks and arrange pick up time for the next morning. Open my front door, flick the light switch. Nothing happens. One of the neighbouring houses has been turned into an office and the manager looks after my house when I am away. She appears, hands me the spare key, says I mean for locking the fridge (stopping them from drinking the sodas and odd beer) and politely informs me the power was disconnected for non payment five or so days before. Have a great evening she merrily says and waves me a cheery goodbye leaving me to the smell of rotten meat from the freezer.

I think about going to a hotel but fatigue is waving across me. A cold shower; still no shave, and out for a meal with friends. I get asked why I said I would be back a week ago and did not show up. Why I think a scruffy beard is a good fashion statement. How to explain? It is difficult for those around the table to comprehend.

I cannot eat, as the richness of Indian cuisine is too much. I eat a Nan bread, drink a beer, go home to throw up as my stomach balks at the change from Somali Italian to Kenyan Indian.

In the morning, to the office ‘to undertake debrief’ and listen to the black humour aimed at lightening what was for many a tense situation.

Mobile phones had just started to appear and our Overseas Director tells us of how he had to climb to the top of a hill to gain a signal to hear about our capture. What could he do? Do we really give a flying fart? No. He speaks of telephoning our next of kin to tell them of the situation, ‘the situation’. He had called my Father and explained – Paul has been taken hostage. We are doing all we can to gain his release and diplomatic channels are involved. We have ascertained they are all safe. My Father’s response to this fulsome explanation? Thank you, he, meaning me, knew what he was getting in to. Paul is old enough to know better. I am in UK and have a business to run, what do you want me to do about it?

It is this last piece, the question – What do you want me to do about it? – where I chuckle. As I listen to our Overseas Director, who searches for polite words to describe my Father’s taciturn style finally deciding on ‘phlegmatic’. I think how we communicate so much and what does it add? My Dad knew there was nothing to be done, he had also been asked to not go public given internal diplomatic processes were on-going, and there were people more involved, with better competences to follow up. I asked the Director, so what did you expect him to say and do? The Director had to admit, thinking back: You know, your Father was right. My Dad was always a pragmatist, along with being a great entrepreneur, the foundation of being a successful businessman? A further piece for me to take to my MBA.

We were all listless, wanted to be doing something other than talking about who did what in London. A telephone calls comes in and we are told if we want to talk about what happened with the Head of Health, then we could, quickly, go to the airport and meet him before he flew off to London. What the f – – – ? This was Save the Children responding to a hostage, possibly life threatening situation twenty years ago.

A friend, part of the staff health team, went out of her way, and it seems against Save the Children, to call me and offer personal advice. It was not structured, Save the Children still had no structural way of handling this type of situation. She offered advice about clearing the head. I had already sat and written effusively on events. It cleared my mind somewhat as we all moved on. The time with the Overseas Director was embarrassing as none of us talked of our feelings and emotions. Yes, the why was talked on and decisions taken so a repeat of the situation would not happen. But we never debriefed internally and, although the looks and body language spoke of irritation and beyond regarding a debrief not being a debrief, these messages were not read.

After an earlier incident I was involved in, the boss had me go with her to a regional meeting of Save the Children Country Directors. The male chauvinism in the room was palpable toward her – why had she let this happen? I was just the fool who let it happen. Not qualified enough? Lacking experienced enough? I do not know what these guys were thinking toward me but the animosity toward my boss was very apparent. Only two women in the room at the time; how things have changed. For the better and not just to have the ‘right’ number of women, but to open the dialogue required as to how we work and live, experience, these situations.

I took the decision to return to the UK and finish my MBA I had struggled to do online. My Aunt, a lifetime Save the Children supporter who said no flowers donate to Save for her funeral in 1996, had left me the cost of the course fees. One of the country directors, a gentleman who had been through real trauma in Ethiopia, asked why I was leaving? I said enough was enough, time for change. Looking back, I was lost and very much wanting a positive change. My eyes had regained a haunted look reflecting my frustrations. Frustrations with myself, just how little we were impacting the big picture of poverty and destitution in Somalia and across the World in fact. I needed to return and learn and be able to offer up a vision well beyond the thousand-yard stare I had cultivated.

The Nairobi round of meets first as a little more emotion was injected when the British Deputy High Commissioner, Sue Hogwood, invited us to afternoon tea. She had baked cakes, carrot and fruit-cake, made tea in a pot and settled us nicely in her office in Nairobi. Sipping my tea, taking my first bite of the delicious carrot cake, I was not prepared for the lambasting she delivered.

Look at the map behind you! What does it say? Disputed border! What the hell were thinking? I know you wanted to do right by people but….. You have caused us all so much angst. For goodness sake! Don’t do that again!

I had taken Ms Hogwood into Belet Weyn. She was a natural field person exuding knowledge and confidence, putting people at ease where ever she went and who ever she talked with. One young guard did not leave her side as she generated loyalty. When she found out most of his right shoulder blade was missing where the tumbling AK47 bullet had exited destroying bone and muscle, Sue asked what could be done? He was fine, moved on and earning to keep his family. Her compassion shone through, her realism was also there – although we had to draw the line at buying a young camel to put on the aeroplane and fly back to Nairobi! Sue Hogwood continued to be selfless and died in West Africa some years later.

Henley Management School beckoned. Packed, ready to leave when things started to happen. Princess Diana killed as reckless driving to escape the puerile side of glitz saw a premature end to her life. I was gobsmacked and sat reading a newspaper on all going on back in the UK. Postponed my return by a week as the cortege closed the motorway and she was laid to rest not far from my home. It all seemed surreal given what had happened with us all in Somalia and within myself as things came to a culmination for me. A real rollercoaster having been held hostage twice, witnessed a number of people having their lives cut short, leaving people to pick up and go forward without some of the guidance friends and family should offer. I did not even think about debriefing with Save the Children, and was not even asked, as I returned to Buckinghamshire and thought about making myself busy on something completely different.

My opening week at Henley Management School in London for the first full time cohort of the MBA was interesting as we undertook team dynamics. I was realising how so much that had happened stayed with me. We did personality tests and mine was much changed. Cannot happen the psychologist said emphatically. I had brought in the earlier one and he looked, then, asked ‘Where have you been? What have you been doing?’ I explained and received a gobsmacked ‘Gosh’. Ex Royal Air Force people came in to run a team-building day. One guy started to make fun, about engagement and team building. He tried to be chatty about my haircut, my hair had been buzzed short short and he flippantly asked if I had just been released from prison? I was curt, did not realise how harsh my voice could be as I barked an answer watching him recoil. Somalia’s stressful days were still in my system. My sense of teamwork was very different from my fellow course participants arriving from marketing businesses, new product companies and the City of London.

Like it or not, no matter how much formal education we have, sometimes the clichéd statement of life being the great teacher holds wisdom. It is just difficult to realise in life when life is teaching you or simply baiting you. Never recommend being held hostage as means to learn however.

Twenty years on, we are digging through the circumstances of Diana’s death, what happened shaping Harry and William, how crude politicking by Tony Blair detracted from what went on in terms of the collective grief and possibly the first mass social media wave. Harry has spoken passionately about his sentiments and being ‘a Royal’ Inside myself, there was a coldness, a sense of detachment as I returned from being in places where the daily grind of staying alive left little or no time, let alone sentiment, for the social embroidery atop of personal grief.

How does one grieve for an icon?

In this day and age of social media, spin and ‘fluff’, what really is empathy?

Have we come to live in a time, in a way, where all lies are forgiven?

Where saying ‘Sorry’ is enough?

Where actions regularly do not correspond to contrition and learning for having done something to wrong another person?

Life remains cheap when viewed at distance, through a video display or game. Virtual reality, the use of drones to terminate threats, the guided missiles and bombs ‘taking out’ threats but regularly destroying innocent lives directly or indirectly.

Experiencing the loss of liberty changes perspectives. Those with little or nothing to lose but possibly much to gain, be it now or in the rhetoric of the life hereafter, will continue to drive some of us to sanitised engagement with a World becoming more complex. More messy. Being part of this messiness has changed my perspective, savouring reality, wondering how we will live in a World clearly divided.

Removing the remoteness of virtual reality and living real reality shifts how we become the actions behind the words.

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Annus horribilis Release – May you enjoy the Plague of the QueleaQuelea birds

 

By day 10, inevitability has settled across most of us. The guards and the drivers are thinking they do not need to be here. The Queleaquelea birds know they need to be anywhere they can strip the fields of sorghum grain. In the opening days, we had attempted to have the drivers and guards released so at least some of the team would not be caught in the paradoxes now very apparent. At least three members of the team are talking with their own family; offering opportunity for rumours to spread and become the more complex. Pay off the occupiers and let us get back to how things were. The boss even questions whether we should pay the (now nominal) ‘visa’ fee and get back to work.

Later on, after a shower, shave and having had five days back to the routine of work, someone in London asks about our holiday entitlements and quietly makes note contracts cover anti-social hours, what is the phrase? You may be asked to work outside of normal office times to exercise your responsibility in a management level position. Yeah right.

We have already discussed among the team and everyone will be paid for the days we are here. Had taken the first Friday on our trip, now the guys have lost another one to this situation.

Your skin toughens with exposure to the elements; not the least this type of bureaucracy but I allude to standing in the sun and exposed to dry winds blowing across a parched landscape. My Father was the classic example of the ruddy-faced countryman who worked outdoors virtually every day of his life. Add some years in the RAF during World War II moving between Scotland, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent and there is the complexion of a gentleman who has been there and done it. My own complexion has hardened and baking cheap soap into my hair has me feeling I am going on a crash course to catch my Dad. Maybe this will qualify me for the ‘Been there, got caught up and Dumped’ T-Shirt. Not sure this complexion allows me to match my Father’s retort when told of my being held hostage. Sitting on garden furniture hearing this story adds to the strangeness of the setting.

Not that I can see – did not have a mirror throughout this whole experience. Did I miss anything? Did not wash more than my face and hands let alone shave or think of any grooming. I suppose our skins naturally balance to an extent. But what of the simple pleasure of standing under a shower at the end of a day?

We were down to eating for the sake of making sure we kept body and mind together. Talking with other members of the team and simply watching the daily ebb and flow made sure my soul was righteous. By day ten we knew we were to be released. Some time. Another week at least I counselled, better to be pessimistic at the outset to keep feet firmly planted in the dust. Knowing there was to be an end, a decent end, changed the manner body, soul and mind acted together. I felt like shit physically. Mind wise, we all were exercising – thanks to the boss making us think on how to offer support to people. My soul? I was watching the daily grind of people around us. No let up for girls and boys fetching water or attempting to keep the Queleaquelea birds off next year’s food supply. Nothing new for youths touting AK47s and old Russian carbines as they wandered around, posturing and acting as teenaged boys tend to with testosterone starting to surge in nature’s rising. Somehow, despite all the mess, I felt good within myself and yet sad this was the life for so many. For all the grandiose statements; the fact we were managing to do something, the scale of poverty and the lack of resources entailed many would not leave the daily drudgery.

Looking back, here is the basis for so much of the issues we face now. If we cannot make an escape and these people come with all their paraphernalia offering little, then why not take action? Actions have included leaving and becoming the statistic in house girl abuse in The Gulf or migrant rescues in the Mediterranean. Becoming one of the boys fighting the regime changes across Somalia initiated from outside the country; changes invariably perpetuating the status quo. Becoming cannon fodder under this or that nomenclature, fore the intervening generational shift has seen numerous name shifts as we all work, if not fight, for principles far removed from sitting in a dusty town.

There had been people held hostage before us, plenty more since. Many, nowhere near as fortunate as us since I went on to learn about proof of life, where you leave a couple of questions only a nearest and dearest will be able to know you are giving the correct answer. We were released. Many have not lived to savour personal reflections on what was and what can be.

Something often left aside as people talk of the psychosocial effects of being held hostage – the basic acts of passing on waste out of your system. For us, our toilet arrangements were somewhat improved although water had all but disappeared and so the feeling of physical discomfiture was always there. When we were moved, locked up inside a thorn bush compound and padlocked inside a nearly finished wattle and daub hut at night. Maybe an advantage of social responsible law enforcement since we were the first people to occupy this official lock up and so the straight drop pit latrine did not totally overpower the sense of smell.

The majority of the team, knowing the diet, thinking they know the cooking arrangements, decide: may as well as eat camel meat. Alas, Ferfer’s butchery and meat consumption is not the same as Belet Weyn (Belet Weyn means Big Town) and so there are some dodgy stomachs from meat either butchered badly or cooked poorly. We are feeding out militia guards – may as well pay for three or four more portions since we are expected to pay for our own food. The Ethiopian troops have realised just how tight knit the communities are and have walked away leaving us to the pasta, thin tomato paste and camel meat. The pasta always seemed cold no matter the ambient heat headed toward forty degrees centigrade at its peak during the day. Eating so little, eating so much starch, then I did not have to endure the smells of poor sanitation too often.

Bowel movement in the morning, satellite tracking in the early night – the measuring points of the passing days as we eke out our bottle of water each per day.

Day thirteen brought news through our definitely well established information grapevine. We are to be released. Today. There are ‘some pieces of bureaucracy’ to be attended to. I have not seen paper, pen or pencil in the last two weeks and so wondering just what bureaucracy has to be completed. Our two cars, with guns and all, are parked up somewhere, perhaps we are going to be asked to fill out registration forms, undertake vehicular and firearm reliability inspections? Somehow I doubt.

Late afternoon, we are asked to walk back through Ferfer Town to where we were originally held. The pick up truck and 4×4 are driven back, guns still there. The lieutenant comes and makes an attempt to explain why he had been forced to take actions. Through two translators, leading to much interpretation, this all comes through as so much rubbish after his money making scheme broke down and he has come to realise his platoon would be long dead before reinforcements were to reach here if trouble were to materialise. The majority is already shunning his girlfriend and the family seeing no money will take further actions. Sadly misguided, retribution will follow?

The boss has a flash of celebrated temper now we have the car keys. She berates the lieutenant about his quality of decision-making and finishes with a classic along the lines – We are leaving and you are staying. Hoping you rot here and may Quelea quelea birds eat all the crops. A couple of us usher the boss into the 4×4 putting her into the middle of the back seat between us and letting her sound off as we drive away since she is expressing the way all of us are feeling.

We are all in pretty good spirits as we pass a watering hole within walking distance of Ferfer. Looking at the hundreds of camels congregating to drink for the day, I am told this herd belongs to the family of our logistics boss. A dapper man with his trimmed moustache, he swells with pride from the jump seat in the boot of the car as we joke about the situation of having your family’s wealth so neatly walking around the very place where we were suffering from bad meat. The reciprocity of living in arid lands, mutual support, being able to use meagre resources to have maximum returns in terms of survival of the fittest in the cycles of famine and flood now exacerbated by multifaceted conflicts. Conflicts we have all become party to and part of by working here (and a few other places). Conflicts resolved previously through what Professor Lewis described as pastoralist democracy. Such approaches subsumed in Western concepts of peace building and state broader definitions it seems.

This place is harsh and the conditions are hard.

Do unto others as you would be done unto.

There is no hot water in our house and office in Belet Weyn – never bothered to go down the route of this type of luxury. Necessity? The gentleman who looks after the housekeeping organises buckets of hot water for the boss and she disappears to enjoy removing two weeks of grime. Asked if I want the same – I say not to bother, will stand under a shower and scrub, I keep a floor scrubbing brush here for the ends of days I spend in farms along the Shabelle river valley. No way I am going to manage to shave so will go with the flow and feel a sense of rising up from this episode in similar vein to previous episodes: My time with Somalia in soap opera format if not a sudsy soak.

Years before I had been evacuated after shutting down one of the largest feeding operations in southern Somalia. All very melodramatic with Ugandan troops guarding me as I left the operation, standing guard through the travel and transit and ushering me on to an aeroplane. The aircraft kept waiting, one engine turning, door shut, second engine fired up as soon as I get on board, so I would not spend another night in southern Somalia.

Arriving in Nairobi, standing up in clothes I had been travelling in for two days. I had been put in a posh hotel and drew a few looks of bewilderment and bemusement from those in the foyer as I was ushered through. In the bathroom I stripped, put all my clothes in the rubbish bin, showered and shaved. Then sat in a bath, luxuriated in a bath, for an hour or so. I kept this ‘Sudanese’ moustache and when I went down to the foyer, freshly pressed clean clothes smelling of decent aftershave, the person waiting for me refused to go out the door since I looked like a throwback to some bad Seventies American cop show. I would learn my lesson this time; staying hirsute until I could shave properly, no remaining facial hair, and be able to go to a barber I could trust to cut my much-reduced hair atop my head.

The organisation had thought people would come to kill me. Lo and behold, I met some of the people the organisation feared when I went to Belet Weyn. Received warm greetings for doing decent work before. How they made fun of my being held hostage because ‘those people’ are not as hospitable as they are. Security is rarely found in high walls and stand off barriers – Have good people around you and make sure good people are treated very, very, well. Be with them and good people will be with you.

Indiscriminate bombs take out everyone; this is why we have witnessed this form of attack by extremists looking to destroy the goodness inherent in people raised in hard settings. Maybe this leads to some thinking as to why we now see issues elsewhere? We have become too insular? Our socialability has hardened stopping us from having the need for day-to-day reciprocity? Government is not synonymous with good, inclusive governance?

Harsh conditions, hard people who know how to argue with each other, even fight, but always, at the end of the day, live together.

Do unto others as you would be done unto

Back on this release from incarceration: For now, scrubbing rigorously, enjoying food other than pasta and thin tomato sauce and savouring a cold Coca-Cola to make my evening. It is not as if I enjoyed luxury in the office. The place had been a mess, covered in the most appalling racist, xenophobic graffiti. Cockroaches so big I would have asked them to do the renovations if I wanted the damn things crawling over me later on claiming tenancy. I am sure they simply waited for us to stop cleaning so diligently and moved back in. There are some analogies with asymmetric warfare.

The beds were old metal-framed pieces with strung wire stretched inside this. Once rid of the ‘roaches and other infestations (the bed legs used to stand in old shoe polish tins with a drop of paraffin in to offer barriers to pests), I had abandoned the bed to sleep on the floor. A decent locally made mat, the same, thin, mattress but at least some solidity under my back. Ha, inducted into the joys of being held hostage some may say. Now I slept the sleep of the newly released as the majority of the team returned to their families and the boss talked to her partner reassuring him she had suffered no physical hurt.

I realised just how much I was wrapped in the work. Sitting to empty my head into my journal, I began to know change must come for me long before Save the Children, and other NGOs, were to realise the Somalia setting had become extremely dangerous when money, power and influence did not reside in the same people.

The garden furniture in flight to Nairobi. First mobile phone coverage. Finding my electric had been cut off and my digestive system could not cope with rich food. Help? What, change my flight schedule?

Twenty Years on from the Annus horribilis Held Captive – Some People Know. And Care

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By day five we are ticking along nicely. Well, all things are relative and, in the days before near universal cell-phone coverage and the desire to take selfies, then we are settled to the inevitable. We have to wait for people well beyond this dusty little town to decide our futures. There will be no ‘fine’ paid, no retroactive ‘visa’ fee. So, settle, read a book, have loads of conversations about why we are here, both the practical level and going far deeper with some truly existential thinking after evening prayer time with the stars shining through bringing on sleep with the chill of the night.

The boss is an introspective person who announces around night 7 or 8 she can see a satellite. And so, the next evening the militiamen find us all laying out side-by-side as the hour approaches and, lo and behold, we watch this object zoom across the clear night sky. As bright as a star, faster than any aircraft and cutting a straight track across our piece of the sky. We have a new timer set to cut off the heat of the day from the cold of the night.

Apart from exploring the night sky, the boss wants us to have a programme meet. We have virtually the whole team here, will do us good to sit and talk about what we are doing plus come up with new thinking as to how we develop the next steps. Good grace to the people of Ferfer, this dusty town, does not figure highly in the geographic scope of works as we sit down on mats to give one of our days some purpose. It is relaxed and does offer fresh perspective on things. This is not quite the tone I take at the time but the boss is right, we need to use the time to good effect and the practical development of the programming is something we can do together. Maybe a lesson for one meeting of our respective government cabinet meetings – held hostage for week, no washing, basic diet and then sit on mats to talk policy and strategy? I am sure we can get something out of this approach to strategic development.

As I look back there is a sense of pride of acknowledging the team of the time. Quality people who set the basis for Save the Children to still, still, twenty years later, be delivering quality work in this whole region despite the manmade disasters befalling people through these twenty years. They are part of the communities and have stood together as extremist have swept, are sweeping, through the region causing trouble for one and all. I have travelled the region and listened to stories about different places where people have hidden from the tyranny of despots in previous times. The place is one not so rich in farming land but one blessed by people who will stand for what is right. Will stand in support of each other when crises have hit. When crises continue to hit as regional politics generates more conflict and climate change (maybe not a reality in Washington DC but a definite issue in these semi-arid lands dependent on climatic cycles).

Beyond debating, no paper, no flipcharts and definitely no Powerpoint, how we build the programming, there are practical matters. Standing up in the same clothes been in now for best part of ten days brings home some of the little comforts and cares we take for granted. I have been given a ma’awiis, the Somali version of the sarong David Beckham made famous ‘for wearing a skirt’. It is my blanket for the night and my sitting-around-staying-calm-can-we-get-out-of-here garb for the daytime.

With a three-litre oil cooking oil plastic container, top cut open so one can pour, as the washing tool and water-rationing guide. I have a bar of soap and decide to try and have a decent wash one morning before people rise for prayers. Little bit of water, lather up across my upper body and round other parts where sweat congregates, I then find a major problem. Even with the extra three litres of water I manage to gain at 4:30 in the morning, getting the soap out of my hair is a real problem. I am destined to have a coat in the hair of my arms and chest for the remainder of the time we are being held. At least the soap is fairly mild, but the hardness of the water means it just cannot lift all of it out of my hair.

The guys are making fun of me by this time saying I look like a cut price Arab trader come to buy camels; at cut prices, everything on the cheap including, it seems, sleeping rough and not washing. This is the team spirit we had and now solidified as we share every waking and sleeping minute with each other. Yes, escape to your dreams from this nightmare but open your eyes and we are back together. Together.

Our Belet Weyn team have organised a Coca Cola supply – warm and flat – for the boss. Being practical, we have a debate as to how long we are to be here. Three days, send warm clothes as we are headed to Addis. A week, then the message will come for the Ethiopian Army to release us ‘from the clutches of the Somali militia who are holding us’.

Yes, stories developing as people start to cover their positions as the Irish Times runs a front-page story about an Irish aid worker being held hostage. Meanwhile the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office are reading it differently and want a softly, softly, approach working with the Ethiopian Government to have us released from our transgressions; in essence making us prisoners of a bone fide state and having us say we broke (Ethiopian) law. This latter course is not on and we later find there are power plays and blame game manoeuvres going on as we become the collateral in some damage limitation and point scoring between people wanting profile and institutions needing the right kind of news.

I am kicking stones around as we have organised our own version of petanque when an Ethiopian soldier comes to talk. A few words of English add to the communication and I am asked if I am going to play football in the evening. Ah, now we have read the Stockholm syndrome pieces and here the playing out of changing roles comes through. Having stuck my body hair together into a soap induced matted mess, I bargain – yes, will come play football; if you organise water enough for all to wash and some privacy for the boss. This is beyond this conscript’s capabilities. In fact, given the parlous state of any water supply, it is beyond anyone’s ability in the town. We continue developing our stone petanque and amble over to watch the football come the late evening.

All this is getting too much for the lieutenant and he must have heard the reports of the local militia’s offer to come fetch us back ‘home’ to Belet Weyn. His troops may be in uniform but they would be no matches for battle-hardened militia who are possibly better equipped and certainly better motivated. We have already turned down the offer from the militia head to come fetch us but the lieutenant is worried so we are moved to a thorn enclosure at the northern end of the town, almost in Ethiopia proper and a decent kilometre from how the border is nominally shown when we arrived.

fullsizeoutput_53eThe watching of the satellite continues, the routine of eating spaghetti, with the bit of tomato paste sauce for the one meal of the day is there. We swap books and stories. Strange books being read Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, lucky not in a depressed mood! A copy of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting is floating around. Getting people to read out loud the Scottish vernacular conversations in Trainspotting keeps us amused for a few hours. Then there is a panic attack the lieutenant or his crony will come saying this is all subversive culture rather than a signpost to the parlous state of our own wellbeing back on the British Isles. A touch of paranoia comes in as some are over thinking. Trainspotting is disappeared into the pit latrine – visions of Spud going down the disgusting toilet after his fix raise a chuckle but I will be hanged if I try to explain the comedy of this to the rest of the people in Ferfer.

We know the end game has started and now it is a matter of making sure egos are not bruised and we can quietly go back to work without there being any grandstanding and point proving may yet cause harm to us. The heavy machine did not fire the first night and we cannot be disappeared now for sure; but tempers flare and guns can too easily slip from safety to rapid fire. Let us have damage limitation and salved egos on a mistaken visa fee issue rather than some people trying to justify accidental shootings of us Save the Children people.

 

Release, responsibilities, repercussions and flying back to Kenya on garden furniture

Annus horribilis Held Captive – Who Knows? Who Cares?

 

IMG_2498As the dawn swiftly became a blistering hot day, practical matters were overtaking us. Here we were being held hostage in a small town where we were also busy trying to stop the spread of water borne diseases, not least cholera. Finding a drink of clean water was there as a task for one and all. Reinforces the issues encountered any number of times with regard to living in different places and coming to terms with adaptation to what is considered normal.

I am pretty sure Princess Diana was not thinking about the same things as us as she sipped a glass of Moet champagne somewhere with Emad El-Din Mohamed Abdel Muna’im Al-Fayed; Dodi Fayed. Probably wondering whether she would get a family discount at Harrods if she married into this wannabe British family owning arguably the UK’s most famous shop. We were wondering what we were going to drink. Washing? There had been a small amount of water for people to wash before prayers. No privacy and some toilet arrangements that could just about be considered private. The door provided little blockage to viewing and so we made arrangements for a bit of old cloth and a break down of any social barriers as we talked about our toilet habits. Why? So one person could stand guard when the boss, the only woman in the eleven of us being held, went to use the facilities.

Having cut into the Sabbath in Somalia, we were still in Somalia culturally and according to the old line of demarcation. But, given the absence of any real government, a trained set of guys with guns, the need of everyone to making a living; no one was going to argue this line. A line with absolutely no meaning when it comes to AK47 rules taking precedence over lines drawn on a map by goodness knows who. Hotly disputed lines. Blurred lines as I listen and watch little meetings starting to happen all around us.

Who is doing what to us?

With us?

For us?

Using us?

Exploiting the situation?

Dealing with fall out from our day trip gone wrong?

Intriguing and entertaining, certainly keeps my senses working and making sure the art of management contributes to the science I will learn after these events.

It is the weekend in Kenya where we have one person who is definitely not doing radio checks; her role was finance and admin. Soon to add rations suppler to those deprived of things we thought were necessities and are now definitely viewing as luxuries. Not the least is the boss’ fix of Coca-Cola, her way of gaining a caffeine shot in the mornings. We must be in the real, real, wilds as there is not a bottle of coke in any of the little dukas, shops, along the road.

In London, Save the Children people are enjoying the weekend, as they should. There were no dedicated security personnel and 24/7 coverage twenty years ago in any of our operations. The Save the Children actions and inactions in Somalia mid-90s may well have been the last prompts to change much looking back now. There had been atrocious instances before, we were not alone; however, our lack of structural set up became a cause for concern not wholly taken on board before. I was on my second hostage situation within six months. Not acknowledged by the organization publicly, or even privately to colleagues and me; but for the benefit of the many who have followed to deliver quality for people around the Globe.

No one knows we are being held until Sunday when the boss’ partner phones a few people to ask if anyone has heard from his wife-to-be? A few alarms begin to sound and a fax (remember facsimile transfers?) is picked off a machine in the British High Commission Nairobi stating there may be an issue for Save the Children Somalia. How this piece of reporting happened remains unclear. Possibly our person in Belet Weyn has talked with people and word has filtered through the Somali (and Scottish) network then flagged to a spook somewhere watching things security.

Somali social networks do not truly need Facebook, WhatsApp and all and all. They have been known to check up on people within minutes. Personally I have had someone tell me my potted life history whilst eating goat and rice at the side of a dirt airstrip north of Mogadishu. A couple of calls and things are known; you have been checked out to do business or trust inside a society. In fact, in recent times, as the Internet social media has come up, some have commented the quality of networks has fallen. No longer the ease of trust and reciprocity and capability to triangulate information. Now, simply posting third hand ‘news’, fake or otherwise, is the way. Quantity over quality?

The upshot is, we start hearing, by Monday lunchtime, things are happening and all will be sorted before we smell too bad. Lunchtime, ha! I show my own background and upbringing despite all the time working with different people; many of who dream of three square, or any shaped, meals a day. We were to undertake a grand tour of all the villages of Belet Weyn District and its contiguous areas a month or so later. Doing this in Ramadan made me aware of the discipline and fortitude of people as we abstained during the fasting periods with me sipping water alone showing my own frailty.

Perhaps, the second and third days were the worst. The troop commander had local militiamen in-charge of us and neither they nor us understand what was happening as a figure of US$50,000 materialized as the ‘fine’ to be paid. This was greeted with a quality piece of Anglo-Saxon language of two words. The interpretation took a deal more words but, even in this place, people had seen Sylvester Stallone or some such hero swear and blaze away to get rid of the baddies. Moments were tense, as the relationships were still not settled. AK47s were primed again and flicking the safety catches back on required some more communication traversing language barriers. Emotions were calmed; we sat to eat with our militia guards on the Sunday, second full day of this experience.

You come to notice when a person close to you pushes the AK47 safety catch up from off, to single shot to automatic. Never handled a gun in my life. Never wanted to. And when spending time around people with guns then these feelings are reinforced. I had two guards, militiamen, at different times with the top of the left index finger missing. Both had fallen asleep with their right index finger on the trigger, butt on the ground, and left index finger atop the barrel. Bang, gun fires and off your finger goes pointing a journey into the night sky. If there is a bright side, saves clipping the nail from there on.

We start to hear more of the convoluted, intricate, setting. Some of our guards are extended family of our own team. In fact, we are now at the end of one camel milk supply chain to Belet Weyn town. Some of the team are happy as the transport is cut out, credit extended and camel milk is served for breakfast by day four. Our Finance and Admin person in Belet Weyn has also set up a supply and so clean water arrives. But no one is allowed to leave. The fine is still there to be paid. This becomes an attempt to split up the team. It does not work. A unity and loyalty is there.

Our head of programme in Hiraan and myself talk as he takes on the responsibility for not foreseeing this situation. Given the absence of security protocols at an institutional level, then we all realize just how much we work by knowing how the situation is safe or otherwise. Even after later security training, I believe this is still the fundamental.

I would contend institutional security training, the virtual reality of social media making it able to ‘see’ without experiencing fully and take responsibility for your immediate surroundings, has created as many issues as they have resolved. Institutional developments are fantastic and I would not wish my, our, learning curve on anyone. But, perhaps, we displace safety and security, thinking it is a professional undertaking done by others? Does anyone rely on a policeman to stop you from being pickpocketed or mugged? No, it is the social norms and rule of law that provides the environment and your own awareness of how you use your credit card or walk a dark street

By day four we have gotten past the posturing, people are seeing there ain’t gonna be any money and someone is going to get their butt kicked over this. Messages have now been sent through the Ethiopian Army channels as the lieutenant looks to cover his backside. We are to be charged with illegal entry to Ethiopia and sent to Addis Ababa – a good three days travel away and a very different climate from the 35 degree centigrade heat of this place. But wait, this is just talk and no return message has come to tell the lieutenant to act in this way. He is bluffing us and the accommodation price for visas is loose change we can get from our Belet Weyn office. Still the answer is: no money and keep your threats now we are sharing lunch with the militiamen and understanding just how insecure people are feeling.

 

To Come: Day five and forward – making us uncomfortable again. Declining the offer of the Somali clan army chief ‘breaking us out’ and wiping out the thieves targeting ‘his people down the Shabelle River’. Who is the secret policeman in the Save the Children Addis Office? Irish Times, Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Irish Foreign Office

 

Annus Horribilis Revisiting a Day Trip making life decisions Night One

IMG_2619Queen Elizabeth described 1997 as an annus horribilis, horrible year, following the death of Princess Diana and several other events. Events where public relations were rotten adding to the profound feelings of loss people felt about the death of a young icon.

I had postponed my return to the UK as Diana’s cortège took its way up the motorway from London to her family home in Northamptonshire. Sat in Nairobi and then Milton Keynes trying to get my planning sorted to return to school – business school this time.

I felt nothing, never knew the lady. Felt the establishment had played the public relations game around the tragedy of any premature loss of life. Blair’s irreverent comments were self serving “A day like today is not a day for soundbites, we can leave those at home, but I feel the hand of history upon our shoulder with respect to this, I really do.” This reportedly had two of his advisors in ‘fits of giggles’. The patronizing nature comes through and how we, the people, no matter what happens to us, will be story fodder for when the establishment feels the need to switch to the collective as the hand of destiny sweeps across us and responsibility for action may fall on them.

I had decided I would quit my job some three months earlier in this horrible year after a set of events to cause a few moments of consternation culminating, if this is the right word, in being held captive with ten other people for thirteen days. Nothing like living on a plate of cold spaghetti and a bit of tomato paste for a few days to make you appreciate a few of the finer things to be found across this globe. My second time being held in a matter of six months – some friends were making jokes about cancelling trips if Crook was travelling. The joys of negotiating contracts, challenging the powers-that-be skimming more than the cream from the top of the camel’s milk.

Back to the cause of my decision to be sitting reflecting as Princess Diana was laid to rest. Events on a Friday afternoon in May 1997 turned sour when a rogue unit of Ethiopian soldiers stopped us saying we had entered Ethiopia illegally. We would have to pay a fine. The hell we would, we were there to look at the work we, Save the Children, were delivering to forestall the spread of cholera and other water borne diseases across the whole region. The border was not only porous but also moveable; some said it had come at least two kilometers into Somalia according to earlier lines of demarcation set at the time of independence. A good friend told of how he and his Dad stood as flags were raised for independence and said to his son – Not sure which one is yours. People, with their diseases, were moving freely around and we were working to forestall some major public health issues.

Belet Weyn District of Hiraan was subject to regular incursions of the Ethiopian soldiers who were far from the commander’s eyes and busy indulging in their own wheeling and dealing. Addis Ababa was at least two days communication away through the hierarchy, the young lieutenant’s family was far away and his girlfriend in this small town had an axe to grind with the family of one of our guy’s.

The consequences? Time to score some points between family’s draw in the clan and tribal alliances. Make some money on the back of the two white people in the group. It did not seem to matter our teams were in this town on a weekly basis with the work on public health. The fact three of our eleven had Ethiopian citizenship? Counted for nothing – United States Presidents on bank notes were being seen in the eyes of our hosts now turned captors.

Negotiations were not to be undertaken, we were not going to pay ‘a fine’. The consequences of which became we were all to be held. And so the afternoon wore on, turned to evening with the sun slowly sliding down and the temperature swiftly plummeted.

The divisions within our captors became apparent as the day’s warmth ebbed. Dressed and equipped for a three or four hour trip to show the boss our work, now became an uncalled for, unplanned, overnight stay. The boss was a woman, a strong, intelligent and opinionated person who was a woman. I always enjoyed when we met people in power in this type of place and they always insisted on talking toward me. A racist thing in itself since the white guy must be the boss. But when they found the white guy deferred to the woman this caused a few sniggers and comments about the demise of Western civilization. Then, after listening to the boss, they realize not to judge a person by their sex.

The boss is the only woman in the group of eleven and the concerns are there. She is the boss but others in the team know the setting and so we work as a team to ensure all of us stay together and stay safe. The divisions among our captors are apparent as a couple of soldiers donate their mattresses to us to sleep on. Under the clear skies, with stars shining bright and white, the stains and general filth of mattresses some years old are apparent. Laid on dusty floors and the sites of goodness knew what activities, the mattresses and general sleeping arrangements did not inspire a decent night’s sleep.

These are in the days before every last person going anywhere near a conflict has been through all those security training courses and, often, endured a few scenario training exercises where someone shouts, a firecracker goes off and a replica gun is shoved toward you.

We were now living the situation and doing what came naturally to a number of the team who had spent the last decade in conflicts. We arranged ourselves so the boss was in the middle, anyone coming to wish ill on her or any of the team would have to face off with all of us. Solidarity is always to be reinforced in times of crisis.

The cold biting in allied to the initial adrenalin buzz having worn off. A collective decision was made to defer Islamic prayers until we were sure of just what the people with guns wanted from us – we were very aware of people being disappeared for purportedly being ‘religious extremists’. Fatigue took us all into its embrace and fitful sleep was visited.

Sometime around four o’clock in the morning, I woke with a start. I was going to piss myself if I did not get up. The wind was blowing chilling me to the bones and activating my senses. I needed to relieve myself for the first time in what must have been twelve hours. I got up. Where to go?

We were being held at a little hut used by the village elders and the soldiers, a sort of liaison office since the soldiers were, to all intents and purposes, occupying troops. There was no love lost here and we were to find how the lieutenant’s lust for ‘his’ girlfriend was also a play to influence which way guns pointed in power battles in the wider area. I had spent the previous couple weeks travelling around and listened to villagers telling of their irrigation pumps and equipment being taken (Impounded? Stolen? A question of language) at gunpoint by Ethiopian troops.

No torch, only the light of the stars, I walked out onto the road, tarmac all the way to Muster Hill this side of the border, with the intention of crossing to join the camels the other side and mix my waste water with theirs. I had gotten to the crown of the road when I heard a cry ‘Awa, tewe’ or something of this ilk. Whoever it was shouting, then followed the not understood Amharic with Somali ‘ Joogsa’ – not sure grammar and context right but I got the idea. In the stillness of the night, the bolt being pulled back on a heavy machine gun being primed to fire reinforced the shouts. I understood the intent of ‘No, stop’. I stopped, put my hands up and waited. But I needed to pee and so as I heard the conversation from the guard tower on the edge of the village become more relaxed I shuffled the last few steps to the further side of the road and relieved myself. Aaaaah. Standing on the tarmac, peeing into the dust, smelling the bouquet of dust and camel. It is not an unattractive smell, however, it is not going to be promoted beyond even as a scent for camel lover’s to dab behind the ears. It cleans the palette as it assails the nostrils as it is sucked in deeply on feeling the relief of my bladder emptying.

I walked back as my colleagues started to stir. They asked about prayers, should they prayer? Would I offer advice? Go ahead; make sure to keep your Faith and your principles. I already had the feeling we were going to be sitting here for a day or two. And, so as dawn lightened the sky and warmed our bones, our attention turned to some other issues we would face. Not the least the safety and privacy of our boss in the coming hours.

The majority of the team turned toward Mecca and prayed. Interestingly, they were joined immediately by two of our ‘guards’ and we started to see just how things were being manipulated. The feelings of the majority of people in the little town were this being a huge, huge, mistake as this young lady, the girlfriend, manipulated the commander. Got him by the balls and his head followed easily is how it was described perhaps pejoratively by a few of the militia employed around the Ethiopian Army.

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In the days to come: Days before mobile phone coverage. Sharing milk. Spaghetti and tomato sauce. No meat no money. How to organize team building in a hostage setting. Football: its role in breaking down captive captor settings, the universal game and the role of being English. How to wash with without water and the curse of the Quelea quelea bird. Setting time by watching satellites track across the sky. Picnic furniture, grapes and champagne onboard. Establishment BS as assess had to be covered.

 

No Peace without Justice? Stories from Semi Arid Lands

Poverty anywhere is a threat to prosperity everywhere.”

The International Labour Organization’s Declaration of Philadelphia, 1944 states

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As I was standing watching two lads mend the third puncture of the day. A tin, an old half litre paint pot, of glue, some rubber strips from old inner tubes now passed their time running inside tyres. The other pieces lying around with the wheel nuts are: an old screwdriver, a stick for the glue and the inevitable iron bar for levering off the tyre. This is a toolkit when you are driving through the acacia scrub of southern Somalia in a 1950s Willis Jeep in 1993. I am sure newer tools from the Far East may well now replace the old pieces.

With a young gung-ho driver managing to get the Jeep up to 50 or 60 miles per hour, an old Somali Army soldier hanging on to his Kalashnikov AK47 as our guard and the young lad, the Spanner Boy, we were travelling toward a place called el Garas, the town of the Garas tree, in southern Somalia.

Sections of the road were solid rock and we bounced and bumped up and down on our remade seats of blocks of dusty dirty foam with WFP sacks as covers – the owner of the Jeep is nothing but keeping up to date with the latest fashion in humanitarian wear. The tyres are finished and trying to do more than 20mph over these rocky sections drives thorns and sharp rocks through to puncture our journey.

So, we stand around waiting for the glue to go tacky as a crowd of boys miraculously appears from what looked like empty scrubland. Where there is foliage, there are browsing animals. Where there are animals, then members of the family have to safeguard them.

Thinking I am being clever, I get another stick and write in the sand ‘Nabad’ – Peace in Somali.

The crowd has a leader and he asks what the white guy has written.

‘Peace’ he is told by the driver.

The boy may not have an education but he does not lack intelligence as his immediate retort comes strong and purposeful:

‘Why?’

His eyes find mine and he asks the question not just in words but also with a communication well beyond our different mother languages.

I answer, ‘So we can go to school and do different things’.

Again, he comes back fast and with a cutting remark to get past the aid speak bullshit.

‘You think we will see changes if there is peace? No, no peace without us having a share of all the money’.

And what can I, or anyone else, say to this? The fact of the matter is, we are standing on a road between Huddor and el Garas, a places few will find on the map and fewer still will ever get to see. I remembered Gil Scott Heron’s classic ‘The revolution will not be televised’.

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Gil Scott-Heron ‘Work For Peace’

‘If everyone believed in Peace the way they say they do,
we’d have Peace.
The only thing wrong with Peace,
is that you can’t make no money from it.’

The young gentleman summed up the sense of division and the inequity people face. Faced then and face now. I was fortunate in where I was born and the social responsibilities we had during my formative years. The young gentleman was not so fortunate.

I wonder what the intervening quarter century has done for him and his fellow herders? Three severe droughts. Two declared famines. One near perpetual conflict. Is it any wonder we have seen people seek radical and then extreme solutions? The sad fact remains; people have been used.

 

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People, as individuals, have been forgotten. Their absolute numbers quoted but superfluous to on-going rhetoric when, as Scott Heron says, money is to be made. Poverty anywhere is the root of extremism everywhere.

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