We saw the lights come on, one under the nose really bright, cutting through the darkness the all embracing darkness of an African night in the semi-arid lands of Somalia. The darkness had enveloped us in the last half an hour. We heard the four engines roar as the pilot wound them up to get off the ground and head back to Nairobi and a cold beer.
We had three rotations of Hercules, Lockheed C130, in to our dirt strip in Huddor, Bakool, southern Somalia, during the day. Bringing us not food for distribution but boxes, resettlement kits, with a few pieces people half a globe away had decided were necessary if you were going to give up your Red Cross and Concern Worldwide cooked beans and rice served once a day in a wrecked building in the town and head back to your home village. I cannot remember the exact contents of the box. The boxes themselves became part of the staying rather resettling culture we had then.
‘Then’ being mid 1993 as the first substantial rains for a couple of years began to fall across the region and we were going to move people back to their home villages; break the new status quo of people collecting food in the town or having one meal cooked for them. I had an old gentleman come to me, stick his metal plate under my nose and launch a tirade at me. I had come to understand a few words of Somali and when one of my team told the gentleman to ‘clear off’ I said no, translate. The gentleman, plate still stuck under my nose, launched into his piece about he was expected to eat rice and beans and meanwhile the galgal, white man, was eating meat. I quietly explained, I was eating beans the same as him. Lived on rice and beans, along with some greens, for the best part of a year. His eyes burned into mine, seeing the thought processes in my head. We stood looking into each other’s eyes as the translation was made. He may have listened to the words; somehow I sense he was communicating through the sincerity of my actions. He nodded a thank you and went off to find a place to squat in the wrecked building to eat his meal. He asked, we should always ask, was answered. He accepted the truth in my words, in my eyes. We should always answer truthfully and accept the truth.
Now we were repatriating people to their villages where they would find seeds and tools already distributed according to the registration process we had undertaken. I was learning fast in a setting that had nearly brought me to tears some four months previously. A wrecked town, human excrement, shit, laying everywhere along the tracks masquerading as roads; there was no tarmac in any direction for at least 250 kilometres where some pieces of broken road led you back into Baidoa. We were changing cultures – yes, people would plant sorghum but the staples were goats, camels and few cows in between. The majority of these had long since died, feeding mainly the hyenas so emboldened they had even come to stalk people as they stumbled in their starvation. Death was with us and meeting a, even dead, hyena is something else for any of us.
And now we were giving the women of child bearing age, our very unscientific way of trying to determine heads of families and cause just a little bit of change by empowering women, a box with a few pieces of some value in it. We had already lined further distributions to women with food now starting to arrive in a convoy and other supplies of cloth and household utensils appearing in our warehouse. The resettlement boxes were never enough. We took the contents out of the boxes, looked at the kits and made new kits with other things we had made locally – harvest knives – and pieces of clothing for women and children particularly. We had registered well over 10,000 families in a redefined distribution area. This equated to in the region of 70,000 people; when I had arrived, we were attempting to feed over 110,000 people in a 120 plus settlements. People were still dying, some quickly as water was pitifully short and almost always far from clean. Food was still meagre. Other would perish more slowly from the effects of poor water, sanitation, and nutrition.
Three aircraft had flown in, up and until this time we had been receiving supplementary food rations via the air bridge; it just was not enough to sustain life in the region. We also had taken receipt of bolts of cloth, seconds from Manchester, much of which we were handing out to make death shrouds. I had a toe-to-toe dispute with the self-appointed Governor of Bakool, he was a leader within the clan set up and had come to use his position to hoard food when even his near relatives were struggling to keep body and soul together. He wanted to challenge me regarding not having enough white cloth for shrouds. I said to the translator to make sure the Governor was aware he was only translating and these were my words. I then told the Governor before he complained about the colour of shrouds, perhaps he should work with us to have what food we had, distributed better so we did not need shrouds. Needless to say, I received a death threat some days later. Another story.
The first two aircraft had been unloaded in daylight. The third, the light was failing when he circled and came in to land. We had all the doors open – cargo door, the large ramp at the back, had a string of trucks backing up and men throwing boxes out of the Hercules innards on to them. The two crew doors, small doors along the sides of the aircraft, were open and more boxes were headed out. This is where we had a few issues as boxes started to run away; not on their own as cardboard can do many things but, as yet, not grow legs or wings to transport itself. We had French Marines in our sector and seeing these guys deal with thieves is a lesson in how to prosecute with force to ensure the boxes were not lost. I seem to remember we lost a dozen or so out of well over a couple of thousand of these boxes as, even the next day we rounded up boxes. It is something else to see A French Marine go on to a bus and retrieve a cardboard box from a man. The man did not argue. Not bad going.
The pilot, another of the Southern Air Transport brigade, in his nice slow drawl evoking a confidence, asked us to be as quick as we could since he had broken the rules landing as he did. The pilots were some great people who just conjured a belief they had all been in Vietnam or some other hotspots of the previous couple of decades. We had one who flew in and called for the strip to be cleared so he could hit some golf balls. Most of us could only look on disingenuously as the gentleman swung his paunch through a nine iron and hit a few balls across the scrubland. ‘Now I can go tell the boys I driven some golf in Soo-maa-lee-ah!’
Back to this particular evening and the pilot asked me if I can have a car drive up the runway making sure no donkeys were ambling across. The town’s main water wells were on the opposite side of the strip from the town itself – was a constant concern when we were one of the busiest dirt strips on the globe I should think as we had French aircraft supplying a company of Foreign Legion first and then the Marines plus our own flights bringing corn soya blend and dry skimmed milk powder. These supplies were totally impractical since we had no clean water and I was going through the toilet paper to prove all of us were in the same boat – or shithouse.
I climbed in beside Sheik Kuna, a great man who I met again years later after the Rahanwein Resistance Army had been in the wilderness for a couple of years eating what they could from the bush. We greeted with a handshake and a hug and I am sure I could feel every bone in his body. Never a big man, he had lost so much weight his ribs seemed to be auditioning to become a xylophone. We drove gently up the strip looking left and right and shouting at bushes we thought may have been animals. We got to the top and turned the old Mark II LandRover around. Single cab, Sheik Kuna and I sat there on the plastic and sack seats and I told him to flash the lights on the LandRover. The halogens on the C-130 burnt bright, we heard the engines roar and saw the lights coming toward us. I had thought the pilot was going to taxi up to our end and then take off back down the strip; the way he had landed. Nope he was off for the cold beer right away.
Sheik Kuna looked at me and I looked back at him. We were both nervous and dived into the foot well as a 150,000 pounds of aircraft hammered toward us seeking take off speed. I swear I felt the aircraft go over us. The dust of the take-off enveloped us and we were definitely of the same complexion as we wondered whether there were tyre marks across the roof of the LandRover cab. After we had collected our collective breath and Sheik Kuna had given thanks to Allah; my words of exclamation only detract from his sincerity, we drove back down to join the rest of our team. Our senior man, Hassan, said what we had all been thinking – We thought the LandRover had been hit as the Herc hurtled down and then climbed into the night sky. We had disappeared into the dust so even our LandRover’s eyes, the lights, had not pierced the darkness.
We survived to tell stories. Maybe we should have embroidered a bit more as we washed the dust off the old LandRover and said we had to clean the rubber from the Hercules wheels off the LandRover roof. We were dirty; but un-blooded save for some scratches as Sheik Kuna and I dived into the foot well, and with a warehouse of boxes to be given to ladies as they climbed on to buses without seats and trucks without batteries to start them off as they headed back to villages where sorghum could be planted, young goats could be tended and, possibly the next generation could have some hope. Alas, we; Dini, Nuradin, Hassan, Muktar, Tukulush, Sheik Kuna and others, lived to see much hope extinguished. Some of this crew have died, at least one has succumbed to the stressors of life wrought with yet more issues. Many of those we worked with have disappeared to be memories only with their loved ones. Some are still around and may wish to add to this.
We did some great work back then offering some support to those who lived and some dignity to those who died.
And yet, what did we, really, achieve?