In December, prior to leaving for the holidays, I was able to make my first trip to the field. The field, in this case, is the country of Somalia. It’s not the first time in my career that field offices I oversee are located in a different country. In Burundi, prior to closing the Rwanda office, I would travel there to visit staff and activities. It’s not easy and there is always a feeling of disconnect between the staff in those offices and the head office. There is a sense that their HQ doesn’t understand and never visits frequently enough – both of which are often true. Something you have to be conscious of and work to improve.
In the case of Somalia, there is no question that I don’t have a solid understanding of the complexities in the country. I’ve spoken to people who have worked there for years and confess that they don’t, and likely ever will, understand the subtleties and complexities of Somalia. The key is to understand enough to do your job. That’s where I am now. I’m cramming as much into my head as possible. I’m picking peoples’ brains about the history, politics, geography, etc. I’m doing my best to travel there as much as time and security will permit. I’m gaining ground but, in addition to being complex, Somalia is constantly changing. The humanitarian situation is rapidly deteriorating. Clan relations evolve. The security situation varies from one day to the next. So it’s also a bit like hitting a moving target.
My trip began by catching a UN plane from Nairobi to Mogadishu. As we were arriving I looked down at the beautiful coastline stretching out as far as the eye could see. I wondered how much different the development would be if it had not been for decades of turmoil.
Upon arrival I made my way through the airport. In fact you don’t really enter a building at all. You go into a covered walkway lined by a blast wall made from massive, stacked cubes of sand. These walls are everywhere in Mogadishu and they are quite effective at absorbing the blast of an explosion, even better than concrete. The latter not only breaks, it can send projectiles of concrete which can add to the damage caused by the bits of explosive matter.
“Immigration” took longer than I anticipated given that so many in the queue were military or diplomatic and didn’t need to fill out paperwork. The air was hot but there was a bit of a breeze blowing through. It felt similar to the air in Dar es Salaam except dryer. Maybe more like southern Idaho in the dead of summer.
Eventually I made it through and my Somali team was waiting for me with an armored vehicle. The airport is basically a fortified town and an impressive one at that. It’s been attacked so many times they pretty much know what they’re doing.
Once through the boom gate, and with two armed escort vehicles, we sped out onto the streets of the city. We decided to go directly to visit our health facilities in internal displacement camps on the outskirts of the city. Prior to our small clinics, these people who have been displaced by conflict and drought had no access to healthcare.
|a tense drive around town|
It was a crazy drive through traffic, dodging goats, carts, people, camels, etc. I won’t going into the details of the visit but it was rather fast and furious. We couldn't stay in any one place longer than just a few minutes.
|visiting the IDP camp|
Within two hours we had done the rounds and were back in our heavily fortified office in the middle of town. I was given a tour and then met with the team. It’s our largest office in the country and they seemed quite organized and competent. In fact one thing that surprised me about the clinics and our office is how normal everything is once you get past all the security stuff. I’m not sure what I was expecting but I was happy to finally get a feel for our key field office and the people that work there.
|a quick stop at the beach...|
|...but not without my new friends|
That evening there was some sporadic gunfire, some off in the distance, some very close. Such things are not foreign to me after six years in Burundi but it's still not pleasant.
The next day there was time for a meeting or two and then it was off to the airport. Getting in the fortified airport compound is a bit more complicated than getting out so we have to give ourselves quite a bit of time. Once in I was able to chat with some of the Burundian military who were working with the international forces guarding the airport. They were happy to find someone who spoke French and knew about their country – another very troubled place.
While I was awaiting the flight I spoke to a guy who was a regular to Mogadishu. He said he’d been making trips over the past two and a half years. I asked if he’d seen a lot of crazy stuff over that period of time. He said not really, that due to the security policy of his government he was not allowed to leave the airport compound – the case for many who travel to Mogadishu. I told him about my crazy trip in less than 48 hours and he said he’d never once done that. I thought about that afterwards and was wondering how that impacts your ability to understand the country you are supporting. Hopefully the security situation will improve so that more people can see the place.
The flight back was not direct to Nairobi. For some reason (it’s been explained to me but I’m still not sure I fully understand) the plane must stop at a town called Wajir in the desert of northwest Kenya. It’s basically in the middle of nowhere. Everyone gets out and the bags are unloaded. You then proceed through customs at an airport the size of a medium-sized house. It seems to be a tremendous waste of time given that when you eventually arrive in Nairobi, they make you go through the documentation check again – as if my documents changed over course of the previous hour. I don’t mind additional security so long as it is done intelligently. I get frustrated by attempts to focus on the appearance of security but don’t really provide any real value-added.
It was a short trip but almost everything about it made it more exhausting than I think any trip I’ve ever taken of the same length. It was good, though, and I surprisingly am looking forward to going back. More than that, though, I was looking forward to heading to see family over the holidays.