The land of The Living Dead: The Somalia Story.


The city of Baidoa (once an exclusive resort town in the Somalian desert, built by the Italians and once a Mafia stronghold) is now just a pile of rubble with bits of buildings still standing. The last thug to run it, Barre, got kicked out with his army. So, somewhat piqued, he and his henchmen razed the town to rubble simply by systematically blowing it up and murdering a good percentage of the population. He and his cronies then looted the place, destroyed the wells and massacred more people for good measure. He went into hiding somewhere on the Kenyan Border.

Entering the gates of downtown Baidoa from the pot-holed airstrip which was flanked with the vandalised remains of Russian Mig fighters, journalist Peter Olszewski and I were immediately halted by a band of scruffy-looking Africans swathed in belts of heavy-calibre ammunition, grenades, anti-tank mortars and toting every kind of weapon imaginable. More armed figures lurked in the scrub nearby. Which gang they belonged to is anyone's guess.

These guys, we discover to our undisguised relief, are on our side and are our welcoming committee. They also supervise the off-loading of the tonnes of food from the innards of the giant Russian transport aircraft we had just arrived in. Like ants devouring the intestines of a locust the assembled gang of Africans quickly gutted the aircraft of the 50 tonnes of Australian aid contained inside its cavernous interior.

They then clambered onto the roof of our battered 4WD and set up their machine guns. Two more clambered aboard clutching their ever-present Kalashnikovs and peered through bloodshot eyes into the distance. One brute of a bloke was toting a World War One Lewis gun.

We looked down between our legs to discover an anti-tank mortar rolling round on the floor. We rested our feet on it just in case we went round a sharp bend and the pointy end banged against something.

Our convoy dashing through the chaotic streets of Baidoa was pure Hollywood. We all decided it was like driving through the sets of Ghandi, Mad Max, Rambo and Terminator all mixed into one. Except on this set they used real bullets and there is no one to yell CUT!

The town was strewn with wrecked cars, trucks, bits of tanks, and other shattered remains of military hardware and pitiful corpses of the ones who didn't make it through the night. Those once decorous boulevards were also strewn with the decomposing wreckage of a civilisation. Bullet- riddled shanties sheltered starving and terrified people staring aimlessly into space, their eyes devoid of emotion. They squatted or lay prostrate in the dust and unspeakable muck waiting to die. Those that finally succumbed just rolled themselves up in what rags they had left and died on the spot.

That's if they had any rags. Many had eaten their own clothing. Others lay in congealed pools of their own blood � victims of a final bullet and perhaps a merciful release.

Scabby donkeys passed us carting what we thought were a few tree branches but which were actually skeletal and bullet- riddled bodies being carted off to a central point were the dead were collected for disposal.

Meanwhile we rumbled through the crowded streets with horns blaring. Everywhere there were sick people who hadn't got the energy to move. The dust and the stink caught our throats. And everywhere there were guns, guns and more guns. Ten-year-old boys roaming in packs brandishing automatic weapons that were bigger and heavier than they were. They demanded money and cigarettes at the point of a rifle. It's a town where the law was the gun. If you had one you had status and power and were able to threaten and steal. If you didn't then you were nothing. I was watching kids who had a weapon each, only had enough ammunition for one, so they would regularly take it in turns to share the bullets.

We eventually arrived at Care Australia's armed compound. It was once a little hotel with big steel doors to enclose it. Fifteen heavily armed sentries surrounded it. Once inside it was quite peaceful except for the racket made by "The Technicals" randomly firing into the air or at someone they didn't like.

The Technicals (an Italian term derived from the name of an Italian vehicle) were the real bad boys on the block. They were a law unto themselves and cruised the junk-strewn streets in a bizarre fleet of battered trucks, four wheel drives and old military vehicles. All have had the roofs hacked off and heavy calibre weapons welded to them.
One we saw had a jet engine precariously attached to the back of it. They had attacked a grounded Russian Mig fighter and stripped it of its weapons, engines and any other useful bits. We wondered what the hell would happen to the thing if they ever figured out how to fire it up.

Other trucks had a fearsome assortment of anti-tank and anti-aircraft launchers with their missiles attached. Apparently in order to fire one of these things the "Boys" strip a couple of wires and attached them to the truck battery.

As the day wore on The Technicals hurtled up and down the streets garbed in outlandishly comic outfits. Old firemen's helmets, WW1 leather flying helmets, miners' hard hats and a ragged assortment of old military clothing or just plain rags. They chewed Quat (a drug flown in from the Yemen) all day and as the evening wore on the hunger-suppressing and hallucinatory drug would addle their minds as they prowled looking for trouble. You very quickly learned not to engage in eye contact. That was enough of an excuse to wind up very dead.

Later in the evening as we sat locked, relatively safely, in our compound we could hear what we thought was a movie. Sure enough at the back of our compound the
Technicals had rigged up a projector and were watching Schwartzenegger strut his stuff. A sort of macabre drive-in movie. They line humans up in front of the same wall and massacre them like grotesque Hollywood movie extras. They think that this is how the western world lives. Christ knows what would happen if someone showed them a Doris Day movie. I had visions of them donning make up and frilly frocks, humming a few bars from Pillow Talk and then opening fire.
Hollywood has a lot to answer for.

We made our first rather nervous foray out to a feeding station which are little more than areas cleared of rubble and surrounded by a vicious species of thorn bush used as a fence. People also lived under these very spiky bushes as a feeble form of protection.

Care Australia had set up fires with cut-down 44-gallon drums to cook Unimix. Unimix is a kind of porridge.

The sight of hundreds of mothers, their modesty barely contained by rags and clutching dusty and skeletal kids, is a sight that is going to take a long time to fade from this boy's memory.

They sat patiently waiting for a dollop of Unimix to be scooped into their bowls. Mothers tried to wake their babies to feed them only to find that they had died in their arms. Another young woman was crouching in the red dust clutching a tiny bundle of rags. Closer inspection revealed a baby, a few hours old and still attached to the umbilical.
The mother was all of fifteen or sixteen. The baby was fly-blown and dead.

Not only were these poor bastards starving to death, they were also very sick. Tiny shadows of near-naked kids wandered about clutching bits of plastic or old rusty tins looking for food. Some didn't appear to have mothers at all. One little boy, probably about two years old, was staggering about with the inside of its rectum exposed. One kid just squatted in the dust with yellow goo pouring from its backside. One wizened old woman had staggered into the feeding area using the last of her strength to push a battered wheelbarrow. On the barrow was a young boy looking like a survivor of Belsen. She begged for food and a CARE person pulled back the cloth covering the child. The kid was dead.

Other children were blinded by conjunctivitis or had open weeping sores covered in a crust of dried dust with layers of flies clinging to them.
The flies and The Technicals were the only ones in Baidoa who seemed to eat well.
But the good news was that we saw the Aussie tucker get to the mouths of these tragic people. High-protein Arnotts biscuits were handed out to a tribe of people who had just wandered out of the desert. They peered at the biscuits for some time wondering what they were but gradually the kids and then their mothers (always the kids first) began to chew them.

Some of the weaker had to be force fed because they didn't quite know what the biscuit was and because they didn't have the energy to chew it.

We were constantly being followed by the Technicals who were always on the prowl waiting for an unguarded moment so they could steal the food. We were raided at one feeding station where I had my guards for protection but the CARE people weren't around. A heated argument developed between our lot and their lot about how much food they were going to loot. With theatrical timing a CARE lady called M.J. marched into the middle of these yelling Africans and did a rapid bit of oil spilling.

The Technicals were allowed to take a percentage of the food to save face. What ME worried? I thought, 'what the hell am I scared for? M.J., an Australian nurse and a veteran of these human tragedies, all of five feet high, marched straight between the heavily-armed and argumentative bandits and single-handedly calmed them down and a deal was struck. The fact that she had a bloke with a bloody great big machine-gun at her side might have helped a bit but she was still heavily outnumbered.

Strangely enough I slept pretty soundly that night. I spent the night in the blockhouse and my guard was a large, totally silent African. I never knew who he was because he came to bed after me and got up before me. He slept under a shroud. Just outside the rooms where we slept there were unexploded bombs and mines lying in the rubble beneath our windows.

We had to get out of there the next day as we heard that there was a chance of getting on a Hercules that was bringing in a shipment of food. This involved driving round Baidoa with our guards getting the right papers from the Red Cross and countless others from whom we needed signatures. We could have stayed longer but at that stage we had no idea how we were going to get out of Somalia with the stories. CARE came to the party at the end. Through a pretty incredible feat of international logistics, a satellite telephone and despite the Kenyan telephone system we jumped our flight on the Air America (they just had to be CIA) Hercules not without some considerable hassle. We finally got the necessary papers so we threw our gear in the back of our truck and said a quick goodbye and headed off down the mayhem that was Baidoa's main street. We only had our guards with us. All went OK until we reached the roadblock to the airstrip. This is where we were to leave our guards and be handed over to another mob who were supposed to be guaranteeing the safety of the strip. It was a bit of a Mexican stand-off. The shit hit the fan at the roadblock. Our gunners dutifully clambered off the truck and then the local hoodlum who seemed to be in charge started yelling at our driver. For twenty minutes the argument raged. Finally our guards re-boarded the truck. The next thing we knew was that we were heading back to the compound. Someone in the truck spoke rudimentary English and we worked out that the head honcho wanted us to take the roof- rack off that our main armament � a fifty-calibre machine gun � was attached to.

Time was getting scarily short as the Hercules was due to land and they wouldn't hang around, as the Technicals were liable to open fire on them. We got back to the compound where another CARE worker, a stocky little chap called Lochton mounted another heavily-armed four-wheel-drive and went back to the roadblock. I'm not sure what was said or done as Pete and I sat rock-solid in the truck and listened for the sound of the Hercules. I sat there clutching a picture of Lou and Wook (my wife and child) and thought "If I ever get out of this . . . "

The Hercules came and we left for the safety of Mombasa, a two-hour flight away in Kenya. The Americans, in their middle forties, immaculately dressed and laid-back hustled us aboard. There was a sign stuck to the side of the plane. I noticed it when the Yanks thrust cold cokes in our hands. It said . . .

ALL BUTTS, REEFERS, SNUFF AND SPIT IN THE CUP PROVIDED PLEASE SIGNED LEROY . . . CAPTAIN.

We were back in the REAL? World again!