Two hours in Somalia
Did you read the security brief? Yep.
So you have a bag with water? Yep. Hat? Yep. Snacks? Yep. Torch? Nah, I figured we didn’t need one, as we’re not staying overnight.
No. The torch is in case you get kidnapped and want to escape when it’s dark.
I was in the Nairobi Trócaire offices getting a briefing for a trip to Somalia the following day. Giving the briefing was Ombretta, a vivacious Italian who carried a knife in her car and laughed in the face of danger. I was glad I was on her side.
Trócaire Somalia was opening an operating theatre at a hospital in the border town of Belet Xawaa and they needed a filmmaker to capture the day. I’d flown up from Zanzibar and after navigating Nairobi’s notorious traffic, found myself in a light-filled office in a lush valley just north of the city centre.
That night I bought a $20 headlamp. It had five settings. I tested the red ‘Nightvision’ option on the way back to my hotel and hoped I wouldn’t need to use it while dodging scrubs and bullets in a midnight escape.
My already dubious survival instincts were completely crushed soon after when I leaned against an electric fence while using Trip Advisor to find somewhere for dinner. I fell asleep hoping the Australian Government had a fund for al-Shabaab-issued ransoms or at worst, that Google Maps would work in Somalia.
The next morning I boarded a chartered flight with two Irish, an Italian, a Kenyan and a Somali. Flying us was Amit, an Indian-Kenyan who learnt to fly in Perth and got his hours up working on shark patrol. Ebola and al-Shabaab meant he was having a quiet year.
After two hours, we dropped below the clouds. Soft red soil stretched out in every direction. The rains had recently arrived and splodges of green shrubs livened the harsh landscape, like dry moss on an iron-rich rock. The border town of Mandera appeared and we landed on the dirt strip, dogs skulking in the bushes between the runway and the rickety wire fence that marked the edge of the airport.
We piled into waiting 4x4s and an army-issued convoy rushed us through the dusty streets of Mandera to Trócaire’s local office, an oasis of tranquilly with cool dark rooms and icy-cold glass bottles of Coke.
After breakfast and security briefings, we made the five-minute drive to the border where a smiling immigration official checked our passports and – with no Somali immigration presence – we walked into Somalia. We were herded into another armed convoy and driven to the hospital, large steel gates rapidly closing behind us as we entered the compound and were engulfed but the safety of the 10-foot perimeter wall.
Two hours later I was in the middle of an interview when our organiser burst in and said we were about to leave. “Give me 5!” I exclaimed, as I wrapped up the interview. This was my fourth interview and I needed to complete it to go with the limited footage I’d shot of the hospital, operating theatre and opening ceremony. As the final question was answered, the organiser rushed back in and we dashed to the vehicle with arms full of equipment. A 4×4 had been hijacked 40km away and there were concerns it was heading for us. Determined to get a shot of myself in Somalia, I grabbed a camera and leaned out the window as we drove out of the compound.
Minutes later we were back at the border and walking back into Kenya. An hour later we lifted off the ground and flew towards Nairobi, leaving an Army cadet who’d been trying to bum a ride with us on the runway.
Somalia. I’d survived.
That night I jumped in a cab to head for dinner with a friend. It was a warm night and the window was slightly down. As I texted my parents to let them know I’d made it out safe, someone reached in and grabbed my phone. My hand instinctively clasped at my phone, my arm was jerked out the window and when I pulled it back into the car, I somehow managed to have my phone still in my hand.
Shaken out of my I’ve-survived-Somalia-and-nothing-can-harm-me mellowness, I wound up my window, put my phone back in my pocket and gazed out into the darkness. The taxi driver apologised repeatedly as we slowly made our way along the jammed streets of Nairobi and deeper into the night.