Five things we learnt from Somalia and Operation Linda Nchi

 

Over the last three weeks, I was transformed from reporting from Parliament to reporting from hot, humid and harsh Southern Somalia, where Operation Linda Nchi is taking place.

It has been an interesting and arresting experience, a rapid transformation from consorting with civilians and politicians to constantly being in the company of armed men.

From not knowing much about guns to getting the ability to tell an armoured from an unarmoured vehicle, different types of guns and telling military rank.

On Wednesday, November 2, I was at the media centre in Parliament taking notes about a motion to make the treatment of cancer free when the Daily Nation managing editor called me.

The ME usually does not talk to the reporters directly, as he leaves that to the News Editor, meaning when he does, there is something big he wants done- or there is big trouble over the person he is calling.

Covering Parliament comes with the risk of stepping on the highly sensitive toes of the politicians or rubbing their huge egos the wrong way.

This one time I failed to report on one’s contribution to debate and he wrote the CEO a two-page letter with four of the highlighted Hansard attached.

It was thus a nervous 20-minute walk to the office.

 It turned out that I was being asked to go to Somalia, where the Kenya Defence Forces have been engaged in Operation Linda Nchi. My colleagues and I were the first print journalists to be embedded with the Kenya Defence Forces in the operation we have christened the war with Al Shaabab.

I learnt a few things about Somalia, KDF and reporting about the operation, and I distil five here for your consumption. 

Somalia is a beautiful country

The image of Somalia as a war-torn state has been burned in our minds, courtesy of the images that have come out of that country over the last two decades.

But it is also a beautiful country, I found out during the short time I spent there.

Inland Somalia is typically a wilderness of short hard thorn trees with rough roads that would require four-wheel-drive vehicles to negotiate.

But Somalia has nice unspoilt beaches along its long coast- one of the longest in Africa- which are bordered by the azure alluring waters of the sea.

In places like Ras Kamboni and Bur Gabo, the thought that kept springing to my mind involved beach hotels selling fresh lobster and the tasty red snapper.

It is sad that all this has been going to waste because of all the fighting.

The fighting is not about to end

Last Thursday, we went to record the first distribution of relief food to the residents of Ras Kamboni by the Kenya Defence Forces.

The distribution was to take place at a field just outside the village in front of some damaged buildings that would have been government offices or the headquarters of a fish-trading company.

The food had been handed over to the Somali women and the Bajuni were waiting to take theirs away in donkey carts when files of youths appeared to the north of the field.

They were marching in files, hands holding onto the fronts of their trousers, leaning back slightly and throwing legs out in a peculiar fashion.

The journalists appeared amazed by the spectacle of the oddly marching youth but the rest appeared unfazed.

The photographer and cameraman appeared to be taking pictures of the comical marching as the soldiers watched.

Suddenly, the tall TFG man with a dyed beard rushed over to the officer on charge and said something through the translator.

The officer then told the cameraman and photographer the TFG chaps were uncomfortable about pictures of the training being taken.

But the guys already knew they would not be allowed to take the pictures and the cameras had not been switched on even.

The youths are being recruited into the TFG or the Ras Kamboni Brigade, and will soon receive their AK47s and bullets, and join the band of fighters.

Kenya often goes to sleep on its security

The areas along the coast from Lamu to Kismayu are populated by the Bajuni, a tribe of Bantu who speak a dialect of Swahili and whose main occupation is fishing.

Before Operation Linda Nchi began, the fishermen told us, they would regularly sail down to Lamu to sell fish, lobster and prawns, and thus make a tidy sum.

Their Kenyan counterparts would also sail to Ras Kamboni to buy the fish in bulk as well as carry out their own fishing in the rich waters, and then make their way back to Kenya.  

These fishermen are now out of work because of the ban on crossing the border into Kenya.

The ban was put in place because it was suspected the fishermen would also regularly transport grenades and arms for Al Shaabab into Kenya. You will also remember that colleague Alphonce Shiundu wrote about this earlier this year.

We were poking about at the destroyed Al Qaeda training camp at Oddo when a colleague received a call from Nairobi, to our utter surprise and wonder.

Oddo is about 10 or 15 kilometres inside Somalia, and the reception of the mobile network meant that the terrorists were probably able to communicate with their colleagues in Nairobi.

And this without having to use expensive or complicated satellite.

We have wondered, with these two examples in mind, where the Kenyan government and its friends were when the fishermen had such unfettered access to Kenya, and the terrorists were allowed to get so close they could chat with their friends in Nairobi.

War can be boring

Given their relative inexperience, the Kenya Defence Forces certainly did a good job in trying to convince Kenyans it was necessary to go into Somalia in hot pursuit of Al Shaabab.

They have at times been overzealous about it- the donkey Tweets easily come to mind here- and I think they even created an unrealistic impression of what was going on.

The Kenyan public has thus been hungry for the kind of action one sees in typical war movies and there have been concerns that either the army is very good, Al Shaabab very poor or something else is going on.

It is one thing to expect there to be shooting and violence on a daily basis and another to see the situation on the ground, where the rain has prevented movement and the army is just holding the areas it has taken.

Covering war can then get boring in these circumstances and I was mighty glad I carried a novel to while away the time between filing stories.

I also discovered Block’D, a game on my Nokia, which helped ease the boredom of sitting in the shade at Ras Kamboni. 

Soldiers are happy to live in the bush

Yassin Juma and I had discovered it was more comfortable spending the night in the open at Ras Kamboni, with the sound of the sea crashing into the beach and the stars staring down on us.

On the night it rained, I had elected to sleep inside the tent, but we still scrambled not to get wet, sealing cracks in the tent with duct tape as the water poured in.

We discovered the next morning that the soldiers who had been sleeping next to us in the open did not move an inch.

They told us they knew how to adapt when it begins raining—simply turn the sleeping bag around, move only when it begins to feel like it is flooding.

Chatting to the soldiers, we discovered that to them, living in the bush, dealing with mosquitoes, avoiding snakes, getting scorpion stings, killing spiders and mixing all their rations into one dish…is second nature.

Doing all that and getting the chance to deal with a real enemy gives them a thrill they would not get anywhere else.

 

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4 thoughts on “Five things we learnt from Somalia and Operation Linda Nchi

  1. Great insight into the war. Somalia indeed does have the longest coastline in Africa. Given that fact, the strategic location of the country along the world’s major shipping route and links with the oil rich Arab world, Somalia would have been a major regional player. Pity that the beautiful Somali beaches rarely gets visitors, much like this informative blog.

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