Bombs, bullets and bunkers; an account of our second visit to Somalia

Tabda is a small settlement in Southern Somalia, about 77 kilometres from Liboi, with a population of about 100 families housed in semi-permanent houses with mabati roofs and the low huts characteristic of pastoralists.

The biggest building is naturally the mosque and the tallest structure the Hormuud Telecom communication mast. There is a borehole drilled some time back by one of the Non-Governmental Organisations that operated before Al Shabaab banned them.

It is a hot and dusty place.

It was to Tabda that photographer Jared Nyataya and I headed in the afternoon of February 16 for a second embedment with the Kenya Defence Forces, who have been on Operation Linda Nchi for 21 weeks this week.

We had asked to be granted access to the Central Sector of the operation, keen to have an experience different from that in Ras Kamboni and Buur Gabo in the Southern Sector in November last year.

The Central Sector is the busier of the frontages. Busier is used here as a euphemism for more fighting and bigger losses of equipment and personnel for all involved in the conflict.

While the boots, dog tags and everything else we needed was ready, with the exception of the bulletproof vests/flak jackets, the psychological preparation was never-ending.

Flak jackets were an absolute necessity given the nature of the operation, we were reminded up to the last 12 hours, when our colleagues at Royal Media Services agreed to lend us the vests they could spare.

We shared the flight out of the Moi Air Base with journalists from RMS whose first experience of the operation had been in the Central Sector. Before we were airborne, they offered a lot of tips on how to work in that area.

They were however firm that it would be a life-changing experience and that our faith and courage would be tested. We listened quietly, thinking, perhaps, that they were just making a big deal out of nothing.

They got off at Manda Island and we headed out to Liboi, where the final reminder of the seriousness of the situation was waiting.

We were met by Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Nyagah, the commander of the troops in this sector, and we learnt that the second plane was on what is referred to in military lingo as “casevac”, meaning “casualty evacuation”.

A Kenyan soldier had been killed in an ambush the previous day. His body was loaded onto the plane together with a small black bag with his belongings and his dusty boots.

Another whose ankle was sprained also got on the same plane.

Ahmed Mohammed Islan, better known as General Madoobe, a former governor of Jubaland under the Islamic Courts Union, was also around. He recognised us from our previous encounter at Ras Kamboni.

After lunch and a briefing by the commander, we elected to take up the offer of entering Somalia immediately on two small helicopters, having just missed a convoy that left as we arrived.

While Liboi was safe, there was no need of dallying there too long. The amiable and humourous commander agreed although one of the helicopter pilots wondered why we were so eager to get into a dangerous area.

“You know, for us, we took an oath when we started this job. You guys haven’t. Why do you want to risk your lives?” he asked.

We spoke of the need to tell Kenyans what was happening and to record the experiences of the soldiers in Kenya’s first big operation since the Shifta War of the 1970s.

The psychological preparation resumed soon after landing, stowing away the bulky bags and settling under one of the few tents in the patrol base at Tabda.

The second-in-charge, Major Kitiilo, gave us a brief overview of the activity there, telling us with candour that “the fighting here is uncouth business.” He was a necessarily rattled officer, with the base having come under enemy fire the previous evening.

He also said that we would soon enter a state of “battle shock”, a condition entered into when people who are used to a peaceful environment are suddenly exposed to the shooting and shelling common in these situations.

Al Shabaab appeared to have recently acquired a cache of new ammunition and had started using mortar bombs in addition to their signature Rocket Propelled Grenades, PKM machine guns and the ever-present AK47.

Because Al Shabaab prefer to attack at night, supper is had as early as 4.30 p.m to allow time to prepare to enter the trenches for the night.

We had supper after the platoon commander, a lieutenant who had been in the ambush the previous day, explained to Lt Col Nyagah (he had also been brought by helicopter) how it had happened.

Everybody then retired for the long night, with movement limited to the most necessary- perhaps only for a short call.

The sleeping arrangements consisted of a hole in the ground, known as a fighting trench, about four feet deep and six feet wide with sand bags packed around it, with the beds lowered into it at night.

There is an uncanny resemblance to a grave but that is among the safest places to be when there is shooting.

There was a space about a foot wide between the two light aluminum frames with canvas stretched across that are referred to as camp beds, which are surprisingly strong but which creak and complain when a 90-kilo frame is tossing and turning on it.

Torches are not to be used and conversation is minimal. Showing light, especially the white light produced by torches, is bad when you have a man looking for something to aim at.

There was some shooting the first night- five loud shots from somebody at the base and the distant boom of artillery in Belesc Qoogani about 45 kilometres away- but we were assured in the morning that there was no problem. The fighting at Qoogani is also regular.

“Somebody in the trenches forming the defensive ring must have seen something and shot at it,” an officer said.

His colleague did not remember hearing anything. It was apparently so little he did not stir as we wondered, wide awake, what was going on.

Later that day, I was reaching for the jerry can wrapped in a wet piece of gunny sack to pour some cold salt-tasting water to drink when there was a loud explosion, which had me scrambling onto my hands and knees.

I rose to my feet as Lt Col Nyagah explained that the soldiers were detonating some unexploded mortars, referred to as “blinds” in military lingo, which had landed near the base after the last attack.

It is hard to get used to gunshots and loud explosions, though, and I took to sleeping with a voice recorder to tape the echoing shots of the PKM machine gun and the loud enthusiastic bursts of the General Purpose Machine Gun (GPMG) at night.

We accompanied the soldiers on a patrol of Tabda the following Sunday where their attention was drawn to a man. He had three mobile phones, a sim card sown into his pocket and a kitchen knife hidden away in another.

He was identified by one of the women as a fellow villager. The local administrators told us there could be Al Shabaab sympathisers amongst the villagers but it would be hard to tell who they were.

Such is the nature of an asymmetrical conflict; it is hard to tell the good from the undesirable.

At about 3.30 a.m. the following Wednesday morning, we woke up to the prolonged chattering of the machine guns in the defence trenches. It was longer than the usual four or five warning shots.

In the morning, the soldiers there said the camels appeared to have been deliberately herded towards the camp, and with their attention drawn to the animals, they had received fire from the flanks.

Whoever the herder was had not waited for daybreak to complain. Foot prints and a trail of blood led into the bushes and away. The one wounded camel was killed and the carcasse taken to Tabda for the villagers.

Although a colleague from The Standard who had been to the Northern Sector had explained that “war is not a picnic”, we learnt the following evening that nothing prepares you for the reality.

Nyataya was woken up by the three very loud and three softer bangs that marked the start of the attack at about 10.40 p.m. that Wednesday evening. I turned in the creaky camp bed to the sight of red tracer fire crackling above us and lighting the night sky like fireworks.

After an eternity that probably lasted 10 seconds, the shooting in our direction stopped and was immediately replaced by the echoing chatter of the PKM and the loud bursts of the GPMG that lasted two and a half minutes.

These were followed by the intermittent boom of a mortar being fired in the enemy’s direction and some shooting that was finally halted by a voice in the dark shouting, “Cease firing!”.

This, we were told the following morning, was a classic Al Shabaab attack: it lasts less than 10 minutes, involves firing of weapons in the general direction of the patrol base followed by fleeing the responding fire.

Al Shabaab also characteristically carry away the bodies of their dead, and the soldiers who went looking the following morning found evidence that someone had been hit as there was blood in the bushes.

In the morning, everybody was curious to find out where the loud mortar bombs and the quieter RPGs had landed, and to assess the damage caused.

All had exploded on open ground, but some near some trenches, with one shredding a shrub a tree under which a soldier had made his trench and throwing shrapnel in his direction.

Nobody was injured.

Three sleepless nights after this attack, we asked to be allowed to sleep above ground in an Armoured Personnel Carrier.

War offers an army the opportunity to test its skills and philosophies and the dropping of the mortar bombs reminded the soldiers to apply the timeless philosophy encompassed in Kaizen, the Japanese concept of continuous improvement.

Every day since, they would cut trees and arrange the logs and branches over deepened sections of their trenches. Sand bags would then be placed on top of the logs and then covered with soil, creating the sort of bunker that can withstand the force of a mortar bomb explosion.

For those in the defensive ring, they have to have the presence of mind to start firing at the enemy the moment they can see or hear him, with the men firing the mortars speedily calculating and launching them.

For Lt Col Nyagah, these attacks on the bases represent the danger of rushing to take Afmadow and the more famous Kismayu. There’s the very real chance, he said repeatedly, that Al Shabaab could take back control of the liberated towns if the administrations there are not set up and strong enough to maintain control.

For now, the Transitional Federal Government forces, represented in the Central Sector by the Ras Kamboni Brigade and the Somalia National Army, appeared keen to gain control of more of Southern Somalia.

They consist of a generation that has gotten used to gunshots and perpetual fighting.

They swept into Tabda from Belesc Qoogani at the start of our second week. We had been told about their swash-buckling ways, driving the Toyota Land Cruiser “Technicals” at breakneck speed and their eagerness for a fight.

Notable was the tendency to always have a man at the heavy mounted anti-aircraft gun, whose bullets can cut a man in half.

They could be a strong fighting force but desperately need leadership and the discipline instilled by training and obedience to the command structures characteristic of professional armies.

Among them were battle-hardened middle-aged and older men and Abdikadir, a boy who spoke Kiswahili easily and interacted with the curious Kenyan soldiers when the troops made a stop on their way to Dhobley for supplies.

“Mimi napenda mahali iko vita (I like it when there is fighting),” he said when I asked why he was with the forces and not with his parents, who he said were in Kismayu- we were told he might actually be from near the border with Kenya at El Wak.

The Somali forces have the mobile phone masts switched off whenever they are in transit to prevent Al Shabaab and their sympathisers from organising ambushes.

It does not prevent them from planning attacks, we learnt the following Tuesday as a large convoy with the KDF and TFG forces prepared to take supplies to the troops at Belesc Qoogani.

A recce company from the SNA had discovered a mine in the road about 12 kilometres from Tabda and by the time we got to it, they had untangled the wires, battery and detonator that would have been pressed by the lead vehicle, possibly ripping it apart or in the case of the APCs, giving the occupants a thorough shake.

Discovering that this had failed, the militants had resorted to an ambush, which was foiled by a convoy driving out to meet the one coming in.

We thus arrived at Qoogani to the sounds of fighting and when it had ended, were led to the local version of a police station, where the TFG forces had dragged one of the dead Al Shabaab men.

He was tall, light-skinned and lay on his bloody face, and the soldiers said four bodies had been dragged away by the Shabaab fighters.

We returned to Tabda the following day and left on Wednesday morning with a group of soldiers going home to rest and recuperate for 10 days before heading back to Somalia.

While this “pass” is an event to look forward to for the soldiers as they get an opportunity to see their loved ones, going back to Somalia is an emotionally difficult process, they said.

One of them at Tabda said he would not be willing to come back to Kenya until the day the troops there are either relieved or withdrawn.

A TFG soldier had suffered an injury to his leg, another shot in the upper hand and a younger one at Tabda had somehow shot himself in the upper thigh.

There was thus another “casevac” and we were lucky to get a flight to Moi Air Base at Eastleigh for the journey back.

At the office, some wondered why we were calm and quiet. Perhaps that was battle shock.  

Vigilance, dry hands, leadership and five more things we learnt from Somalia

There has been a necessarily long break here. We returned to Somalia, to the busy Central Sector, and have been busy filing some stories since we returned and doing some preparation along with the rest and recuperation that is necessary. There were many lessons learnt and it was probably among the most rewarding jobs I have done (so far this year). As usual, there were lessons learnt  and we continue the tradition of this here blog and discuss them here below. Enough. Kindly read on.

Leadership and discipline are critical 

One morning about two weeks ago, one of the soldiers in the base at Tabda in Southern Somalia rushed to the tent under which the officers and the commander sit and asked for permission to drive into the village there.

There was an emergency. A Transitional Federal Government soldier had shot himself and needed to be ferried to the base for treatment by the Kenya Defence Forces stationed there.

The victim was a boy who had caught our attention during a tour of the settlement. “Ask him how old he is,” I had told the soldier who was translating for us.

“He says he is 19,” the soldier replied and then echoed our doubts that he was anything more than 14.

There have been many migrations in Somalia over the two decades of infamous instability.

The soldier-boy had had no formal education, was probably not from Tabda and could not tell us his correct age, afraid that he could be rid of the gun and the authority he has as one of the policemen there if he was found out to be too young.

As fate would have it, he was the one who had an entry wound in his upper left thigh, a small smooth round hole three times smaller than the exit wound in his buttock.

He had somehow shown that he was capable of injuring himself.

“Is he the same fellow who keeps doing the accidental discharges?” the officer in charge asked after the soldier-boy had been brought in.

He was and even the story of how the bullet ended up in his upper left thigh was inconsistent. His hand would have to had been at an incredible angle to reach the trigger and shoot himself.

It was concluded, after all, that he might as well have been shot by a colleague during an argument, and that both had conspired to cover it up to escape punishment.

In disciplined forces such as the KDF, an accidental discharge of one’s weapon can cost you your job.

Not so the Somalia National Army, the Ras Kamboni Brigade or the other forces that form the Transitional Federal Government forces.

One of the youngest people you will ever see in uniform and carrying around a dangerous weapon is Abdikadir, who does not need to lie about his age because he looks it.

Standing at about four and a half feet, all of his clothes were two sizes too large for his light frame. When he eventually acquired a pair of green trousers, the uniform of the TFG forces, about half was rolled up and they hung loosely.

When he emerged from the chaotic reckless mess his colleagues make wherever they are, Abdikadir told us he is from Kismayu and likes to be where the fighting is.

Facts are rather fluid. Abdikadir could actually be just another truant boy from El Wak in Kenya or from just across the border, we later learnt.

The last time we saw Abdikadir was just after arriving at Belesc Qoogani, where he nodded and smiled at us before melting into the camp where his colleagues were.

That there are such young combatants illustrates the depth of the crisis in Somalia but the TFG is not entirely reliant on boys. There were also some tough battle-hardened guys who looked eager and capable of holding their own in a fight.

They need leadership, though.

One of the decisive battles was fought at Hayo, a centre halfway between Belec Qoogani and Afmadow. The TFG had had control of it for some time and frequently repelled Al Shabaab when they attacked.

Euphoric after one such successful defence, the soldiers left the trenches and practically ran after the fleeing enemy. Al Shabaab simply reorganised, cut a route back and re-occupied the centre.

A more disciplined force would have known that it is vital that you never leave your defence positions.

War is not a movie

I had somehow gotten into the last Armoured Personnel Carrier on a re-supply convoy to Belesc Qoogani and also managed to secure a seat right next to the door. As we arrived at the trading centre, there was some confusion.

Some soldiers dismounted and I followed, assuming that it was safe as I had noticed the mobile phone mast and the surrounding houses and heard no shooting or shouting of orders. But heading towards the front, I noticed that the soldiers who had dismounted before were taking cover.

I hurried back to the vehicle, shaken. Nyataya was in one of the lead APCs and he later told me they had gone chasing after the attackers, the man with the mounted gun firing into the bushes as some attackers fled.

Among the criticisms I have heard from not less than experienced journalists is that there are no shots of real action, that there are no photographs of combatants firing at each other or others that have been killed.

They also lament that even when KDF claims to have killed some Al Shabaab militants, there are no photographs or video shots of the dead as evidence- they forget that no self-0respecting newspaper publishes photographs of corpses.

When I told him about mortars and RPGs, a colleague insisted there has been no “real action”, apparently unaware that if a mortar was to drop on the ground next to where he spins in his comfortable seat, there would be little solids to place in a coffin.

The lament speaks to a genuine desire to get some solid evidence that there is some fighting going on, and the soldiers are not on holiday in Somalia. Tabda would not make it to a list of joliday destinations anyway.

There is a hot wind that can get so strong it lifts a tent off its supports and slams it into a tree.

Vigilance and dry hands could work

It has been 14 years since the bomb blast at the United States Embassy where Kenya suffered its biggest losses of life due to terrorism.

I write this about 24 hours after another attack near a busy bus stop in Nairobi, with reports that the number of deaths increased to six today.

With Kenya’s strategic importance to everybody that has an interest, the threat will perhaps never go away. It should mean that our vigilance should similarly never flag.

Speaking to the soldiers in Somalia, I got the impression that things would be better if the provincial administration and the police had done their job.

Liboi and other towns near the border with Somalia were the entry points for all manner of contraband originating from the port of Kismayu. Every administrator in those towns knew what was going on. Ditto the policemen who manned the border points.

Father Major George Makau, the Catholic chaplain I wrote about, remembered slapping a policeman very hard one day.

They had been waiting in the bush for smugglers bringing the goods across the border. The mission was to arrest them. The policeman was however in contact with the smugglers, assisting them to avoid the very ambush he was part of.

Fr Makau’s was not the only story and sugar was not the only thing that crossed the border.

Rest assured the administrators and the police who oversaw these activities are richer than they were before their postings, and they know very well the cost of cement has gone up and it takes a lot of manpower and ballast to complete a slab.

Canned beef is not nice beef

I was working on a story on the Kenya Meat Commission in June 2009 when an employee narrated a story I found interesting.

KMC shut its main abbatoir at Athi River in 1991 at the height of the economic downturn overseen by the government of Daniel arap Moi.  It was revived in 2006 and the fellow I was talking to was a young graduate who must have been in primary school when the place was shut down. He told me that when the place was opened up in 2006, there were cans of corned beef that had stayed frozen there for the 15 years.

The beef that goes into the cans is never that which would have found better market at your local butcher or behind the glass cases in the supermarkets. It is usually from those cows that are so malnourished they have no juicy parts left or stripped off the bones that cannot be sliced cleanly through and put on display so you buy them for the bone marrow. It is, in short, never the best meat and that’s perhaps the reason they salt it too much.

In the days at Tabda when the local supplier of cattle for slaughter was late, the cooks served the corned beef.

There were days when nobody touched it.

Those who imagine that beef coming from a tin is nice ought to be given that stuff for a week. They would never touch it again.

War is a bad thing to have

I have translated that directly from something my dad says whenever we talk about conflicts. He is part of the generation that were kids growing up when the state of emergency was declared and the Brits went about looking for the Maumau with the help of the cursed collaborators.

He is part of a generation that hates the cursed collaborating home guards with a passion he has passed on to me.

My dad is also part of the generation that were young fathers and mothers working hard to educate their kids when a bunch of soldiers at the Kenya Air Force staged a coup. He has never told us the story but we have been told as he lay under a vehicle in a street in Nairobi, the policemen who had advised him to drop to the ground dropped dead beside him, shot.

He tells me that “Gutiri kindu kiuru ta mbara”.  There is nothing as bad as war.

Nowadays, I don’t like it when the neighbour’s househelp bangs the buckets too hard. They make a sound like a child’s version of the loud explosions we used to hear at Tabda.

I could never get used to that.