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.

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