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.  

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