Borders? People are seamless – A Tale of Irish and English in Somalia (and Ethiopia)

‘You’re a hard bastard’ – the lilt of an Irish accent cut in to my march up and down rows of women and girls sitting waiting to be registered.

Maybe it is the context that makes me look around as if there is Liffey Water getting to me. We were close to the Ethiopian border in the days before cash transfers and knowledge of population numbers was so nebulous we did not work on percentages of deaths since we simply did not know who was alive in the first place.

I was working for Concern Worldwide as we, in turn, worked for people who were in dire straits after at least two years of much too much fighting and far too little rain. The idea was to register all women of child-bearing age as a rough gauge to the number of families so we could make a little more scientific delivery of rations for families. Loads of assumptions, average size of family, issues of orphans; fore there were plenty of them, word getting around so all the women were at the registration points on the given day.

I had already been in a few difficult settings before and knew the value of having good people around. Yes, the French Foreign Legion is good. Good at what they do; but I wanted at least a couple of my own team with me for what was to be a very long day. We went to this area as a package, myself and two members of my team, from 60 kilometres up the road. Does not sound far? It was still a two-hour drive even after the US Army Engineers had run a grader blade down the road. Our 1957 Willis Jeep touched 80miles per hour according to the speedometer but we slowed in many, many, places as the potholes were filled with loose soil just disguising the axle breaking qualities of the road.

Next day we travelled toward Yet, a place on the Ethiopian border where we were to register women. With us a Legion troop of 8 men and the captain who wanted to see a bit of country. No water for the women, little water for us; and the workload suddenly became of a size we were all going to struggle under the broiling sun for the day. My Panama hat and a two-litre bottle of water seemed wholly inadequate. The Legionnaires offered me food and extra water. I asked if they were feeding all my team. No, they are different was the response. I did not want to hear this since we were together and we all depended on each other. If they were not to feed and water all my team, then I would take nothing. The tone of the day was set, and, as I walked the lines, made sure we were working as well as we could to have people out of the sun and on with their day, then Legionnaire’s were wondering what the _-_-_-_ they were doing standing, guns at the ready, guarding a bunch of Somalis and some asshole English _-_-_-_ counting women and writing names on cards.

We worked hard, the paper system and issuance of ration cards was new and did not work well. The preparation work poor and so little or no shade for the women and definitely no water. We had to start making arrangements as we realised we all were going to out in the sun through four or five hours and I knew many of the women had been out far longer since their days still contained all the family chores.

So, here I was being a ‘hard bastard’ telling young girls to go home, they would not get a ration card. This is not the act of a ‘hard man’ but, rather a bureaucrat. It was the wider work chasing off men trying to push women and girls back in to the registration, stopping boys with guns from causing trouble gaining the wrath of the Legionnaires and trying to get some sustenance to all involved. We are using a number of key towns as distribution centres and this whole process was to break the misappropriation of food. People were still dying but some men were making money selling food back in to markets. Trouble, violence, was regularly organised to try and stop us from being at distributions.

We were chronically aware of manipulation by the few at the expense of the many. The town where I was based, Huddor, is famous for Mary Robinson, the Irish President having visited. One of her security team stayed after she left and I listened to stories of him running after men stealing from the town distribution site using a big knife to slash open the bags of grain. Things were so desperate, women and children would scramble and fight over the split grains. Things did not improve for months until Mother Nature came to support us NGO types. I hosted the deputy head of World Food Programme. She commented on how little food we had, asking why we were distributing inappropriate food and even bags of grain with rot in. We explained how we had so little and got it out to people with nothing offering support and guidance as best we could to clean and prepare what we had. She was aghast at the setting and how all of us were part of the setting. No two ways about it, I lost weight and gained a thousand yard stare, becoming ‘a hard bastard’.

We were nearing completion of this registration and initial pressure to make points had eased. My team were filling in sheets with names of women and numbers of children – These were the days before we had tablets or mobile phones with linked data entry points so no triangulation to look at how many men had two or three wives, no opportunity to look at the birth records for women who were often treated appallingly.

The Legionnaire with the Irish lilt came to talk to me:

‘Where you from?’ He asked adding a rasp to his singing tone voice

‘England’ I said in a tone reflecting my dehydration

‘I know that you eejit, but where’ He spat

‘Milton Keynes’ I answered

‘Where?’ He asked again

‘Newport Pagnell, a village out toward Olney’ I hissed in exasperation

‘Why didn’t you say that first time? I’m from Bletchley, the lad over there is from out the other side of Cambridge and the corporal back at base was a bar manager in Northampton’

Whoa, this really is a Foreign Legion wearing French insignia and rather reflecting the desperate employment situation of the UK in the 1980s.

I wonder where these guys are now and their views on BREXIT?

Anyhow, pleasantries done on how we both came to be standing in a village near the Ethiopian border, close to Yet Town, Wajit District of Bakool Region in Somalia, I went to see the guys finish the work.

An angry older lady protesting so hard spittle was flying from her as she sought to make her points confronted me. My guys were tired and told her to go away and not bother the boss. I said wait, let us hear what she had to say.

She told us one of the soldiers, a Legionnaire, had taken her wooden milk jug. Had he brought it from her? No, he had taken it waving his gun around so she did not argue. The Legion had mounted up on their vehicle when I arrived to say I wanted the Legionnaire responsible to either pay for the jug or give it back. The captain became involved and when my anger did not abate, he spoke sharp words and the milk jug was kicked to the ground. Not enough, I wanted the man responsible to dismount and take it back. My anger, pumped by emotion, fuelled by the absence of food save for an orange a Legionnaire had given me when we finished, drew a crowd. The captain said he could not do this so I told him to move his men out of the way before Somali guns appeared and we had bloodshed.

I picked up the milk container and returned. My credibility had gone up ten fold with the Somalis, especially the women, although I truly did not think too much about it only seeking to leave an impression since I knew some of the team I had would have to come back. And there would be no well armed and, usually, disciplined French Foreign Legion with them the next time.

The villagers thanked all my team, information was shared and my driver asked if we could go get spare parts for the Jeep. Yes, why not. We parted company with all but one of the villagers. The Legion drove back into Somalia as we went driving into Ethiopia where Siad Barre’s army had advanced and then been repulsed leaving land mines along with carcasses of American and Soviet supplied vehicles. A few detours and we watched the driver and his Spanner Lad, stripping an alternator, carburettor and a couple of other pieces from an upside down wreck. I did not get out of our Jeep wary of whatever caused the wreck to become inverted. We saw landmines but the guys were happy with our guide making sure we did not go where they knew, through bad experiences, land mines and old ordnance lay.

The return to Wajit was a long drive made shorter by the grins of satisfaction on all our faces. We had long since all been stained the same colour as the dirt and dust ingrained us in the open top windshield-less Jeep ploughing bumping and jumping us back to some brackish water to wash with.

Standing after a shower with a French Army beer in my hand, the captain came to speak with me. He appreciated my team’s handling of the situation and explained about the milk jug incident. Being a decent squad, they had stayed together in not pushing the thief of the milk jug forward. So he had the Sergeant do the necessary – the whole squad were on double guard duty for the rest of the week, night guard, day work, filling in for other squads. Discipline was there and when an individual stepped across the line, the line tightened swiftly with action taken.

Justice? In the Legion? What linkages no matter the original nationality – together, as one. In the village? I am sure the lady would have preferred a handful of money for her ‘tourist’ offering. All of us who have worked in these pastoralist areas and come to respect the hard, but benevolent, people have collected the jugs. But do it by fair trade not at the end of a gun barrel.

Power is not about forcing your presence but having the presence to know people respect when force is not used. I never returned to the village, the whole area; but the word of what happened went around, in the Legion as well as through the communities, and we gained respect for our demeanour.

My team did another registration few weeks later and spent a month planning the sites, ensuring shade, water, places to wait, and developed a more involved registration process. The value of having good people around me who were motivated to treat people as people and make a few bold statements for women’s empowerment. We made a few steps, if not strides, as we insisted no men in later distributions and women were empowered enough to act collaboratively when young men attempted to seize goods from distributions. My first time to see blood spurt a metre in the air as even the militia guarding us took up the blade and defended women against such theft. A guy was caught stealing, did not return the clothes and cooking items we had distributed so the militia acted and a large blade sliced across a thigh to stop the misappropriation. We patched up the thief, took him to a MSF clinic and then local justice took its course.

For the registration, Colonel Mawgan handed me Les Ordres de Jour and said, grinning, ‘Monsieur Paul, you are in charge of my battalion for the day’. Yeah right. No repeat of events and we delivered a near flawless exercise. The results were still being used as population figures some five years later when I returned after time in London and laughed as a young consultant told me about the work he had done to base nutritional assessments on. It was our registration.

At the time, there were much more profound repercussions as not only did women come to feel empowered and some in power knew their days of stealing food were now numbered.

The Legion left, the French Marines left and the UN troops who came to replace them were, themselves, replaced. Replaced by us, as we trusted in the local militia far more. No disrespect for the men of Zimbabwe, their government did not support them with proper equipment, paying their wages and so the Zimbabwean contingent was a demotivated bunch smoking weed and chasing chickens to supplement rations.

The militia travelled with us, looked after us as we delivered food, and then non-food items, to their kith and kin. I received further death threats. Still here to write this, paid for the funeral of the first gentleman to point his stubby finger at me and tell me I would not wake to see dawn the next day. May have been a hard bastard but to many I was the nice guy in a team who delivered life saving, life changing, things.

No questions of nationality, no demands to see passports, we were seamless.

The people we fed and sought to support taught me humility, the power to be strong inside, as adversity upon adversity has been thrown at them by nature and man; the Anthropocene, age of mankind, has not been kind to the people in semi arid lands with poor government.

I hope and trust the people we worked for in those days have gone on to savour family and gain a few steps of development.