By day 10, inevitability has settled across most of us. The guards and the drivers are thinking they do not need to be here. The Queleaquelea birds know they need to be anywhere they can strip the fields of sorghum grain. In the opening days, we had attempted to have the drivers and guards released so at least some of the team would not be caught in the paradoxes now very apparent. At least three members of the team are talking with their own family; offering opportunity for rumours to spread and become the more complex. Pay off the occupiers and let us get back to how things were. The boss even questions whether we should pay the (now nominal) ‘visa’ fee and get back to work.
Later on, after a shower, shave and having had five days back to the routine of work, someone in London asks about our holiday entitlements and quietly makes note contracts cover anti-social hours, what is the phrase? You may be asked to work outside of normal office times to exercise your responsibility in a management level position. Yeah right.
We have already discussed among the team and everyone will be paid for the days we are here. Had taken the first Friday on our trip, now the guys have lost another one to this situation.
Your skin toughens with exposure to the elements; not the least this type of bureaucracy but I allude to standing in the sun and exposed to dry winds blowing across a parched landscape. My Father was the classic example of the ruddy-faced countryman who worked outdoors virtually every day of his life. Add some years in the RAF during World War II moving between Scotland, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent and there is the complexion of a gentleman who has been there and done it. My own complexion has hardened and baking cheap soap into my hair has me feeling I am going on a crash course to catch my Dad. Maybe this will qualify me for the ‘Been there, got caught up and Dumped’ T-Shirt. Not sure this complexion allows me to match my Father’s retort when told of my being held hostage. Sitting on garden furniture hearing this story adds to the strangeness of the setting.
Not that I can see – did not have a mirror throughout this whole experience. Did I miss anything? Did not wash more than my face and hands let alone shave or think of any grooming. I suppose our skins naturally balance to an extent. But what of the simple pleasure of standing under a shower at the end of a day?
We were down to eating for the sake of making sure we kept body and mind together. Talking with other members of the team and simply watching the daily ebb and flow made sure my soul was righteous. By day ten we knew we were to be released. Some time. Another week at least I counselled, better to be pessimistic at the outset to keep feet firmly planted in the dust. Knowing there was to be an end, a decent end, changed the manner body, soul and mind acted together. I felt like shit physically. Mind wise, we all were exercising – thanks to the boss making us think on how to offer support to people. My soul? I was watching the daily grind of people around us. No let up for girls and boys fetching water or attempting to keep the Queleaquelea birds off next year’s food supply. Nothing new for youths touting AK47s and old Russian carbines as they wandered around, posturing and acting as teenaged boys tend to with testosterone starting to surge in nature’s rising. Somehow, despite all the mess, I felt good within myself and yet sad this was the life for so many. For all the grandiose statements; the fact we were managing to do something, the scale of poverty and the lack of resources entailed many would not leave the daily drudgery.
Looking back, here is the basis for so much of the issues we face now. If we cannot make an escape and these people come with all their paraphernalia offering little, then why not take action? Actions have included leaving and becoming the statistic in house girl abuse in The Gulf or migrant rescues in the Mediterranean. Becoming one of the boys fighting the regime changes across Somalia initiated from outside the country; changes invariably perpetuating the status quo. Becoming cannon fodder under this or that nomenclature, fore the intervening generational shift has seen numerous name shifts as we all work, if not fight, for principles far removed from sitting in a dusty town.
There had been people held hostage before us, plenty more since. Many, nowhere near as fortunate as us since I went on to learn about proof of life, where you leave a couple of questions only a nearest and dearest will be able to know you are giving the correct answer. We were released. Many have not lived to savour personal reflections on what was and what can be.
Something often left aside as people talk of the psychosocial effects of being held hostage – the basic acts of passing on waste out of your system. For us, our toilet arrangements were somewhat improved although water had all but disappeared and so the feeling of physical discomfiture was always there. When we were moved, locked up inside a thorn bush compound and padlocked inside a nearly finished wattle and daub hut at night. Maybe an advantage of social responsible law enforcement since we were the first people to occupy this official lock up and so the straight drop pit latrine did not totally overpower the sense of smell.
The majority of the team, knowing the diet, thinking they know the cooking arrangements, decide: may as well as eat camel meat. Alas, Ferfer’s butchery and meat consumption is not the same as Belet Weyn (Belet Weyn means Big Town) and so there are some dodgy stomachs from meat either butchered badly or cooked poorly. We are feeding out militia guards – may as well pay for three or four more portions since we are expected to pay for our own food. The Ethiopian troops have realised just how tight knit the communities are and have walked away leaving us to the pasta, thin tomato paste and camel meat. The pasta always seemed cold no matter the ambient heat headed toward forty degrees centigrade at its peak during the day. Eating so little, eating so much starch, then I did not have to endure the smells of poor sanitation too often.
Bowel movement in the morning, satellite tracking in the early night – the measuring points of the passing days as we eke out our bottle of water each per day.
Day thirteen brought news through our definitely well established information grapevine. We are to be released. Today. There are ‘some pieces of bureaucracy’ to be attended to. I have not seen paper, pen or pencil in the last two weeks and so wondering just what bureaucracy has to be completed. Our two cars, with guns and all, are parked up somewhere, perhaps we are going to be asked to fill out registration forms, undertake vehicular and firearm reliability inspections? Somehow I doubt.
Late afternoon, we are asked to walk back through Ferfer Town to where we were originally held. The pick up truck and 4×4 are driven back, guns still there. The lieutenant comes and makes an attempt to explain why he had been forced to take actions. Through two translators, leading to much interpretation, this all comes through as so much rubbish after his money making scheme broke down and he has come to realise his platoon would be long dead before reinforcements were to reach here if trouble were to materialise. The majority is already shunning his girlfriend and the family seeing no money will take further actions. Sadly misguided, retribution will follow?
The boss has a flash of celebrated temper now we have the car keys. She berates the lieutenant about his quality of decision-making and finishes with a classic along the lines – We are leaving and you are staying. Hoping you rot here and may Quelea quelea birds eat all the crops. A couple of us usher the boss into the 4×4 putting her into the middle of the back seat between us and letting her sound off as we drive away since she is expressing the way all of us are feeling.
We are all in pretty good spirits as we pass a watering hole within walking distance of Ferfer. Looking at the hundreds of camels congregating to drink for the day, I am told this herd belongs to the family of our logistics boss. A dapper man with his trimmed moustache, he swells with pride from the jump seat in the boot of the car as we joke about the situation of having your family’s wealth so neatly walking around the very place where we were suffering from bad meat. The reciprocity of living in arid lands, mutual support, being able to use meagre resources to have maximum returns in terms of survival of the fittest in the cycles of famine and flood now exacerbated by multifaceted conflicts. Conflicts we have all become party to and part of by working here (and a few other places). Conflicts resolved previously through what Professor Lewis described as pastoralist democracy. Such approaches subsumed in Western concepts of peace building and state broader definitions it seems.
This place is harsh and the conditions are hard.
Do unto others as you would be done unto.
There is no hot water in our house and office in Belet Weyn – never bothered to go down the route of this type of luxury. Necessity? The gentleman who looks after the housekeeping organises buckets of hot water for the boss and she disappears to enjoy removing two weeks of grime. Asked if I want the same – I say not to bother, will stand under a shower and scrub, I keep a floor scrubbing brush here for the ends of days I spend in farms along the Shabelle river valley. No way I am going to manage to shave so will go with the flow and feel a sense of rising up from this episode in similar vein to previous episodes: My time with Somalia in soap opera format if not a sudsy soak.
Years before I had been evacuated after shutting down one of the largest feeding operations in southern Somalia. All very melodramatic with Ugandan troops guarding me as I left the operation, standing guard through the travel and transit and ushering me on to an aeroplane. The aircraft kept waiting, one engine turning, door shut, second engine fired up as soon as I get on board, so I would not spend another night in southern Somalia.
Arriving in Nairobi, standing up in clothes I had been travelling in for two days. I had been put in a posh hotel and drew a few looks of bewilderment and bemusement from those in the foyer as I was ushered through. In the bathroom I stripped, put all my clothes in the rubbish bin, showered and shaved. Then sat in a bath, luxuriated in a bath, for an hour or so. I kept this ‘Sudanese’ moustache and when I went down to the foyer, freshly pressed clean clothes smelling of decent aftershave, the person waiting for me refused to go out the door since I looked like a throwback to some bad Seventies American cop show. I would learn my lesson this time; staying hirsute until I could shave properly, no remaining facial hair, and be able to go to a barber I could trust to cut my much-reduced hair atop my head.
The organisation had thought people would come to kill me. Lo and behold, I met some of the people the organisation feared when I went to Belet Weyn. Received warm greetings for doing decent work before. How they made fun of my being held hostage because ‘those people’ are not as hospitable as they are. Security is rarely found in high walls and stand off barriers – Have good people around you and make sure good people are treated very, very, well. Be with them and good people will be with you.
Indiscriminate bombs take out everyone; this is why we have witnessed this form of attack by extremists looking to destroy the goodness inherent in people raised in hard settings. Maybe this leads to some thinking as to why we now see issues elsewhere? We have become too insular? Our socialability has hardened stopping us from having the need for day-to-day reciprocity? Government is not synonymous with good, inclusive governance?
Harsh conditions, hard people who know how to argue with each other, even fight, but always, at the end of the day, live together.
Do unto others as you would be done unto
Back on this release from incarceration: For now, scrubbing rigorously, enjoying food other than pasta and thin tomato sauce and savouring a cold Coca-Cola to make my evening. It is not as if I enjoyed luxury in the office. The place had been a mess, covered in the most appalling racist, xenophobic graffiti. Cockroaches so big I would have asked them to do the renovations if I wanted the damn things crawling over me later on claiming tenancy. I am sure they simply waited for us to stop cleaning so diligently and moved back in. There are some analogies with asymmetric warfare.
The beds were old metal-framed pieces with strung wire stretched inside this. Once rid of the ‘roaches and other infestations (the bed legs used to stand in old shoe polish tins with a drop of paraffin in to offer barriers to pests), I had abandoned the bed to sleep on the floor. A decent locally made mat, the same, thin, mattress but at least some solidity under my back. Ha, inducted into the joys of being held hostage some may say. Now I slept the sleep of the newly released as the majority of the team returned to their families and the boss talked to her partner reassuring him she had suffered no physical hurt.
I realised just how much I was wrapped in the work. Sitting to empty my head into my journal, I began to know change must come for me long before Save the Children, and other NGOs, were to realise the Somalia setting had become extremely dangerous when money, power and influence did not reside in the same people.
The garden furniture in flight to Nairobi. First mobile phone coverage. Finding my electric had been cut off and my digestive system could not cope with rich food. Help? What, change my flight schedule?