As the fall out from incarceration commenced to land, then we get the ass covering. Some of it is shameful. I think back to contemplating the death of Diana and her new boyfriend, Dodi Fayed, the manner the Queen was expected to react, the way Blair reacted jumping on the emergent social wave to ride in as the darling of the people championing ‘The People’s Princess’. I was in no mood in the latter months of 1997 to go with the sycophantic or downright unscrupulous use of people and symbols for political ends.
After we drove out of Ferfer leaving behind our captors with no returns from their hostage taking. In fact a net deficit as Ferfer lost its mobile public health support we had provided and the Quelea quelea birds were not going away until they had eaten their fill of sorghum. We sat in Belet Weyn for a day or two. The place had always held a certain charm once we had cleaned up the detritus of a past generation. When I had first arrived, the District Commissioner, the DC as he was known, came to see me in the office cum house. It had served as the expatriate meeting place during the famine response of 1992-94 and hard liquor mixed with the stresses of watching people die led to some nasty graffiti on the walls. I will not repeat, hopefully those responsible feel a shame as to what they wrote or allowed to be written on the walls. I apologised to the DC, we painted the next day, scrubbed the walls, two coats of paint and then painted our map of Belet Weyn District over the top.
The People living in a place have the right to do things that may offend outsiders but the other way around? When I first arrived, the Islamic Courts had worked with the people to clean up rampant lawlessness and what I took to be a rotten bunch of bananas hanging from the triumphal arch at the entrance to the town was in fact a hand chopped from a thief caught in the act of stealing one time too many times. The only amputation I heard of; it sent a message and I certainly savoured walking around parts of town in relative safety during my tenure as a Belet Weyn person.
All those years ago, psychosis was apparent. For all our talk of post traumatic stress disorder, I do not think many of us have the understanding to talk of struggling, suffering, day in day out, season on season as crops succeed or fail, animals fatten for profit or waste away to die or be sold at a pittance where real stressors build. All the difficulties of eking out a living compounded by a decade of conflict. We had sat during our captivity and I listened to the tales of different pieces of fighting. Of living in the bush, or where artillery emplacements had been set on the highlands to lob shells on to the road if opposition sought to resupply along the main road running along the north-eastern side of the Shabelle River.
Now we were leaving. Out to Belet Weyn airstrip now renamed Belet Weyn International Airport after the settlement of a clan militia dispute as to who was going to guard the runway. Guard is a euphemism for collect the payments required to make sure your aircraft came and went without harassment. We, Save the Children, had paid for a runway rebuild for a second time and were the guardians of the HF, high frequency, radio to talk to incoming flights. Our relationships were good with the militia and, following this two-week sojourn courtesy of a rival sub-clan, some of us were seen as having served our apprenticeships for being part of things, for, possibly, being able to understand beyond xenophobic graffiti on expatriate drinking den walls.
The aircraft appeared in the distance coming in long and low, to land at the lowest speed possible. We may have done some repairs but the stones were still big and the runway bumpy, a wrong approach and the landing gear could be ripped off. This was no Somalia experienced pilot. Standard procedure for the experienced was to circle the airstrips first and check all A O K. Instances of commercial flights being held were continuing.
Aircraft down, door opens and out emerges the Save the Children Overseas Director. With a bottle of champagne in his hands. Promptly told by our boss, in very direct language, she did not think this appropriate given the religious, Haram, sensitivities emergent. The champagne was put away, we had a series of introductions and brief conversations as this was the first time for our Overseas Director to be back here in quite sometime. The team said their goodbyes and started to think about some family time as well as getting on with work (in the rest of the region) left aside whilst we were detained to focus on one place.
Then we climbed abroad and the surreal feel continued. The aircraft had little curtains for the windows and the seats were chairs around a table. I swear it was plastic garden furniture bolted to the floor. The aircraft was for medical response and it seems the seats were bolted in quickly. Fresh fruit went down well off the picnic table as we flew to Mandera, Kenya and a fuelling point, before headed down to Nairobi. The relief with the Overseas Director was real and he opened up further as we dropped off people in Mandera to head their way home to Bardera. Bardera, the setting for my first time being held captive, another set of stories.
A driver is at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport to take us home. In those days, I regularly used to drive myself to the airport, leave the keys and the driver would come pick the car. When I returned a week or two later, he would park the car, leave the keys for me to drive myself home. Apologising if it were not in exactly the same spot I had left it the previous week! How things have changed with parking fees and security protocols. This time, he drops me home. I say thanks and arrange pick up time for the next morning. Open my front door, flick the light switch. Nothing happens. One of the neighbouring houses has been turned into an office and the manager looks after my house when I am away. She appears, hands me the spare key, says I mean for locking the fridge (stopping them from drinking the sodas and odd beer) and politely informs me the power was disconnected for non payment five or so days before. Have a great evening she merrily says and waves me a cheery goodbye leaving me to the smell of rotten meat from the freezer.
I think about going to a hotel but fatigue is waving across me. A cold shower; still no shave, and out for a meal with friends. I get asked why I said I would be back a week ago and did not show up. Why I think a scruffy beard is a good fashion statement. How to explain? It is difficult for those around the table to comprehend.
I cannot eat, as the richness of Indian cuisine is too much. I eat a Nan bread, drink a beer, go home to throw up as my stomach balks at the change from Somali Italian to Kenyan Indian.
In the morning, to the office ‘to undertake debrief’ and listen to the black humour aimed at lightening what was for many a tense situation.
Mobile phones had just started to appear and our Overseas Director tells us of how he had to climb to the top of a hill to gain a signal to hear about our capture. What could he do? Do we really give a flying fart? No. He speaks of telephoning our next of kin to tell them of the situation, ‘the situation’. He had called my Father and explained – Paul has been taken hostage. We are doing all we can to gain his release and diplomatic channels are involved. We have ascertained they are all safe. My Father’s response to this fulsome explanation? Thank you, he, meaning me, knew what he was getting in to. Paul is old enough to know better. I am in UK and have a business to run, what do you want me to do about it?
It is this last piece, the question – What do you want me to do about it? – where I chuckle. As I listen to our Overseas Director, who searches for polite words to describe my Father’s taciturn style finally deciding on ‘phlegmatic’. I think how we communicate so much and what does it add? My Dad knew there was nothing to be done, he had also been asked to not go public given internal diplomatic processes were on-going, and there were people more involved, with better competences to follow up. I asked the Director, so what did you expect him to say and do? The Director had to admit, thinking back: You know, your Father was right. My Dad was always a pragmatist, along with being a great entrepreneur, the foundation of being a successful businessman? A further piece for me to take to my MBA.
We were all listless, wanted to be doing something other than talking about who did what in London. A telephone calls comes in and we are told if we want to talk about what happened with the Head of Health, then we could, quickly, go to the airport and meet him before he flew off to London. What the f – – – ? This was Save the Children responding to a hostage, possibly life threatening situation twenty years ago.
A friend, part of the staff health team, went out of her way, and it seems against Save the Children, to call me and offer personal advice. It was not structured, Save the Children still had no structural way of handling this type of situation. She offered advice about clearing the head. I had already sat and written effusively on events. It cleared my mind somewhat as we all moved on. The time with the Overseas Director was embarrassing as none of us talked of our feelings and emotions. Yes, the why was talked on and decisions taken so a repeat of the situation would not happen. But we never debriefed internally and, although the looks and body language spoke of irritation and beyond regarding a debrief not being a debrief, these messages were not read.
After an earlier incident I was involved in, the boss had me go with her to a regional meeting of Save the Children Country Directors. The male chauvinism in the room was palpable toward her – why had she let this happen? I was just the fool who let it happen. Not qualified enough? Lacking experienced enough? I do not know what these guys were thinking toward me but the animosity toward my boss was very apparent. Only two women in the room at the time; how things have changed. For the better and not just to have the ‘right’ number of women, but to open the dialogue required as to how we work and live, experience, these situations.
I took the decision to return to the UK and finish my MBA I had struggled to do online. My Aunt, a lifetime Save the Children supporter who said no flowers donate to Save for her funeral in 1996, had left me the cost of the course fees. One of the country directors, a gentleman who had been through real trauma in Ethiopia, asked why I was leaving? I said enough was enough, time for change. Looking back, I was lost and very much wanting a positive change. My eyes had regained a haunted look reflecting my frustrations. Frustrations with myself, just how little we were impacting the big picture of poverty and destitution in Somalia and across the World in fact. I needed to return and learn and be able to offer up a vision well beyond the thousand-yard stare I had cultivated.
The Nairobi round of meets first as a little more emotion was injected when the British Deputy High Commissioner, Sue Hogwood, invited us to afternoon tea. She had baked cakes, carrot and fruit-cake, made tea in a pot and settled us nicely in her office in Nairobi. Sipping my tea, taking my first bite of the delicious carrot cake, I was not prepared for the lambasting she delivered.
Look at the map behind you! What does it say? Disputed border! What the hell were thinking? I know you wanted to do right by people but….. You have caused us all so much angst. For goodness sake! Don’t do that again!
I had taken Ms Hogwood into Belet Weyn. She was a natural field person exuding knowledge and confidence, putting people at ease where ever she went and who ever she talked with. One young guard did not leave her side as she generated loyalty. When she found out most of his right shoulder blade was missing where the tumbling AK47 bullet had exited destroying bone and muscle, Sue asked what could be done? He was fine, moved on and earning to keep his family. Her compassion shone through, her realism was also there – although we had to draw the line at buying a young camel to put on the aeroplane and fly back to Nairobi! Sue Hogwood continued to be selfless and died in West Africa some years later.
Henley Management School beckoned. Packed, ready to leave when things started to happen. Princess Diana killed as reckless driving to escape the puerile side of glitz saw a premature end to her life. I was gobsmacked and sat reading a newspaper on all going on back in the UK. Postponed my return by a week as the cortege closed the motorway and she was laid to rest not far from my home. It all seemed surreal given what had happened with us all in Somalia and within myself as things came to a culmination for me. A real rollercoaster having been held hostage twice, witnessed a number of people having their lives cut short, leaving people to pick up and go forward without some of the guidance friends and family should offer. I did not even think about debriefing with Save the Children, and was not even asked, as I returned to Buckinghamshire and thought about making myself busy on something completely different.
My opening week at Henley Management School in London for the first full time cohort of the MBA was interesting as we undertook team dynamics. I was realising how so much that had happened stayed with me. We did personality tests and mine was much changed. Cannot happen the psychologist said emphatically. I had brought in the earlier one and he looked, then, asked ‘Where have you been? What have you been doing?’ I explained and received a gobsmacked ‘Gosh’. Ex Royal Air Force people came in to run a team-building day. One guy started to make fun, about engagement and team building. He tried to be chatty about my haircut, my hair had been buzzed short short and he flippantly asked if I had just been released from prison? I was curt, did not realise how harsh my voice could be as I barked an answer watching him recoil. Somalia’s stressful days were still in my system. My sense of teamwork was very different from my fellow course participants arriving from marketing businesses, new product companies and the City of London.
Like it or not, no matter how much formal education we have, sometimes the clichéd statement of life being the great teacher holds wisdom. It is just difficult to realise in life when life is teaching you or simply baiting you. Never recommend being held hostage as means to learn however.
Twenty years on, we are digging through the circumstances of Diana’s death, what happened shaping Harry and William, how crude politicking by Tony Blair detracted from what went on in terms of the collective grief and possibly the first mass social media wave. Harry has spoken passionately about his sentiments and being ‘a Royal’ Inside myself, there was a coldness, a sense of detachment as I returned from being in places where the daily grind of staying alive left little or no time, let alone sentiment, for the social embroidery atop of personal grief.
How does one grieve for an icon?
In this day and age of social media, spin and ‘fluff’, what really is empathy?
Have we come to live in a time, in a way, where all lies are forgiven?
Where saying ‘Sorry’ is enough?
Where actions regularly do not correspond to contrition and learning for having done something to wrong another person?
Life remains cheap when viewed at distance, through a video display or game. Virtual reality, the use of drones to terminate threats, the guided missiles and bombs ‘taking out’ threats but regularly destroying innocent lives directly or indirectly.
Experiencing the loss of liberty changes perspectives. Those with little or nothing to lose but possibly much to gain, be it now or in the rhetoric of the life hereafter, will continue to drive some of us to sanitised engagement with a World becoming more complex. More messy. Being part of this messiness has changed my perspective, savouring reality, wondering how we will live in a World clearly divided.
Removing the remoteness of virtual reality and living real reality shifts how we become the actions behind the words.