Going to Live in Somalia: Impressions of Arrival

In 2002, I accepted a position to go and work in Somalia. We took off in John Travolta's former private plane - which would never fly again - and a guard was soon offering to attack my injured ankle with a razor blade after our emergency landing. Those where the days... 


"You will enjoy today’s flight. We are taking the luxury jet which used to belong to John Travolta, before he upgraded," my boss informed me, as we headed for Nairobi Airport at 6.30 am on a bright Kenyan Sunday morning. John Travolta – I pictured a fully stocked drinks cabinet, serviced by lovely ladies, perhaps an in-flight movie. A comfortable, pampered four-hour flight on a light aircraft with a capacity for nineteen passengers, before I descended into the perceived hell of modern-day Somalia. "I say luxury because this is the one UN plane with a loo." Welcome to the perks of aid work…

After a routine check-in (well almost routine – luggage is restricted to 15kg, including hand luggage), it was time to gorge on the duty-free. Hargeisa is officially dry, although foreigners are allowed to bring alcohol into the country. As I was going for a likely period of six weeks without coming out, I had to choose with care. Two litres of gin and a litre of vodka later, supremely overweight (both myself and my luggage), I wandered onto the tarmac to the small plane in the corner, painted white with the blue UN logo.

Luxury was not a word I would have associated with the interior, despite the fact that some of the seats were sideways on, thus giving more leg-room. It was extremely cramped and the stewardess had to jump over outstretched legs to deliver the in-flight meal, peanuts and crisps. But I did not care, for as the engines roared and we approached take-off, something returned to my life so suddenly and with such force that it overcame everything else.

It was The Buzz. Here I was, taking off into the complete unknown, unsure what would await me, working in a country of which my perceptions were dominated by Western stereotypes, all of which I would soon realise were false. I have felt The Buzz twice before – back in 1991 when I landed in Moscow for my first (and as it transpired) only trip to the Soviet Union, unsafe in the knowledge that there was nobody at the airport to meet me and that I had to find an obscure Moscow address by public transport; and undoubtedly in August 1994, when, with less than 36 hours of African experience behind me, I tentatively drove a white Peugeot 405 into Rwanda, weeks after the bloodiest killing spree in modern times – if the cocky twelve year old youth sporting fatigues and a Kalashnikov did not inspire confidence at the first checkpoint, he certainly contributed to The Buzz. It has been missing from my life for years and I welcomed it back like an old friend.

As most destinations in Somalia are not on commercial routes, the UN runs a shuttle service to most of the major towns. Prices are extortionate ($1,400 for a round trip from Nairobi to Hargeisa, for example), although our flights were paid for by a budget from the US Government, who are funding many projects in the country. We weren’t lucky enough to get a direct flight, but instead passed through Baidoa, a ‘town’ in southern Somalia, in order to drop off and pick up passengers. It turned out that we weren’t that lucky at all.

As the flight progressed, my head was swimming with thoughts: here finally was the start of the new life that I had been looking forward to for so long; the last remnants of the old life would disappear in a week as our house would finally sell; the new life was exciting, if not exotic then challenging, unknown and unpredictable. I now realise that I like my life that way.

My fellow passengers, bronzed Western aid workers, with Somali and Kenyan colleagues, dozed idly or lost themselves in literature. Conversation was difficult enough due to the imposing noise of the engine. I didn’t mind, there were enough thoughts in my head to occupy me for a week. As we started our descent, I looked out eagerly to get a feel for my new temporary homeland. Below, all I could sense was a vast brown nothingness, scorched underneath a burning sun. There was no sign of habitation, no cattle, no nothing. This place looked as Godforsaken as advertised. As we descended further, I could make out a very straight road (but from where to where?) and later three black dots crawling along like ants. My first view of Somalis on their own turf, and there were engulfed by the sheer nothingness around them. How did they manage to eke out a living in these harsh conditions?

We landed safely enough (I do take more of an interest these days, since that crash in Eritrea) on an exceptionally long runway, past a herd of camels lounging in the midday sun, past evidence of yet another failed harvest, past a small herd of thin cattle, tended by an aggressive child with stick. We eventually came to a stop in the main hub of Baidoa International Airport. It would be hard to get lost.

"Let’s go to the duty-free."

"They have a duty-free in Baidoa?," I enquired rather doubtfully.

"Of course, they have everything in Somalia."

I was braced for the heat but it was not oppressive. The ‘airport’ consisted of a single-storey, whitewashed building, a rock in front of it bearing the word ‘Baidoa’, the duty-free shop and not much else. Refuelling was not refined – three 200 litre drums were rolled up to the plane. The duty-free was in fact a small souvenir shack, selling Somali handicrafts and Nescafe. There were numerous locals milling about, squatting under the trees, many with Kalashnikovs, which they were using as walking sticks or back rests. The men were thin to a man, with sharpened facial features and wiry hair. What I perceived as initial suspicion gave way immediately to warmth and friendship at the mere hint of a smile from me. The women were covered as in the Middle East, but with so much more panache – the garish reds, yellows, greens and blues of their flowing gowns gave them an elegance you wouldn’t find in England on a Friday night. A Toyota Landcruiser approached to meet one of the passengers – airport security rolled back the barbed wire and the car entered the tarmac, complete with guard, a serious looking local, manning a Kalashnikov on the roof, his grubby white scarf wrapped around his head. So this was life at the rough end of the trench.

We were soon back on the plane and rising sporadically. Turbulance was throwing us around, but I relaxed; I have made many such journeys in an eight-seater across the Caucasus and have complete faith in these pilots, who really are heroes for their ability to land these craft in less than ideal circumstances. My two bosses lapsed into fitful sleep and I turned to my book, a portrait of the English by Jeremy Paxman – we really are an odd race.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, can I have your attention please," shouted the stewardess, somewhat hesitatingly above the engine noise, "I am sorry to inform you that we are returning to Baidoa due to a technical fault." The news was received calmly by those awake, with incredulity by those who were awoken later to be told the news. There was no panic and within half an hour, we were back in Baidoa. Sitting at the back of the plane, I had missed the drama. It transpired that one of the passengers had noticed smoke billowing (a fine word, one I shall use more often) from the right engine. Having informed the crew, all curtains were drawn and nobody was permitted to look outside, for fear of panic setting in.

It soon transpired that we had had a lucky escape. A thick layer of black lined the wing. One of the pilots informed us that they were not sure what the problem was, but that it was possible that the generator powering the alternator had overheated and thus burned through some cables. I am not technical at all, but even I realised that we wouldn’t be flying today. As we wondered what to do next (Sunny Baidoa is not blessed with Hiltons and Sheratons), I reflected on the perversity of a former John Travolta plane grounded in Somalia. I soon had something else to reflect on, the difference in levels of service between commercial airliners and the UN, as we were informed that, despite paying such a high price for the ticket, it was not the UN’s responsibility to look after passengers’ needs in the event of a technical problem. Welcome to the reality of Somalia, I thought. What had I just been saying about The Buzz?

The international aid community is a tight-knit bunch and we soon found ourselves squashed into a Landcruiser, five on the back seat. It wasn’t far to our destination, the World Food Programme Compound, but the short journey left a lasting impression. There wasn’t a single building with a roof, most were without walls, abandoned years ago to nature. Bullet holes riddled what edifices remained. I asked when all the carnage had happened and was informed that it was as long ago as 1983. Children in flip-flops and ragged t-shirts and shorts were playing soccer. On our left was the entrance to a former camp. Its walls had long since crumbled and all that remained was a rusting iron gate, on which was written ‘Baidoa Cholera Camp.’ It looked as welcoming and reassuring as Auschwitz.

The WFP compound was basic but palatial compared to its surroundings. After all greetings were conducted, we were ushered into the living room, past some local workers shifting rubble in rickety wheelbarrows. And here, in this desolate spot, where nothing seemed to have worked for years, we settled in to watch the conclusion of the one-day cricket international between Australia and South Africa, beamed in by satellite. After a few enquiries, we headed for the International Medical Corps guest house, whose basic but homely services were much appreciated. Certain things were not as they had once been, as my boss discovered as she pulled the chain to flush the loo – the overhead tank collapsed on top of her (it hadn’t flushed for months). But I was destined to be the most serious casualty.

For me, this brief sojourn was something of a bonus; I had no desire to get involved in the chaos that is Mogadishu and southern Somalia (setting of ‘Black Hawk Down’ – completely irrelevant to the part of Somalia I am in), but I did want to get some feeling for the place. It seemed safe enough so I left my valuables and set off for a wander.

The locals viewed me as some kind of freak, but were friendly enough. The destruction was ubiquitous, interspersed by the occasional new house, well hidden behind tall iron gates. Evidence of previous aid projects was everywhere, with signs advertising schools, education centres, training schemes. Much of what remains is pitiful and yet people carry on.

"Hey, what your name?"

"Hey, where you from?"

"Hey, you married, single?"

Street kids with a football, I never could resist them. I ambled over and motioned to one to pass me the ball, which he did. They were all smiles and their number doubled immediately as invisible children appeared from nowhere for the chance to play with a foreigner.

"Give me money."

"No, give me money."

"No money today, only football." And with that the begging stopped and the football began. I was the point person and would flick the ball up and then volley it high into the air for the kids to catch. They loved it. Occasionally I got it wrong, once almost hitting a group of passing men, armed with their guns – they returned my apologies with a smile. I sent a couple of brightly-clad women scurrying too, but they merely laughed. I have a feeling that I was going to like the Somalis. I even managed to elicit a wave from the soldiers on the passing jeep, although I was careful not to get into the firing line of the mounted machine gun.

And then it happened. The most skilful of the kids, a gangly barefoot youth of perhaps twelve, floated over a cross. I jumped, chested it down and volleyed it back. Slightly off-balance, I turned my right ankle as I landed. The pain was excruciating as I lay in the middle of the road. There was no sympathy, merely laughter. I was clearly too soft. I waved goodbye and hobbled back into the compound, my clothes covered in dust and my arms bloodied by small cuts. I must have cut a desperate sight for the guard was immediately concerned. As I took off my boot and socks, it was clear I was in some trouble. The ankle was already twice its usual size and visibly growing. It was time for Somali charades.

The guard inspected, touched, frowned and then attempted to communicate. He made this unnerving chopping movement, as though my swollen foot was a vegetable to be prepared for dinner. I didn’t quite understand what he was talking about until he lifted his hand to his face and mimicked shaving. Excellent, he wants a razor blade to chop my foot to bits. While this would undoubtedly relieve the pressure and the blood, I wasn’t keen. Some ice was brought (such luxuries are not available to the locals, I realise) and I was confined to the sofa. This was fine as I got the chance to show off to the assembled crew, by opening my mother’s Christmas present, a pocket magnetic Scrabble set. Scrabble is big in the office here, as there is little else to do in the evening and the pocket version was much admired. It didn’t help me get all my letters out though.

We flew out the next morning on a small Beechcraft, which the operating company had flown in from Nairobi. Travolta Airlines was still grounded – I learned later that we had taken part on its final sortie, as this was the third technical problem in three months, the second in three days. Apparently, the previous week, the flaps refused to open and one of the pilots was forced, mid-air, to release some oil from a bottle onto the wings, in an effort to solve the problem. All the other planes are supposedly fine and many are relieved that the luxury plane is now out of service. And I never did get to use that loo. Later I heard that one of the UN passengers was so traumatised by our ‘ordeal’ that he could not continue his duties and had to be returned to Nairobi to recover. God bless the UN in war zones, on those inflated salaries and per diems.

In contrast to Baidoa, Hargeisa International Airport is impressive. It even has a control tower and six fire engines on standby. Welcome to the capital of self-proclaimed Somaliland, my new home. Hobbling off the plane into a pleasant afternoon temperature of twenty degrees (Lisa, I apologise for laughing at your assertions of the pleasant climate here – it is perfect), I shuffled across the tarmac to be greeted by a grey-haired, gold-toothed wide boy called Yankee Kilo, our visa fix-it man. Formalities were concluded surprisingly quickly and we were soon headed into town.

First impressions? Definitely favourable. From the air, Hargeisa seems to be surrounded by nothing but desert and mountains. Its most famous landmarks are what the locals called "the tits", a couple of perfectly formed cones, masquerading as hills. The town itself was dusty, the roads potholed and the legacy of Said Barre’s carpet bombing in the late eighties is still very much in evidence. Apparently, his forces controlled the airport and so his pilots would breakfast, then leisurely climb to bomb Hargeisa to rubble, before returning to base for lunch.

I was expecting the devastation, but my initial feeling was one of rebirth, of hope. Yes, so much is destroyed, but new buildings are going up, new businesses are opening, there seemed a quiet determination, a purpose about the people as they moved. Things are happening gradually, but they are happening. There has been peace in this part of Somalia for ten years now and the locals like it that way. The Somali diaspora is returning with its wealth. Downtown was bustling in a very Arab way, the market a reminder of the particular sights, sounds and smells of the souqs, the friendly banter, the exotic spices, the bright cloths, the mandatory drinking of tea, while seamstresses laboured with their ancient sewing machines to produce more garments for sale. And across the road were the money changers, sat behind tables with huge cubes of the local currency for sale, a sign that stability is here. It is described as much safer than Nairobi – I feel that it certainly is. Be hind the money changers, the most important merchants in the country, the purveyors of khat, the mildly narcotic leaf that is the national obsession. I tried it once years ago to little effect, but will try again in the Somali context and report back.

And the main street is full of potholes and bustling shops and cafes. There is a real sense that Hargeisa is moving forward at a fast rate. The first traffic lights were recently installed, the main effect of which was to cause traffic jams as people stopped to enjoy the pretty light show. What seems to be the main monument is the wreckage of a MiG fighter, undoubtedly shot down over the town’s skies. It is mounted on the main road, dated May 1988. Rubbish is strewn liberally and there seems to be a particularly popular line in light blue plastic bags, which one finds abandoned in every corner. Refugees are starting to return from the camps in Ethiopia – taking heart from the stability of Somaliland, they are returning in their thousands, most living in camps established by the government, others constructing ramshackle tents out of food sacks, bags, anything, and pitching them in the grounds of abandoned plots. We have neighbours like these. In fact our guest hous e, an impressive three storey affair, is not only the only complete house in the neighbourhood, but also one of the tallest buildings in the town. The walk to work is rocky, stones everywhere, as the tarmac has not ventured too far from the centre.

Somali women are exotic. A mixture of Arab and Negro, their features are lighter than most Africans, they smile easily and they are dressed in the most colourful garb. They are required to cover themselves as Somalia is a conservative Muslim country, but, unlike many other Muslim countries, the dress code does not seem to be a burden, more a fashion parade. There are several women in the office who seem to change outfits during the day. The dash of colour is welcome. And while the women might be striking, so too are their heavily-armed and overly-protective brothers and fathers, so I shall content myself with admiring from afar.

And then there are the goats. There is something endearing about a town whose main street is populated by more goats than vehicles. Hargeisa is a low-level building kind of town, a little sleepy perhaps, but pleasant and cool in the hills. It reminds me a little of a relaxed version of Palestine, the warmth, the friendliness, the romantic muezzin call to prayer at sunset, the idling of much of the population, the women scurrying around with their covered bodies, the café conversation over tea. I love it.

Hobbling into the office, I must have cut a sorry and curious sight. I have never been self-conscious about my weight, but I have yet to see anything but a thin Somali. Mind you, I might blend in with the locals after a stint out here. My new colleagues were welcoming, some even hugging me as I arrived. Let’s see how long this continues – once my bosses leave in the morning, I will be the only white face in the office and I have a lot of ass to kick, as most of the projects are way behind schedule. I am not going to win a popularity contest, but the job looks challenging, if a little daunting at the moment. My technical expertise on irrigation, maternal health, livestock and genital mutilation is not what it could be – it will be a speedy education. While I would benefit from more knowledge in these departments, the job is really more of a field coordinator, making sure things happen, problem-solving etc.

The first problem has already been solved as far as I am concerned – I have located the tonic water. A steady supply is in the fridge at home and a G&T on the roof at sunset is a fitting way to end the day. ‘Home’ is a divine guest house rented by CARE for its expatriate staff. Although there are frequent visitors, there are seven of us located full time, five Kenyans, a Sudanese and myself. The Scrabble is very competitive. There is ample living room, an exercise bike on the roof, CNN and BBC via satellite, the occasional DVD (through my computer) and excellent food prepared by our resident cook, Osman. It is going to be difficult to spend any money at all here and I have not dipped into my pocket at all in the first week.

The working week is every day except Friday, although this is compensated by the daily hours of 7.30 to 2. The office is a pleasant five-minute walk from the house. Other expats abound, although I have yet to meet too many, although I am much encouraged by rumours of a UN squash club and a German NGO with a licence to import fifty cases of beer a month – I knew I would find my German degree useful at some point in my life. The much-vaunted ‘Chinese’ restaurant was bizarre but acceptable – shish kebab and chips were never on the menu at Mr. Chan’s back home, although there was some passable Chinese food available too.

My first contact with a beneficiary of a CARE project was both fascinating and humorous. One of the budget sub-grants was to finance the construction and equipping of an outpatient clinic for the only maternity hospital in Hargeisa, itself under construction. No health workers have been trained here since 1986 and health care is in a shocking state. Edna, the ex-wife of the current president, has taken improving maternal health as a personal crusade. She has begged, borrowed, cajoled, pleaded for the construction of the hospital, working tirelessly to realise her dream. The opening of the clinic was two days away and we popped in to make sure everything was in order for the opening ceremony.

I was impressed by the quality of the construction, impressed by the cleanliness, impressed by the dedication of the staff and construction workers. Impressed also by the transformation of the site, which previously had been a graveyard, then a military training camp and finally a torture cell for the repressive regime of Siad Barre, before finally becoming a hospital. Edna was an inspirational lady, and she showed us photos of her as First Lady in the 1960’s on a state visit to the White House, meeting the German President in Bonn and so on. She was immediately concerned about the state of my foot and would not let me leave until she had tended to it. And, as was recorded for posterity on local television in the opening speeches a couple of days later, that is how I became the first male patient in the as yet unopened Hargeisa Maternity Hospital. I was in fact only the second patient to be treated, beaten only by a woman suffering from a burst appendix. She had endu red a twelve-hour car journey to get to the hospital and survived. Her thank you speech at the opening of the clinic was moving.

I was expecting some adverse reaction to God Bless America’s latest crusade, but there has been little comment so far, apart from the animated youth at the market who followed me around for a while, shouting "You terrorist. Kill Bush" at regular intervals. It wasn’t even unnerving, the others were smiling. The release of the film ‘Black Hawk Down’ will probably have some of you wondering what I have got myself into, but let me stress that Somaliland is as different to Mogadishu these days as Dublin to Belfast at the height of The Troubles.

One story I heard on the ground here about the events of October 1993, when the American soldiers were killed in Mogadishu, made me laugh. The Yanks had apparently received intelligence that their prime target, the warlord Aideed, was in a building. They mounted a smash and grab raid, descending from helicopters. Ever the consummate professionals, they had the building secured within seconds, all occupants handcuffed and lying on the floor. Only when they had time to assess the situation did they realise that their captives were not the intended targets. Not only that, they were all white. This crack US force had penetrated deep into the heart of a UN expatriate compound. Why are such great stories always hushed up?

Last modified onTuesday, 12 August 2014 10:14
Paul Bradbury

About Paul Bradbury

Author of Lebanese Nuns Don't SkiLavender, Dormice and a Donkey Named Mercedes and the Hvar's first comprehensive guidebook, Hvar: An Insider's Guide to Croatia's Premier Island, I have lived in Dalmatia full time since 2003 and run various tourism information websites about Hvar, Split and Zagora, and am co-author of Split: An Insider's Guide with Mila Hvilshoj.

I also have various blogging clients, including the Central Dalmatia Tourist Board, Restaurant Gariful, Hvar Adventure, Villas Hvar and Andro Tomic Wines, and print clients include Qatar Airways inflight magazine, Out! magazine from New York, and Croatian Hotspots. 

I also provide website content services, including Agroturizam Pharos, Toto's Restaurant, European Coastal Airlines, Restaurant Gariful and Divota Aparthotel. Please contact me if you would like help with your website content.

I also write for Google News via Digital Journal - see my range of articles here

Ongoing writing projects:

A History of Hajduk Split, co-author with Frane Grgurevic

Around the World in 80 Disasters

Total Hvar in the Media:

Interview of the Month, Croatian Embassy in Washington (May 2013)

Special Feature in Globus Magazine (May 2013)

Featured on Croatian TV show, More (2012) - watch the report here

4-page special in Nedjelji Jutarnji, Croatia's leading paper (August 2014)

Interviews in Slobodna Dalmacija, Dalmacijanews, Radio Split

I am available for writing services. Please contact me on [email protected] 

Other websites:

Total Hvar - 

Total Split -

Total Inland Dalamtia - 

Login to post comments