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Giving hope to Somalia

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Women at Al-Hoda IDP camp, Mogadishu. Copyright Shafiq Morton.
Shafiq Morton accompanied Gift of the Givers on its most recent aid mission to Mogadishu

FROM the air, the Somali coastline is postcard pristine. Waves curl over coral reefs, and dunes lead to sandy beaches. As our plane dips towards Mogadishu, the Horn of Africa’s most troubled city comes into view.

As we prepare to land, our pilot skims over the heaving swells. It’s an exhilarating way to arrive, but as we taxi, the gloss disappears. A shot-up Russian Ilushin, its wings broken, is abandoned on the side of the runway.

Beyond the fence, I see a bubble of plastic huts – the camps of those who’ve fled famine and Al-Shabab. Urbanisation has now ensnared Somali’s rural poor.

The airport building is a basic structure without air-conditioning. It was built by the Chinese during the ignominious reign of General Muhammad Siad Barre, the man who started the rot in the Horn when he grabbed power via a coup in 1969.

General Barre’s 21-year contribution to Somalia – once one of the most democratic of African states – was to divide it along clan lines, to fight a losing war with Ethiopia and to impose Cold War Marxism.

Having courted the Soviets, the Americans and the IMF, General Barre was deposed in 1990. His departure left a vacuum, briefly filled by Farah Aideed, and then by warlordism, the brief rule of the Islamic Courts Union (until Ethiopian intervention in 2006) and the Salafist absolutism of Al-Shabab (after the ICU).

The US’s ill-fated intervention in 1993 – relating to drought relief and nervousness about the security of the Gulf of Aden – was immortalised in the movie Black Hawk Down.

We arrived in Mogadishu a month after AMISOM (African Union) forces, aided by South African, French and Scandinavian “advisors” employed by Bancroft Global Development, had chased Al-Shabab out of the city.

Manned by 10,000 Ugandan and Burundian forces, AMISOM is an AU success story. Forget about international conspiracies (of which there are many). Forget about romantic notions of Al-Shabab being the heroic vanguard of the Somali underdog.

Formerly the military wing of the more moderate Islamic Courts Union, Al-Shabab – which means “the youth” – has become part of the Somali problem. AMISOM chasing it out of the city has done a huge favour for the locals.

My observation, based on numerous interviews with Mogadishu residents, is that Al-Shabab will be remembered for chaos and carnage. Whenever I mentioned Al-Shabab to those I spoke to, all I heard was “kill” and “bad”.

This was corroborated by concrete evidence: the boy whose right arm was hacked off by his commander just because he had doubts; or the soldier who told me of a cousin who’d been forced to slit the throat of another family member.

Stories of Al-Shabab bullying refugees fleeing the famine in the south were rife, from rape and plunder, to abductions.

Rising out of the ashes of the ICU – which was an effort by businessmen to restore law and order in the 2000’s – Al-Shabab’s clumsy efforts to “Talibanise” Somalia, an African country boasting a tolerant Islam based on the traditions of tasawwuf, or Islamic spirituality, has been a disaster.

Allegedly infiltrated by foreign mujahidin, Al-Shabab pledged allegiance to Dr Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Usama bin Laden’s mentor, and over-ran the country with bloodthirsty vigour.

Declared a “terrorist “ organisation by the US and Britain, Al-Shabab destroyed Sufi shrines, captured young boys to serve in its ranks, and terrorised the population with its distorted interpretation of Shari’ah, or Sacred Law.

AMISOM, the only counter to Al-Shabab, is backed by the UN. AMISOM is an implementation of the Djibouti Accord (a peacekeeping initiative aiming for elections by August next year). All parties in the Somali mix – except for Al-Shabab – have representation on the 550-strong Transitional Federal Government (TFG) based in Nairobi.

From afar, this may all seem crazy, interventionist and somewhat surreal. However, the Somali Assembly is a bombed-out ruin, and there is no infrastructure in Mogadishu. Here food and guns reign supreme. We had to travel everywhere accompanied by heavily armed militia.

I would also learn from reliable UN and AMISOM sources that violence had dropped in the city by over 80% since their intervention in August, and that Mogadishu was coming to life again. In fact, during our stay three IED devices were successfully defused by AMISOM, and a 13 year old suicide bomber was intercepted.

But, as interesting Somali politics may be, my story here is more about the South African mercy mission by Gift of the Givers, a Pietermaritzburg aid agency that has mobilised R40 million worth of aid for Somalia in a mere 47 days.

Mogadishu – once an attractive and tree-lined seaport city – lies in ruins, bombed to its foundations by over two decades of conflict. With many of its own citizens Internally Displaced Persons (IDP’s) due to recent action against Al-Shabab, Mogadishu was in trouble.

With no disaster relief, and most hospitals dysfunctional or closed for years, the flood of famine IDP’s flocking to the city for help since April had put it under unimaginable strain. War and famine had run into each other.

International NGO’s, mostly conspicuous by their absence, had put those present (such as Medecins Sans Frontieres) under severe pressure. It was into this breach that Gift of the Givers stepped, giving hope to Somalia’s needy.

We flew into Mogadishu with a large contingent of medical staff. Their brief was to work at Banadir Hospital, one of the few functioning health care centres in Somalia.

After a few days at Banadir, GOG director Dr Imtiaz Sooliman received an offer from a hospital superintendent at Forlanini Hospital in the Abdi Aziz district north of Mogadishu.

The hospital, recently liberated from Al-Shabab, had been standing empty for three years. Much to his surprise, Dr Sooliman was offered full control of the hospital, the only surviving structure in the neighbourhood.

His team split up and moved in, putting up a fully functional operating theatre in less than a day. It was there that many miracles occurred. And whilst five month old Nasreen Siyad – weighing less than two kilograms – survived, there were those who didn’t.

After having set up at Forlanini, GOG’s was asked by another hospital – Madina – to offer orthopaedic services. Again, the team went into action, the surgeons performing their first operation in a matter of hours.

If that wasn’t enough, Saint Martini – another hospital in Mogadishu – had opened its doors for the first time in 20 years and desperately needed orthopaedic surgeons. With his crew on the ground already stretched to its limits, Dr Sooliman flew in another medical team.

With most Somalis not having seen doctors in decades, the medics were under pressure. One doctor I spoke to said he’d seen a new patient every three-and-a-half minutes. At Forlanini alone, 600 people were seen a day.

Somalia has thousands of people with high velocity bullet wounds and in theatres without lights, air-conditioning and running water, our surgeons saved many lives.

Then there was the feeding. The IDP camps are big, and people live under bright plastic huts built out of twigs. Immaculately clean, considering the abject conditions, 30,000 people were being fed three wet meals a day, and would soon be drinking water from a well dug by South Africans.

As I stood in the hot sun covered in dust, I acknowledged that I had a lot to think about. South Africans, via Gift of the Givers, had truly opened their hearts to Somalia, and seeing the smiles on the faces of once starving children, I realised that the impact had been immense.

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