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Reading ‘Mongol’ between Mogadishu and Nairobi

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The book: Mongol, Uuganaa Ramsay

The place: A plane between Mogadishu, Wajir and Nairobi

When you fly from Mogadishu to Nairobi, your bag gets checked at least five times. Yesterday morning, leaving Mogadishu, I arrived at the airport in my obligatory armoured car to find that all entrances to the airport had been closed, due to a rumour of a bomb in a vehicle. This meant that I had to get out of the car at one of the gates, waiting to have my bag searched for about ten minutes. (Almost) anywhere else, that would be a mild irritation; in Somalia, where the visibly foreign are routinely targeted by Al Shabaab, it was mildly terrifying – but at the same time, there was a small thrill in actually being outside in the Mogadishu streets, without an armed guard. (I made sure to keep at least two people between me and the street at all times – better safe than sorry, &c.) There was a worrying moment when then glowering Somali soldier searching my bag seemed to injure his hand on its contents – I blame a nail-clipper – but I did a lot of exaggerated smiling and cringing and he let me go. Then through a sandbagged corridor to another checkpoint, this time staffed by AMISOM; then to the airport itself – slogging through pale, fine sand, as close to a Somali beach as I’m ever likely to come – where a very angry-seeming man corralled everyone into strict lines and waved his stick threateningly at any infractions. Once inside, my bag and I were checked again, and finally allowed to pass through check-in and immigration. Bag-check count: 3.

All flights from Mogadishu to Nairobi stop in Wajir, the first Kenyan airstrip over the border as you’re flying from Somalia. Coming down over Wajir is rather striking: orange sand speckled with low, round, olive-green bushes; thatched huts patched with tarpaulins, with land demarcated by bone-coloured thorn fences. It looks more like South Sudan than anywhere in Kenya I’ve ever been. I’m not sure whether the stop in Wajir is solely a security measure, but that seems to be its main purpose, with another bag check, passing through Kenyan immigration and being funnelled into a small, surprisingly comfortable waiting room (where the television was playing what appeared to be a Nigerian drama heavily featuring bagpipe music – what) and then back onto the plane. And then finally, on arrival in Nairobi, passengers from Somalia are isolated in an anteroom before proceeding into immigration, where (yes) bags and documents are checked again. “We have to line up now,” a very dapper Somali gentleman explained to me wearily, “so they can check us against the manifest.” He was clearly very used to the procedure.

It’s interesting the extent to which security arrangements dictate one’s experience of a place. I know organisations operating in South Sudan that have security restrictions nearly as extreme as those I was working under in Somalia – and it’s understandable (though regrettable) that this sort of arrangement tends to breed suspicion and insecurity among those who are operating beneath it. In Somalia – there is no point of comparison, no organisation (as far as I’m aware) with foreign staff that has arrangements more relaxed than secure, guarded compounds, armoured cars, armed guards and extremely restricted movements. Two weeks ago, in Juba, I was wearing a summer dress and sandals, commuting to work on the back of a motorbike taxi, while Japanese peacekeepers in tanks, helmets and bullet-proof vests were going the other way; this week, in Mogadishu, I was the one in a bullet-proof vest, the first time I’ve ever had to wear one outside of training.

It’s hard to know what to make of the contrast, particularly on arriving back in Nairobi, breathing a sigh of relief at being back in a secure environment, and then a bomb killing ten and injuring more than 70 going off within an hour. I feel for the Somalis like those on my flight, though – they’re not going to have an easy time of it in Kenya over the next few weeks.

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Written by Jess

May 16, 2014 at 7:07 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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