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The Review - FEATURE
Published: 5 November 2009
New Journal reporter Jamie Welham with security guards at his compound in Hargeisa
New Journal reporter Jamie Welham with security guards at his compound in Hargeisa
Somalia, where the teenagers of Camden go to ‘cool off’

A land feared for its pirates who currently hold a British couple hostage,
Somalia’s reputation for lawlessness is hampering its bid to get back on its feet after a bitter civil war. New Journal reporter Jamie Welham recently visited the African country to discover the true situation

JOURNALISTS have a short life expectancy in Somalia, and as I
touched down on the scorched dirt-track that serves as the runway at Hargeisa International Airport, protection was high on my list of priorities.

Six journalists have been killed this year alone. Dozens more have been thrown into jail to rot. The Foreign Office advice is unequivocal: don’t go there.
Read the papers, watch the news and it becomes clear that there is no credible, authentic frame of reference in this benighted country recently dubbed “the new Afghanistan”. 
Most recently, it’s been known for its pirate angle, before it was the war angle, the film Black Hawk Down, but on the country itself and its eight million people: nothing.
That was my official reason for being there. Naturally there were doubts. Was I just another deluded misfit, driven by post-colonial guilt, seduced like so many before me by misplaced ideals and an itch to escape the white noise of London? The French have a word for such people – Les fous d’Afrique – the madmen of Africa.
Hargeisa isn’t Mogadishu. Flattened by the bombs of repressive dictator Siad Barre (the only man to successfully switch sides during the Cold War) in 1989 shortly before he was overthrown, the city of a million people has refashioned itself as a relatively stable haven in the north, a de facto republic since the rest of the country is paralysed by anarchy and gangsterism.
But in the capital of the former British protec­torate of Somaliland – a country you won’t find on any map but it’s real nevertheless – people are restless. It isn’t the usual story of a nation without a state (Somalia is one of only two countries in Africa which is united by a common ethnicity, language, religion and culture) but the fear of being dragged back into the maelstrom in the south. They want indepen­dence and the foreign investment it brings.
While the perception of safety could pave the way for recognition, there are other barriers. That Somaliland is a craggy desert of rock and sand with no real resources is the most telling.
“When you go home, tell your Foreign Office it is safe here,” was a request I heard countless times. And they’ve got a point. Yes, it is a UN ruling that every Westerner must be under armed guard, the city has been targeted by suicide bombers from hard-line militant group Al-Shabaab and, as I saw for myself when I visited the hospital, gunshot wounds are the main source of injury.
But, unlike the rest of the country, Somaliland as an army, government bureaucracy, parliament and a multi-party political system. Which isn’t to say I didn’t feel threatened. The endless daily checkpoints, driving around in Toyota Landcruisers with the lights off, and the general feeling that every encounter might implode, some of the reasons why. And there are signs that stability could be ephemeral. There are elections there. An election in a country that doesn’t exist is a strange thing.
And there are more surprises. Perhaps the patronising “white man in Africa” travel guide literature had seeped through my defences, but, if I was going to make snap decisions on the “friendliness” of Somali people, I’d say first impressions would rank them somewhere between resentful mother-in-law and an out-of-work docker after 10 pints. The following exchange was typical: Somali: “Hey, white man, you are a spy.” Me, somewhat taken aback: “No, I’m not. I’m a writer. I am going to write about your country.” Somali, grabbing my hand: “You are an agent. You are CIA.” Me, stuttering: “I promise I’m not. I’m British from London, you know, Arsenal, Chelsea, John Terry?” Somali, simultaneously shaking my hand, looking around and shouting out loud: “CIA, CIA, CIA! Agent, Agent!” Not exactly the smiley African-exotica package of the National Geographic.
Other preconceptions had to be put in check. Somalia is not the dollar a day, distended stomach Africa. There are victims and there are killers, but there is also everyone else – ordinary Somalis. The country can feed itself. The only people I saw begging were Ethiopian refugees, (there really are some people actually fleeing to Somalia).
Despite or perhaps because of the complete absence of international development aid, its economy has had to be resilient. It’s a mixture of telecommunications (Hargeisa had three mobile phone companies and even the camel herders carry phones), livestock and its main industry – money sent back from family living overseas. Remittances are a lifeline to Somalis. And while it might seem bizarre, Camden Town is the coalface of Somalia and particularly Hargeisa’s economy. Thousands of Somalilanders were uprooted to north London at the height of the civil war between 1986 and 1992. Every week, emigres living north of the Euston Road put money into their Dahabshiil accounts to help out family in their homeland. Dahabshiil may not mean anything in Hampstead, but the British-Somali money transfer company is a household name on housing estates in Kentish Town and King’s Cross. And many go further than sending money. They go themselves. Hundreds of families put their faith in Daallo airlines (a faltering DC-10 that makes the plane in Airplane! look like Air Force 1) to return to their motherland every summer. I met a good few teenagers who told me they had been sent away for the summer to “cool off” from the Camden Town street life.
Hearing the familiar top-deck-of-the-bus London argot of “skeen” above the din of the call to prayer was one of the more bizarre space-time ruptures of my trip.
When they’re not surviving or arguing, Somalis like to chew. Sometimes goat, sometimes spaghetti – the legacy of Italian colonialism, which you eat the way you always wanted to eat it as a child, slurping with your hands – but mainly a green leaf called Khat. “You chew, you chew, green grass very good,” was a familiar refrain as I walked about. The eye-popping amphetamine-containing plant is sold on every street corner, and by three in the afternoon, the whole city is comatose.
At Berbera jail, the site of my most surreal encounter, I secured an interview with two real-life pirates, men who sensationally captured two German tourists; successfully collecting the ransom money, before they were arrested trying to spring an Egyptian freight ship with a boat-full of rocket launchers.
Berbera jail is medieval. A quick frisk and I was in. With palms sweating, “Iska warran,” I said in broken Somali, summoning as much confidence as I could in front of the two steely looking men, just a month into their 15-year sentences. It was going to be a tough interview. But my carefully rehearsed “you’re the victims here, let’s talk about the causes of crime” spiel unravelled quicker than I had expected. My translator looked shell-shocked. “What did he say?” I asked hesitantly. “He said ‘this is my country, not yours, why don’t you f*** off out of my country’.” I needed a change of tack. Khat. $30 worth of the talking leaf, and I began to feel more like the CIA interrogator everyone seemed to think I was. Is it ethical to drug prisoners before an interview? “We are just humble fishermen,” they told me. “We were just defending our waters. International fishermen have plundered our stock. We have a family to feed, that’s why we did it. We ?are heroes where we live, not criminals.”
When I did try to challenge them with guilt they just shrugged their shoulders. As I left, the prison guard told me the pair weren’t too bothered by their situation. The 
$1million they received for the German hostages was evidently keeping their families comfortable.
One of the most haunting experiences of my trip was visiting Hargeisa Mental Health unit – the only mental health facility in the entire country.
I doubt any of the patients; a mixture of khat addicts and civil war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress, had ever met a psychiatrist. A soiled mattress, leg-irons and a shit bucket – that was their medicine.
Asked why they had to be chained up 24 hours a day, I was told they had no option. “They would run away. We know it’s cruel but it is all we can do,” said the hospital administrator, who was remarkably disinterested in my line of questioning and sudden compulsion to take a lot of pictures. Now I understand why the unit is kept out of sight.
Somalia isn’t for everybody. It can be frustrating, distressing and at times downright scary, but going there also makes you feel like you’ve only half-lived.
Journalists should be wary of generalisations, but if ever there was a country to hold a mirror up to what we have lost through wasteful wealth and non-stop living, the good and the bad of the human condition and everything in between, Somalia has it times 10.
Where else in the world would you be honoured with a thanksgiving ceremony, a camel and a plot of real estate so close to the seashore you can spot a Jolly Roger, just for dressing up in a sarong and chewing some khat with a couple of out-of-work herders.

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Well done Jamie for having the curiousity and the courage to go to go to Somalia. A great story and a facinating country.
'Nicky '
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