Flashback to Baidoa, Somalia: 1992
By Yannis Behrakis
It was the beginning of December 1992 and the winter had settled into Athens – the big story was the civil war and the famine in Somalia.
I volunteered to cover the story, as I’m sure many others did, but I was one of the “lucky” ones selected to go. Tom’s distinctive voice on the phone sounded both reassuring and worried. It was my first trip to the region and I remember running frantically to get malaria pills and a Yellow fever vaccine. I had the other vaccines a year earlier before covering a massive earthquake in Iran.
After a long flight via Cairo I found myself in Nairobi, with all my clothes lost somewhere in Africa. The most valuable part of my kit was fortunately still with me: two analogue camera bodies, the usual collection of lenses, a portable darkroom to develop color films, lots of chemicals and the latest in transmission technology, a 35mm film scanner and a T1 PC (the first Reuters photos portable PC) capable of filing a color photo to our London desk in about 22 minutes! This, of course, only if you succeeded in sending all three color separations.
My aim was to be in Mogadishu at least a day ahead of the arrival of the U.S. task force. After a lot of research I found a 12-seater twin engine private plane and a pilot willing to transfer journalists to Somalia. After days of negotiations between a group of correspondents, the Nairobi airport authority, the pilot and a little extra money, we had a deal.
On the morning of December 5, a group of seven journalists arrived at a remote area of the Nairobi airport. The pilot was a young Kenyan wearing flip flops, a pair of old jeans and a white shirt covered in engine oil patches. After receiving $500 per head, he arranged his passengers according to their weight. The aircraft looked old and a heavy smell of petrol added to the misery. Some cables were running loose off the dashboard in the cockpit, the upholstery of the seats was dirty and parts of it torn off. “People, do not worry, the plane is in good shape, we will fly low… just in case…. a bit more than an hour’s flight,” the pilot shouted while warming up the noisy engines. I could not complain, the view from a low-flying plane over Africa was an unforgettable experience.
In January 1991, the leader of Somalia, Mohamed Siad Barre, was overthrown by a coalition of opposing clans called the United Somalia Congress. Somalia was soon driven into a civil war and its people into severe famine. On August 1992, the White House announced that U.S. military transports would support a multinational UN relief effort in Somalia.
Air Force C-130s delivered 48,000 tons of food and medical supplies to international humanitarian organizations, trying to help more than three million starving people in the country. When this proved inadequate to stop the massive deaths and displacement of Somali people (500,000 dead; 1.5 million refugees or displaced), the U.S. decided to launch a major coalition operation, Operation Restore Hope to assist and protect humanitarian activities.
The voice of the pilot interrupted my reading of Reuters print stories: “We will be landing shortly at kilo 50,” he screamed. It was a strip of land, looking nothing like an airport, 50 kms (31 miles) from Mogadishu. The moment we landed two technicals (open-backed civilian pickup trucks or four-wheel drive vehicles mounted with a machine gun, light anti-aircraft gun, recoil-less rifle or other support weapon) with gunmen raced to near our aircraft. The pilot jumped out and talked to them, they seemed to know each other. The gunmen opened the belly of the plane and took two big piles of Chat, a common drug in eastern Africa — an amphetamine-like stimulant which is said to cause excitement, loss of appetite and euphoria. Welcome to Somalia!
About an hour later I was in a hotel room in Mogadishu, probably the worst and dirtiest hotel I’d seen in my life up until then. I shared a room with another 3 or 4 people with, of course, no private bathroom and very little water. The temperature in Mogadishu was over 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit). I was shocked by the destruction of the Somali capital and the misery of its people.
A visit to Bakara market proved a stupid idea as we had to run for our lives when some locals wanted to take us in their cars for a “ride”. The team of Reuters photographers, text journalists and colleagues from Visnews (later Reuters TV) took up positions in the early hours of December 9 in order to cover the U.S.-led assault. The mission of the multinational task force was to secure delivery of humanitarian aid all over Somalia. U.S. Marines aboard small dinghies landed at the port, engaging in short firefights with unknown gunmen. Flares lit up the sky and small arms fire accompanied by loud explosions created an amazing scene.
Some U.S. special forces approached the group of media I was with. After shooting over our heads, they ordered everybody on the ground, searched us, handcuffed our drivers and translators and within 2 hours took full control of the entire port of Mogadishu. The next day Reuters decided to send a team inland to the town of Baidoa which was the theater of some of the heaviest fighting and worst famine.
We wanted to be there before the arrival of the Western forces in the next day or two. I traveled with Jim Hollander, Paul Holmes, Mark Chisholm from Visnews and late Reuters photographer Dan Eldon. We traveled in two Technicals escorted by 5 bodyguards, the only way to survive those days in Somalia.
A couple of hours later we arrived in Baidoa along with a small group of reporters from other media organizations. We had to negotiate our way through several checkpoints even though our gunmen insisted we should kill everybody on our way instead. The situation in Baidoa was beyond any horror film scenario — people were dying in the streets from sickness and starvation and in some cases their relatives would bury them on the spot.
The local warlords were terrorizing the civilians, looting the feeding centers and aid organization compounds. In one case, a warlord drove his car into a group of people waiting for food distribution and killed several of them. We were not allowed to approach the area to witness the event.
We visited several feeding centers and orphanages. Baidoa, alias city of death, had some orphanages housing over 1,000 children. The multinational forces were supposed to arrive in two days but due to logistical and other issues did not make it there for a week. The local gunmen seized the opportunity to intensify their attacks against civilians and aid agencies. The Somali Red Crescent used garbage trucks to collect the dead every morning, in one case I managed to get in one and see the carnage from very close and in relative safety since the gunmen slept late after chewing chat till late in the night.
I remember mothers delivering their dead children to the Red Crescent without shedding a tear, the constant death around them drying their eyes.
In some of the feeding centers, children did not have enough energy or courage to walk in the line and they would die on the spot, only ten meters from a glass of milk if nobody helped them. In some cases, we had to act in order to help.
On our second day in Baidoa, we set off to take pictures of gunmen in the town to show the situation was dire for the residents and to illustrate the need for Western soldiers to act, and to act fast. We drove to the center of the city and the moment I stood up on the back of our pick-up Technical, a young gunman jumped out of a military truck equipped with a heavy anti-aircraft gun and sprayed bullets at me from not more than 20 meters away. I think everybody was shocked, including him. I’m not sure if it was bad aim or too much Chat or both but bullets buzzed by me but did not touch me.
Our bodyguards went berserk. Almost every night we had to renegotiate the daily rate for our bodyguards, but we had no choice – we either paid them or we would end up becoming the story. After almost a week, we had long run out of food and water supplies and I remember eating the only safe thing in miles, fresh grapefruit. When the foreign soldiers finally arrived we were excited for several reasons: the local gunmen disappeared, they delivered much needed aid to the civilians and especially the children, we had the story before and after and finally we had food and water. I never had such tasty MRE’s (military dry food) in my life. Unfortunately, I got sick from some strange bug and had to leave for Nairobi a few days later.
Recently I have seen history repeating itself with Somalis suffering yet again from another severe famine for the same reasons as before; human greed and fanaticism.
This blog is dedicated to my friend and colleague Dan Eldon who was killed doing what he loved to do.