Somalia: Mog-to-Kisimayo Road Trip (aborted)

Enough of this… In Mogadishu for how many days – running around in circles, militias in tow – adding to the quantity of armed men surrounding us every time we crossed an arbitrary barrier. Indeed, each time we had to cross into another warlord’s territory, another militia truck would have to be added to our convoy for a few hundred more that day. Expensive? Hell yes. Of course, nothing but the worst in southern Somalia. Nothing but the worst, for all intents and purposes, has all it’s been ever since my last visit there over four years ago.

Sure, it all came to a head sometime in the past two years. People started paying attention again, after all this time, all the while Somalia has been going on near a generation without a functioning government. That means kids growing up without any knowledge of law and order, any idea of what a head of state is, a parliament or some equivalent, or even what the notion of nationhood even means. This is indeed all foreign to us bloated rich western folk that, on this planet in the infancy of the twenty-first century, people can still live off the grid, off the map, with a currency that technically shouldn’t exist, in a country that technically doesn’t exist. I got in and out, officially, by paying my translator ten bucks to handwrite my entry and exit dates inside my passport. All this in the age of the internet, the ever-traceable individual, the see-through body scanner, the Al-Qaeda database (trademark) that can make any man with flammable underwear stop and think twice about taking a flight out of Heathrow to Detroit.

Ah, if it was only that simple. Once in awhile, people head out to Mogadishu, and back in the early throes of oh-six, I was doing the same. The second time, actually – one more than most, almost more than all of the world.

Mogadishu, that time, was a different experience, one that I’d written about extensively some years ago. Few cared then, and few more care now, thanks to a few token white sailors getting stuck on the wrong end of a rusty machine gun. Nonetheless I refuse to repeat that story: what I’m going to tell is the story of an aborted trip south from Mogadishu to Kisimayo, some five hundred klicks southwest, some kind of random mad-max road trip that was never intended to succeed.

Why haven’t I told it sooner? Well, I tried. Selling stuff on the country is a task somewhere between difficult and impossible, and magazines tend to only buy stuff about dumb blondes who happen to appear on American television. Thusly and therefore, no one really cared that I was heading south to Kisimayo.

Back then, in the old days, Mog was a “safer” place – warlords had divided the city into about eight, maintaining a sort of equilibrium amongst themselves, ensuring a basic level of law and order. But back then, things were not going extremely well for these eight folks, as the Islamic Courts (also known as Al-Shabab, sort of, kind of) were jockeying for their own piece of Club Mog and already controlled about half of it. Three months after our departure, they got the other half, and Mog would never be the same. But before this fundamental change in the anarchistic equilibrium of the city, we were planning a road trip south.

Indeed, a road trip with a truck full of Somalis with heavy machine guns, ourselves decked out in abandoned bulletproof vests that the Pakistani contingent of the UN had cast off around 1993, as well as a bundle of satellite phones, laptops, satellite internet, backpacks full of stinking clothes, and of course our guide and driver. We had spent the whole afternoon two days before negotiating a price.

A few grand, the hotelier demanded from us. We said sorry, we’re just poor students, not much in the way of cash, and even if we had extra cash to spare it wouldn’t do you much good as there wasn’t a single working bank machine in your whole damned country – or the three countries that currently make up the geographic boundaries of your whole theoretical damned country. It’s getting confusing already. They had an offer, however – a few friends of theirs (clan members, to be precise) had agreed that for a smaller fee they would meet up with us around the halfway point between Mogadishu and Kisimayo, and ferry us south from there.

Kisimayo, back in these ancient days four years ago, was not yet overrun by Al-Shabab but was naturally no vacation spot either – it too had been divided up between warlords, though they were far less used to receiving international visitors than the community representatives in Mog. (Think that, instead of a handful of visitors each year, you get zero). This was only one of our initial problems with the place – the mystery was, of course, did they manage the same sort of semi-organized law enforcement like the Mog types had created, ad-hoc, over the past fifteen years? Did anyone even know this was going on in Mogadishu? Obviously, no one else had bothered to ask, as I discovered one charming afternoon arguing with some fool from Ottawa who couldn’t believe someone could be calling him from a satellite phone from an airstrip west of Mogadishu asking if he knew anything about chartering aircraft out of Nairobi; but, as I said, that’s another story.

But as for Kisimayo – it was a mystery. Me and my associate had been bouncing around Nairobi for a week before our arrival in Club Mog, asking about chartering aircraft into southern Somalia, and finally found the leading “domestic” airport in Kenya and the office of a charming Somali gentlemen who gave us a price, and then delivered a deep heartfelt sigh. “You guys are young,” he said with sadness, “and perhaps you should think again about your visit to Kisimayo, considering all that is going on there.”

Oh. Did I mention that back in the early days of Oh-six, Kisimayo was the initial flash point for all this piracy-on-the-seas stuff, the jumping-off point for the Islamic rebels? The first place they really managed to gain ground against the warlords, in their mission to consolidate the southern third of the country into some sort of authoritative Islamic state? Well, it must have slipped my mind; as we did, in fact, politely decline the chartered aircraft to Kisimayo and decided to wait out the weekend for a scheduled flight into Club Mog.

Then it all happened – the militia truck appeared out front of the Sahafi Hotel on another scorching day. Over the past week we had spoken to numerous parliamentarians who wandered amongst the walls of the Sahafi Hotel like ghosts, mysterious figures from murderous army generals to intellectuals whom had spent most of their previous years in Toronto and Minnesota. Indeed, we loaded up the SUV with our craploads of gear, various sugary sweets for the journey, and watched our guide down plenty of camel milk. The call to prayer woke me up early, I pushed off the heavy velvet blankets from my hotel room’s bed, looked down from the chain-link screens that covered the balcony, and, in any event, realized it was time to go.

Kisimayo, here I come. No one had managed a road trip through Southern Somalia for, oh, probably fifteen years. Maybe they did back in ninety-three, no one will really know and few will ever really care. Strapped into the vehicle the gates then opened, and we stopped on the outside as the gates closed; from the alleys our two trucks filled with machine-gun men appeared. On our way, it would seem.

It was an innocuous journey for the first couple of hours. Past Merca, our guide kept holding his head. We played with the satellite phone, I took pictures of camels. Looked at the dust trailing us, looked at the militia’s truck trailing dust in the front. No, you don’t get to see the coast as the “highway” is, naturally, a dozen kilometres in. That is, if you can call it a highway – it had been broken into a maze of potholes, and more often than otherwise we drove along the side of the highway than on it.

Low trees, various herds of camels and cows, dotted the landscape. A clear blue sky, random Somali sounds (and of course Bob Marley) blared from the radio. We stopped briefly to fix some tires, the machine-gun men fanned out around us, but soon we were back in the vehicle. Some hours later, again, we stopped. Our guide had chatted with the hotelier back at the Sahafi via a cellular phone. Time for a stretch, at least.

Yet, this was not simply a stretching of the legs. This was another experience, that of the militia commander huddling his troops together behind the vehicle, screaming on the phone, expounding his reasons for something or other, demanding a resolution. Our guide, staring into space while holding his belly, seemed uninterested. Minutes later he turned to us.

“We had planned to hand you to another militia group one hundred kilometres south, but they misunderstood our intention. They are thinking we are coming to fight, not to meet them, so they are expecting to fight us. So we leave the question to you – do you want to go meet them, and fight them? Or, we can go back to Mogadishu,” he said, staring off into space, looking a little ill.

Ahh. It would seem as though that our intensive planning, and road tripping in southern Somalia on the cheap, may have been all for naught. There was something of a communication error here – they had told us that the two clans were friends; they had explained clearly that we were to be handed off between the two militias, without incident. Now we were, apparently, hiring a few local mercenaries to spark a war between clans in southern Somalia. The final showdown between Mogadishu and Kisimayo. Talk about kicking it up a notch.

Par for the course, perhaps. I told them in no uncertain terms that we weren’t going down there to face anyone, to fight anyone, but in fact were simply students on a research project here on the Somali coast, for a second time. When we arrived back at the Sahafi wearing level-three vests and unloading tonnes of laptops and satellite equipment, you could just see the locals drinking tea and muttering to themselves, “students my ass”.

It was not until our arrival back at the hotel, as well, that we had learned that our little road trip was novel enough that a local journalist had found fit to announce it to the entire city on local radio the day before – indubitably with a little bit of circulation to their friends down in Kisimayo as well. The media may have hammed it up, made it out to be more exciting and interesting than it was intended to be, and rumours persisted upon our departure of it appearing in Mogadishu’s daily newspaper as well. Some young white guys road tripping in southern Somalia, Mogadishu to Kisimayo? What are the odds?

But hey, we got our money back. The hotelier blamed our poor guide on wimping out due to “drinking too much camel milk”, which is a line I’ll have to try someday when I don’t want to do something. It’s one thing to say no, but in places like this, the Somalis were still eager to help us at less than half the price – and they failed. Perhaps it’s a lesson for all, and I hate to say that for those east coast Africa overlanders, your time has yet to come. One thing’s for sure, however, you should definitely bring some spare tires. And maybe a few bulletproof vests for good measure.

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