Stephen Smith

Reflecting on Somalia at the recent UN-sponsored peace talks, I found the more I heard about warring factions, Western intervention and the re-drawing of boundaries, the more I felt like shouting: ‘That’s enough about Bosnia – what about Africa?’ Although it was impossible to grudge the Bosnians their summit in Geneva, it was possible to be disappointed that the serious British media were in Switzerland for talks on what used to be Yugoslavia instead of in Ethiopia for talks on what used to be Somalia.

I wish I could say that it had been the plight of Somalia’s starving children that had impelled me to take the story personally. Perhaps I can blame television, with its seasonal images of African catastrophe, for the feeling of déjà vu that I experienced even at the heart of the famine. As so often happens, it was the unanticipated – inhaling the charnelhouse odour of Baidoa as I opened my case back in London – that brought the horror home, literally for a change. No doubt my obsession with Somalia had something to do with pride in having crossed Mogadishu’s ‘green line’, and drawn a warning round or two from armed looters in the port. I suspect, however, that the real attraction lay in the fact that so few others knew quite how good the Somalia story was, or indeed quite how bad.

The few others became many in December. The curiosity of the American networks in particular was such that a press corps cheeseparingly estimated at three hundred gathered in Mogadishu to attend the arrival of the Marines. The Somalia story was being invaded and occupied as surely as the country itself. The American intervention proved in many ways to be the least hairy of my experiences in Somalia. Yet it disturbed me more than any of the others. The first sign of this was in my dreams. I dreamt all the time; a very bad dream indeed, that involved someone I knew but didn’t recognise ushering me through a pair of tall doors onto a breezy precipice. Or sometimes I was breasting rapids at the top of a waterfall. The dream and its meaning troubled me.

A military failure seemed out of the question: the Toyota gunships of Mogadishu’s mobsters were patently no match for the Humvees and Cobras of 20,000 United States servicemen. Even the risk of being winged in crossfire had dwindled after gunmen began stashing their weapons to prevent the Americans from confiscating them. But my dream proved resistant to rational thought. When we were marooned in Nairobi, trying to find a pilot who had not yet been bought up by American television to fly his light aircraft to Mogadishu, I would lie in bed, the time difference working against me, my body insisting it was only eleven when my watch said two, and the dream would run a trailer or promo of itself, round and round in a video loop. At such times, I was glad of the inclement telephone, not really waking me because I wasn’t really asleep, and of the office, calling down the fizzing cistern of the international lines to find out when we would arrive in Mogadishu, and how much it was all going to cost.

The night before the Marines came ashore, I was lying on the tarpaper roof of Mogadishu airport. In the gauzy blue ABC tent beside me, producers wearing their baseball caps – like submarine ratings on periscope watch – were tending to shuddering monitors and talking into satellite telephones. The moon was full. In the brief interval before Chinooks began winnowing the darkness, you could have fallen asleep imagining you were on a Nasa spaceshot.

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