Letter from Mogadishu


January 03, 1993|By RICHARD H.P. SIA

Mogadishu, Somalia. -- Nothing seems quite as unnerving as sitting in a pickup truck that is barreling down a dirt road toward a squad of U.S. soldiers, their M-16s and fixed machine guns aimed squarely at the windshield.

But then there's little about being a foreign journalist in Somalia that isn't unnerving, if not downright scary.

Stories are circulating almost daily through the city of reporters who've been roughed up and robbed, even outside the main airport gate within view of the Pakistani and American troops there.

Somali gunmen Monday mugged a British television crew, which then got caught in a cross-fire that killed one of the bandits and injured a journalist.

More than a week before, an Air Force captain had told me that some of his buddies witnessed an assault on a Japanese television crew, which apparently had gone to great lengths before getting here to have a go-between negotiate a lucrative deal for their "security," namely a coterie of armed guards.

Apparently, the Somali contractors involved in the deal decided to double cross the trusting Japanese and stripped them of thousands of dollars and their camera equipment just after they got into their car at the airport.

The Air Force captain started to laugh while telling the story.

"Did you know a Somali man approached the Japanese guys the next day and offered to sell their camera back to them for $50?" he said incredulously. "They paid."

It's funny so long as you're not the victim.

Not long ago, Lee Romero, a street-smart New York Times photographer, headed to Baidoa on an overnight road trip to join a Times reporter there.

He was feeling quite sick from a harsh bout of intestinal flu when his pickup truck broke down somewhere near Afgoi, about 25 miles northwest of Mogadishu. As the driver and two gunmen worked on the truck, Lee wandered away, looking for a place to unload the pain in his gut.

He found a vacant whitewashed concrete building, one of the many undistinguished structures in the area. As he left the building, a man started cursing him and charging him with a big stick. He --ed for the truck, which, fortunately for him, was ready to leave.

"What did you do? Did you urinate on the floor?" asked Lee's Somali translator.

"Worse," answered Lee. "Why?"

The building, the translator explained calmly as the truck pulled away from the angry man, is either a place of worship or the site where the local clan leaders have their enemies tortured.

I guess it's hard to tell these things apart.

In fact, there are few clues here about what's safe and what isn't or whether someone's trustworthy or not.

The day after my arrival in the capital, I was loitering in the ground floor "holding room" for homeless journalists at the makeshift hotel dubbed the "Roach Hotel" and "Mogadishu Hilton," looking for help in arranging my own armed security, when I got a glimpse of what I was up against.

I overheard an anguished photographer from Sacramento, Calif., who was about to leave for good, pleading with a Somali man who evidently served as his translator and brought along two gunmen for protection.

It seems that, while taking pictures at the local market, a group of men drew their automatic rifles and pointed them at the photographer at point blank range. His own body guards backed off, leaving him defenseless.

He managed to escape with his life.

"Why did you let that happen?" the photographer asked the Somali man. "They could've shot me. You were supposed to be there to help me."

I was fortunate to inherit a "crew," as I called it, that came highly recommended. A departing free-lance photographer for Newsweek magazine, who had hired the men many weeks before reporters inundated the city and brought out the more unscrupulous Somali operators, introduced me to them.

I already knew most of the trustworthy crews in town had been hired, leaving the greedy ones to rip off reporters at the airport. So I hired this crew on the spot.

What a deal. The daily rate for a translator, driver, one vehicle and two gunmen had soared to $200, payable in American $50 bills. My crew cost $150 a day with a third gunman thrown in for good measure. Long distance trips would cost extra.

So here we were driving to the U.S. Army encampment at Bale Dogle airstrip, where I wanted to get a grunt's eye view of the Somalia operation.

That's when we abruptly encountered the U.S. rifle squad at the entrance to the airstrip grounds.

At my urging, Mohamed, who was at the wheel, wisely decided to cut his speed, while Bashir, my translator and crew chief stuck nearly his entire body out the passenger window to tell the three guys in the truck bed to hide their automatic rifles.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the trio, whose names I never learned, put their rifles under blankets. Two of them had been riding shotgun on either side of the truck, their rifle barrels pointed toward the front; the third sat in the middle facing the rear, his gun propped up on the tailgate.

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