Friday, October 29, 2010

Belet Weyne

Somalia Militants Execute 2 Girls As Spies. That was the headline on an inside page of today’s papers. I began reading:

The two accused spies died amid a fusillade of bullets from a firing squad organized by a hard-line Islamist militia. The condemned pair were only girls, ages 15 and 18, and their grieving relatives say they were uneducated, usually stayed at home and could not have spied for anyone.

Horrified residents of the town of Belet Weyne, in western Somalia, were forced to watch the execution by al-Shabab on Wednesday. One woman fainted as the girls were gunned down by 10 masked executioners.

"Those who watched the event could not bear the painful experience. Two very young girls were shot as they watched and no one could help," said Dahir Casowe, a local elder.

Al-Shabab is linked to al Qaeda and has carried out whippings, amputations and executions to enforce its own strict interpretation of Islam. But this was the first public execution of girls in Belet Weyne, which al-Shabab took over just over a year ago.

Belet Weyne. How many people had even heard of this faraway place? Not many. But to me it was a familiar name. I have been there.

It was 1982. I was on a research mission for the Breakthrough Foundation. We had been invited by Save the Children to take a firsthand look and decide whether we wanted to do any work in Somalia.

In recent years Somalia has been in the news for a variety of reasons, none of them good. Famines, civil war, anarchy, random killings by uncontrolled armed gangs, destruction. Name it, Somalia has had it. For Americans, the worst event happened in 1993 when 18 US soldiers supporting a UN effort to alleviate a famine were killed when their helicopter was shot down in Mogadishu. The movie, “Black Hawk Down,” depicted this event.

When I went there Somalia was fighting Ethiopia for control of the disputed Ogaden region on their border. Since the Soviet Union was supporting Ethiopia and the US was supporting Somalia the war had implications beyond the Horn of Africa. As usual, those suffering most were non-combatants, mostly women and children, who were both displaced by the fighting and coping with famine.

Flying from San Francisco to Somalia was a long long trip, something like 36 hours en route by way of Germany. I arrived at the Mogadishu airport just after dawn, and even though it was early in the day it was already hot and sticky. I was supposed to be met by a Save the Children staff member, but no one was there. I was exhausted, but adrenalin was keeping me going. This was my first trip to Africa, so I was excited to be here. I was also energized by the logistical challenge facing me. I don’t know anybody. I don’t know where I am supposed to stay. And I don’t know anything about getting around in what is a very foreign place.

I’d traveled a lot, so I wasn’t panicked or particularly worried. I knew that once I got my bearings I’d figure out what to do. But I was a bit mystified and felt kind of abandoned. When enough time had gone by to convince me I was definitely on my own I got a cab and told the driver to take me to a hotel. He said Mogadishu’s main hotel was the Juba. I said fine, take me to the Juba.

My memory of the drive from the airport to town is that everything was brown. The buildings, the land, the streets – brown and dusty.

The Juba seemed to be in the center of town. It was a large building clearly in need of maintenance. The light was dim in the large, high-ceilinged lobby. Here and there were a few worn chairs and couches. The reception desk was a massive dark wooden thing behind which were rows upon rows of cubbyholes for keys. There were a few people lounging around and one guy behind the desk.

I asked if they had a reservation for me. No reservation for Mr. Dan. Were the Save the Children people staying there? No. Could I get a room? No rooms were available. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. This was a large hotel. There were a lot of keys in the cubbyholes. By no stretch of the imagination would Mogadishu be considered a popular destination. So I persisted.

After a while the reception man said they did have one room, but it was air-conditioned. Since it was still early morning and it was already very hot I quickly said I’d take the room. But, he said, the air conditioner didn’t work. I said I’d still take it. He gave me a key and pointed toward an elevator. I doubted the thing would work, but even though it was creaky and small it got me up to my floor.

My room was bad beyond belief. It was easily the worst big-city hotel room I’d ever seen. It was dark and filthy. The air conditioner that didn’t work covered the only window in the place, so I wouldn’t be able to have any fresh air, hot or not. And the fan hanging down from the ceiling didn’t work. There was a lamp with about a 25-watt bulb. The bed was concave in the middle. There were some open shelves for clothes, but no dresser.

The bathroom was even worse. The toilet was western style but had no seat. The sink had two faucets and when turned on water slowly dripped out of both of them but I couldn’t tell if hot water came out of the hot water faucet. There was a shower that fortunately worked well enough for one to get wet. There must have been a towel in the bathroom, but I don’t remember for sure. I do remember that like the rest of the place the bathroom was filthy.

Disgusting as this room was, for the sake of my sanity I needed to unpack and clean myself up. So I did. I filled the shelves with my clothes and stripped down for a shave and shower. By the time I finished I felt much much better. I think I even felt I could survive in this place.

I went back down to the lobby to continue my search for my missing hosts. By now it was late morning and there were quite a few more people around. A new receptionist gave me the same answer the earlier one had – the Save the Children people weren’t in this hotel. Then, a miracle. A man who’d overheard my conversation came over and said the Save the Children staff were staying in a nearby hotel, the Costa del Sol. That’s all I needed to hear.

Without missing a beat I was back to the elevator and up to my room. I packed quickly, hauled my stuff downstairs, told the receptionist I was leaving (the room was unacceptable I said) and took off. I got a cab for the short ride to the Costa del Sol.

My second hotel of the day was like a beautiful oasis. It was a two-story Mediterranean-style building that lived up to its name, and it was well maintained and clean. On the walls of the small reception area were posters of Costa del Sol beaches. I asked the receptionist if they had any rooms. He asked me if I was Dan Miller. Yes, they had a room for me and the Save the Children people had been looking for me all morning. He seemed genuinely relieved that I’d been found.

I don’t remember much about the room I had. I just remember that it felt like heaven. It was lunchtime and I was hungry, so I went down to their restaurant, having been told that the Save the Children people would be here soon. I wanted some water, but the waiter didn’t understand English. Suddenly it dawned on me. The menu was filled with Italian dishes. I was in a part of the world where the Italians had been colonialists. I dredged up a bit of Italian from my memory bank and said, “Ce acqua minerale?” “Si, Signore, subito,” he said with a smile. Hey, I thought, this ain’t so bad after all.

As promised, the people who were to take care of me showed up soon thereafter. They said they’d been at the airport to meet my plane. None of us could figure out how they missed me. I can’t remember the name of the woman who was running the Somalia operation for Save the Children. She and her colleagues were first-rate people and we got along well.

We weren’t going to spend much time in Mogadishu. The next day we’d drive to Belet Weyne, about 250 miles north of Mogadishu near the Ethiopia border and the Ogaden, where Save was working with refugees. The conditions under which the refugees were living were very rough but not desperate. There were camps and each family had a tent large enough to house them all. As advertised, most of the inhabitants were women, children, and old people. These people were ethnic Somalis and their able bodied men were either in the Ogaden fighting the Ethiopians or dead.

I met and talked with quite a few people. I was struck by the strength and dignity of the women. They didn’t seem to feel sorry for themselves. The camps I saw were not new, so they had all the trappings of a community, including opportunities for entrepreneurial undertakings. Many of the women took advantage of these opportunities. I remember one woman who had six children. I knew she had a job, so I asked her how she had time to both work and take care of her family. She brushed aside the question with a “It only takes an hour or two in the morning to take care of the children so I’ve got plenty of time to work.”

Living conditions for the Save the Children staff were better than that of the refugees, but still primitive. Yet, I didn’t hear any complaints from them either, even though in Belet Weyne they were living more like Peace Corps volunteers than international development professionals. They were focused on their work and the external circumstances didn’t seem to faze them. I was impressed.

I spent a week in Somalia. I saw a lot and learned a lot. One of the things I learned was that I couldn’t see much that Breakthrough had to offer in a situation such as this. What was needed was humanitarian relief – food, clothes, housing, medical supplies. I was reminded of an old adage, which I think is accurate: During a crisis immediate needs must be met; it’s not the time to implement a long-term development plan. I could visualize a Breakthrough intervention with either an NGO staff or their clients once the crisis had passed, but not in the middle of it.

I suspect the two girls who were killed and the people who live in Belet Weyne today are not much different than those I met on my visit 28 years ago. I also suspect that the conditions and circumstances in which they live (or survive) are no better, and maybe even worse, than they were then. That’s very sad.


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