30 May, 2011

Somali Saga- 2

4X4s Vehicles and their role in conflict

 I remember that in the 1980’s the number of 4x4s in a country was an indication of, or a reference to, the level of poverty there. The greater the number of four wheel drive vehicles then the larger the number of UN agencies and NGO’s working within the country. Within two decades this formula was overturned and the four wheel drive vehicle has now become a symbol of prosperity. The four wheel drive vehicle had a great role in civil strife in those days and still has, as demonstrated in Gaddafi’s war against his people.
Before the civil war in Somalia I worked with FAO for a year then I worked for the EEC as an epidemiologist on a big project aimed at helping Somalia recapture its major trade of cattle exportation and then I did stayed on with FAO for another 6 very difficult years during the war. As the situation deteriorated during Siad last year’s most of the Italian staff of the project left the country and I found myself in charge of a very big project with dozens of yellow Defender Landrovers while the FAO office just down the road had more or less a similar number of various vehicles. In the last days of 1990 and into early 1991 General Aideed took over Mogadishu, but luckily I had travelled to Wales to be with my young family for the festive season. The chief driver of my project immediately distributed the yellow Landrovers equally between the supporters of the deposed president and that was the end of the EEC project and the Landrovers became military vehicles. The FAO vehicles were taken too, but within a few kilometers were abandoned as the FAO officer in charge had previously ordered the oil to be drained from all the vehicles, and the rebels were only able to drive a short distance before the engines were burnt out.
Most of the 4x4s were stolen from foreign organizations while some were taken from officials of the former regime who, in their turn, had ‘obtained’ the vehicles from foreign organizations. With the outbreak of civil strife it was impossible to import cars into the country as it was too much of a risk to the lives of the vehicles’ drivers. As a result during the war we had to use vehicles that had been looted by warlords and which were guarded and driven by gunmen from their tribes.
  The verbal contract for acquiring a car and the obligatory house and office that came with it, together with the gunmen that came with car and house, was binding for years even if you could not use the vehicle or the premises for security reasons or relocation. Once FAO and WHO rented a villa in Km4 that belonged to the ex-minister of interior in the old regime for a substantial amount. The villa’s owner was the head of a tribe from central Somalia that dominated Mogadishu and he became president in early 2000. We wanted to vacate the villa as it had become impossible to access it with the advent of US involvement in Somalia. First I was threatened by the younger brother of the owner who, in front of all my FAO staff in the UNDP compound, told me that he would kill me, not a laughing matter in Mogadishu. Ironically, this man was employed by UNDP. Then our guards, who were the owner’s gunmen, started to threaten the staff of the two organisations. The UNDP representative was seeking the friendship of this particular Somali family as his working situation would be easier and nothing was done to support myself and the WHO Officer-in-Charge in the situation we now found ourselves in. We were only saved from further aggression by the deterioration of the security
situation to the extent that we could not use any of our facilities in that area.

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