The Hangar at Mogadishu Airport

I watched the Al Jazeera news on 8 February 2017 (8:00 pm Harare time, GMT+2) with a mixed sense of déjà vu, incredulity and celebration of the tenacity of the human spirit.

I was watching Somalia’s recent presidential elections. Former prime minister, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, (affectionately known as Farmajo) emerged winner, prompting celebrations with song and bursts of gunfire in Mogadishu. An area called Eastleigh in Nairobi, Kenya, which is home to a number of Somalis, also celebrated the elections.

It is worth noting that security concerns made it impossible for the country’s majority to vote. The president was chosen by 275 MPs and 54 senators. Further, the elections took place in a tightly protected hangar at the airport in Mogadishu. It is interesting to note that many reports characterized Mogadishu as being locked down in order to ensure that the elections took place.

I received the conclusion that there is renewed hope for a better days ahead with a tepid optimism. The country has not known peace or stability since the fall of Siad Barre in 1991.  As I reflected on the latest developments in Somalia, I found myself immersed in a welter of thoughts from yesteryear. For example, I recalled that in 2014, I had a household helper who listed work at a Mogadishu hotel as part of her work experience. After graduating from one of Zimbabwe’s colleges of hospitality and tourism, she was recruited via church structures by a Somali hotel group.

Having verified her CV, my curiosity turned to her “claim” that she had spent a year working in Mogadishu. I grew more concerned when she described her sojourn in glowing terms. She spoke of a beautiful hotel in a peaceful environment. Above all, she got a reasonable wage. She explained that she had only returned to Zimbabwe because she was on a fixed 12-month contract. I kept asking myself whether she was talking about the Mogadishu and Somalia I thought I knew.

In 1993, while still at the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC), I found myself accompanying a contingent of Zimbabwean troops who were going to be part of the United Nations Mission to Somalia, UNOSOM 2. This was the successor mission to the American-led “Operation Restore Hope” which suffered irreparable damage after the confrontation with Mohamed Farrah Aideed (Aidid)’s militias.

My memories of Somalia are nowhere near those of my housekeeper! When the Somalia assignment was first announced, it was suggested that because of its potential risks, it would be given to “volunteers.” I know some colleagues volunteered to take it. I had stayed far away from it.

However, on the eve of the trip, the then Controller: TV News advised that the Director: News and Current Affairs wanted to see me. Although I did not immediately relate this call to Somalia, I got worried. I had grown to believe – and with good reason – that the director and I had a difficult relationship. In 1989, when former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, paid a State Visit to Zimbabwe, I committed what I believed was a genuine cadet reporter’s mistake. I delayed filing a radio story because the guest speaker at the cocktail party for British and Zimbabwean journalists covering the State Visit had made clearly controversial and unconfirmed remarks about Mozambique’s rebel RENAMO movement. I needed guidance. The director disagreed. And thus began his belief that I was inimical to his department.

I was literally saved from the director’s “consuming anger” by my Assignments Editor, former college mate and beloved brother, David Mwenga. He suggested that I should take a week away from work; if possible, travel out of Harare. My next nasty encounter came when the President visited the family of a minister who committed suicide in the wake of what came to be known as the “Willowgate Scandal.” As the President announced that the minister would be buried at the National Heroes Acre, the minister’s brother made audible interjections to the announcement. Apparently, the minister’s wish was to be buried in his home area. When I finally did my radio script (on time!), it went all the way to the director-general, before it was approved.

Surprisingly, the director would call for me as a hatchet man for tricky assignments. In 1993, he personally gave me three assignments.

So it was that when I finally saw him, he simply said “I want a story from Somalia, not dead bodies.” With that, the Mogadishu trip was no longer a mission for volunteers. I was going in. My relief came from the director’s concession that I could choose the cameraman and engineer I wished to work with. Further, he added a “sweetener” in the form of a healthy danger allowance over and above the usual S and T allocation.

We arrived in Mogadishu under cover of darkness aboard an Air Zimbabwe Boeing 707-303B. It was not planned timing. We got to know that some countries whose air space we would traverse had sought clarification on the circumstances of a civilian aircraft carrying armed soldiers. The delays encountered in obtaining the required clearance resulted in a late take-off from Harare.

One of the first things we learnt as we entered Mogadishu was that the airport did not have any ground lights. Our landing was, therefore, a collaboration of the highest order between the captain and a Colonel Smith (from America) who was on the ground. As the plane began its descent, the captain firmly indicated that he did not wish to spend too long on the ground. He was going to leave one of his right engines running while we quickly got off the plane. The enormity of the night’s challenges was plain. When I switched on our portable light to enable the cameraman to take pictures of the soldiers disembarking, Colonel Smith quickly instructed that the light should be switched off as it could render us vulnerable to snipers who were known to be in the airport’s environs.

Further theatrics came when the plane took off. A colleague from The Herald newspaper said simply: “what a sight! The whole underbelly of the Boeing 707 was visible as it literally shot straight up into the sky.” I have to say that no one could have described the take-off differently.

I hold pilots in high regard. They strike me as some of the bravest and committed men and women in the world (and this belief has been strengthened by the movie, Sully, which my sons showed me recently). But on that night in 1993, the captain seemed to have been slightly shaken by Mogadishu and its Mysteries. Understandably so!

I called my TV documentary “Somalia: Fading Lights.” On the night we arrived, we slept in a hangar, yes, the Hangar at Mogadishu Airport! All of us. But not even the knowledge that we were in the company of soldiers could calm me. Being new to this kind of assignment, my colleagues and I had not carried any bedding. Our assumption was that we would spend the night at a hotel or other decent place.

However, we soon learnt that we would not leave the airport.