Annus Held Captive — Who Knows? Who Cares?

As the dawn swiftly became a blistering hot day, practical matters were overtaking us. Here we were being held hostage in a small town where we were also busy trying to stop the spread of water borne diseases, not least cholera. Finding a drink of clean water was there as a task for one and all. Reinforces the issues encountered any number of times with regard to living in different places and coming to terms with adaptation to what is considered normal.

I am pretty sure Princess Diana was not thinking about the same things as us as she sipped a glass of Moet champagne somewhere with Emad El-Din Mohamed Abdel Muna’im Al-Fayed; Dodi Fayed. Probably wondering whether she would get a family discount at Harrods if she married into this wannabe British family owning arguably the UK’s most famous shop. We were wondering what we were going to drink. Washing? There had been a small amount of water for people to wash before prayers. No privacy and some toilet arrangements that could just about be considered private. The door provided little blockage to viewing and so we made arrangements for a bit of old cloth and a break down of any social barriers as we talked about our toilet habits. Why? So one person could stand guard when the boss, the only woman in the eleven of us being held, went to use the facilities.

Having cut into the Sabbath in Somalia, we were still in Somalia culturally and according to the old line of demarcation. But, given the absence of any real government, a trained set of guys with guns, the need of everyone to making a living; no one was going to argue this line. A line with absolutely no meaning when it comes to AK47 rules taking precedence over lines drawn on a map by goodness knows who. Hotly disputed lines. Blurred lines as I listen and watch little meetings starting to happen all around us.

Who is doing what to us?

With us?

For us?

Using us?

Exploiting the situation?

Dealing with fall out from our day trip gone wrong?

Intriguing and entertaining, certainly keeps my senses working and making sure the art of management contributes to the science I will learn after these events.

It is the weekend in Kenya where we have one person who is definitely not doing radio checks; her role was finance and admin. Soon to add rations suppler to those deprived of things we thought were necessities and are now definitely viewing as luxuries. Not the least is the boss’ fix of Coca-Cola, her way of gaining a caffeine shot in the mornings. We must be in the real, real, wilds as there is not a bottle of coke in any of the little dukas, shops, along the road.

In London, Save the Children people are enjoying the weekend, as they should. There were no dedicated security personnel and 24/7 coverage twenty years ago in any of our operations. The Save the Children actions and inactions in Somalia mid-90s may well have been the last prompts to change much looking back now. There had been atrocious instances before, we were not alone; however, our lack of structural set up became a cause for concern not wholly taken on board before. I was on my second hostage situation within six months. Not acknowledged by the organization publicly, or even privately to colleagues and me; but for the benefit of the many who have followed to deliver quality for people around the Globe.

No one knows we are being held until Sunday when the boss’ partner phones a few people to ask if anyone has heard from his wife-to-be? A few alarms begin to sound and a fax (remember facsimile transfers?) is picked off a machine in the British High Commission Nairobi stating there may be an issue for Save the Children Somalia. How this piece of reporting happened remains unclear. Possibly our person in Belet Weyn has talked with people and word has filtered through the Somali (and Scottish) network then flagged to a spook somewhere watching things security.

Somali social networks do not truly need Facebook, WhatsApp and all and all. They have been known to check up on people within minutes. Personally I have had someone tell me my potted life history whilst eating goat and rice at the side of a dirt airstrip north of Mogadishu. A couple of calls and things are known; you have been checked out to do business or trust inside a society. In fact, in recent times, as the Internet social media has come up, some have commented the quality of networks has fallen. No longer the ease of trust and reciprocity and capability to triangulate information. Now, simply posting third hand ‘news’, fake or otherwise, is the way. Quantity over quality?

The upshot is, we start hearing, by Monday lunchtime, things are happening and all will be sorted before we smell too bad. Lunchtime, ha! I show my own background and upbringing despite all the time working with different people; many of who dream of three square, or any shaped, meals a day. We were to undertake a grand tour of all the villages of Belet Weyn District and its contiguous areas a month or so later. Doing this in Ramadan made me aware of the discipline and fortitude of people as we abstained during the fasting periods with me sipping water alone showing my own frailty.

Perhaps, the second and third days were the worst. The troop commander had local militiamen in-charge of us and neither they nor us understand what was happening as a figure of US$50,000 materialized as the ‘fine’ to be paid. This was greeted with a quality piece of Anglo-Saxon language of two words. The interpretation took a deal more words but, even in this place, people had seen Sylvester Stallone or some such hero swear and blaze away to get rid of the baddies. Moments were tense, as the relationships were still not settled. AK47s were primed again and flicking the safety catches back on required some more communication traversing language barriers. Emotions were calmed; we sat to eat with our militia guards on the Sunday, second full day of this experience.

You come to notice when a person close to you pushes the AK47 safety catch up from off, to single shot to automatic. Never handled a gun in my life. Never wanted to. And when spending time around people with guns then these feelings are reinforced. I had two guards, militiamen, at different times with the top of the left index finger missing. Both had fallen asleep with their right index finger on the trigger, butt on the ground, and left index finger atop the barrel. Bang, gun fires and off your finger goes pointing a journey into the night sky. If there is a bright side, saves clipping the nail from there on.

We start to hear more of the convoluted, intricate, setting. Some of our guards are extended family of our own team. In fact, we are now at the end of one camel milk supply chain to Belet Weyn town. Some of the team are happy as the transport is cut out, credit extended and camel milk is served for breakfast by day four. Our Finance and Admin person in Belet Weyn has also set up a supply and so clean water arrives. But no one is allowed to leave. The fine is still there to be paid. This becomes an attempt to split up the team. It does not work. A unity and loyalty is there.

Our head of programme in Hiraan and myself talk as he takes on the responsibility for not foreseeing this situation. Given the absence of security protocols at an institutional level, then we all realize just how much we work by knowing how the situation is safe or otherwise. Even after later security training, I believe this is still the fundamental.

I would contend institutional security training, the virtual reality of social media making it able to ‘see’ without experiencing fully and take responsibility for your immediate surroundings, has created as many issues as they have resolved. Institutional developments are fantastic and I would not wish my, our, learning curve on anyone. But, perhaps, we displace safety and security, thinking it is a professional undertaking done by others? Does anyone rely on a policeman to stop you from being pickpocketed or mugged? No, it is the social norms and rule of law that provides the environment and your own awareness of how you use your credit card or walk a dark street

By day four we have gotten past the posturing, people are seeing there ain’t gonna be any money and someone is going to get their butt kicked over this. Messages have now been sent through the Ethiopian Army channels as the lieutenant looks to cover his backside. We are to be charged with illegal entry to Ethiopia and sent to Addis Ababa — a good three days travel away and a very different climate from the 35 degree centigrade heat of this place. But wait, this is just talk and no return message has come to tell the lieutenant to act in this way. He is bluffing us and the accommodation price for visas is loose change we can get from our Belet Weyn office. Still the answer is: no money and keep your threats now we are sharing lunch with the militiamen and understanding just how insecure people are feeling.

To Come: Day five and forward — making us uncomfortable again. Declining the offer of the Somali clan army chief ‘breaking us out’ and wiping out the thieves targeting ‘his people down the Shabelle River’. Who is the secret policeman in the Save the Children Addis Office? Irish Times, Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Irish Foreign Office