Another Day in the Drop Zone

They fly into lands of hunger and madness, dispensing food while warlords dispense terror from the barrel of a gun. They trade safety and comfort for the sharp edge of altruism, predictable careers for the daily bread of death and disease. They're relief workers on the front lines—and once they're hooked, they can never go home again.

Jul 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

IN SOMALIA, there is usually an explanation for violence that appears mindless, and in fact an explanation existed for the ambush that awaited us a few hundred yards up the road. CARE, like other humanitarian groups, does not own any of the vehicles it uses in southern Somalia. It is unwise to own a car there unless you also own a private militia that can prevent another private militia from stealing it. CARE rents its vehicles from people connected to various militias, and its written contract requires owners to provide, with each car, "two security guards with necessary hardware." Meaning assault rifles. Pistols will not do.

The gentlemen manning a roadblock a half-mile up the road were representing, in the Somali fashion, the interests of someone in Baidoa who did not win the contract to supply vehicles to CARE. The gunmen didn't want to shoot us; they just wanted us to use different vehicles (theirs) at the going rate of $60 per vehicle per day, a small fortune in Somalia. If we refused their offer, they might, reluctantly, find it necessary to open fire. Cobra, who is in his thirties and used to work for the U.S. embassy in Mogadishu back when there was a U.S. embassy in Mogadishu, calmly explained this to Miskell.

"You've got to be kidding," Miskell said.

"No," Cobra replied. "I'll go back to town and bring the district commissioner here to straighten this out."

Cobra returned with the commissioner, and after 15 minutes of arguing with the guys at the roadblock we all drove back to Baidoa's police station. You could tell it was the police station by the traditional Somali crime-fighting vehicles outside: bullet-pocked pickups with heavy machine guns mounted in back, and a truck with a large antiaircraft gun on its flatbed. These Mad Max–style vehicles are known as "technicals." Next to them sat a battered pickup bearing a corpse wrapped in a blanket with a woman wailing beside it.

There's really no difference between the police and the fighters in southern Somalia; policemen just happen to be charged by their warlords with keeping civil order instead of battling other clans. They have no training and no uniforms because there are no government officials to provide them. Public schools no longer exist in southern Somalia, just scattered Islamic schools that teach Arabic and the Koran; nor is there a public health system or anything else that would suggest the presence of a controlling legal authority. In the U.S. State Department's official briefing paper on Somalia, under the heading "Government," there is simply the word "None." The country's legislative system is "Not Functioning." The judiciary is also "Not Functioning." The entry for national holidays reads, "None presently celebrated."

There was certainly no celebrating going on at the Baidoa police station. After another half-hour, the commissioner got fed up and tossed several of the gunmen into jail and sent us on our way.

As we drove off a few of the men who'd gathered to observe the proceedings began jeering—as far as they were concerned, the wrong guys were being locked up. One pointed a finger at Miskell, who'd come to Baidoa to give away food, and said, "Fuck you."

We were journeying into one of Somalia's larger fiefdoms, an area controlled by the Rahenweyn Resistance Army, which is led by a thin, reportedly diabetic warlord known as Red Shirt. He was wearing a white shirt when Miskell visited him a day before, seeking his blessing to distribute food without being attacked. RRA territory is relatively safe, but that only means no aid workers have been killed there recently. Of course, aid convoys had been attacked, including, a few months earlier, one of Miskell's; he escaped injury because the bandits were shooting at a different vehicle. On another occasion one of Miskell's Somali staffers had not been so lucky. Militiamen ambushed him as he drove through an area north of Mogadishu that had been considered relatively safe—until he was murdered.

The problem is that anyplace in Somalia can turn into a killing ground. On the outskirts of Wajit, halfway on our journey to Tieglo, a child several years away from his first shave presided over yet another roadblock. As our Land Cruisers approached a twisted metal pole cast across the road, the kid told our guards to surrender their guns because, he said, visitors were not allowed to carry weapons into town. When our guards protested, the kid pointed his AK-47 at us. One of our guards—a veteran of such standoffs, though only in his late teens—hopped off the roof and marched toward the boy, pointing his rifle at the youngster.

"What's he doing?" Miskell said under his breath. "Let's not start a war."

The kid retreated into a nearby hut. As we drove past, he came back out, looking as though he were about to cry. He was just a boy, but boys like him have shot adults like us many times. "Don't worry," Miskell had told me, "your chance of being shot to death is greater than being robbed." Then he'd smiled. "And your chance of being shot accidentally is greater than being shot intentionally."