‘The brave man dies once – the coward a thousand times’
04OCT14 A UPDF soldier is waving an AK at me and shouting in his tribal language with a few words of English thrown in, the hope being that I will understand why he is shouting at me. A heavy set, very dark specimen of Ugandan military prowess, he is wearing a helmet with a humungous camouflage cover and a ragged set of body armour over a grey t-shirt and camouflage trousers, topped (or should it be bottomed?) with pink flip-flops. He is pointing the AK towards but not quite at me and fortunately holds it by the magazine (so at least there’s not as much of a chance of it going off).
I think I’m right about which way he is gesticulating so I slowly lean that way towards the ground and make display of splaying out my hand. The watercolour brush (Windsor & Newton No 10 Flat Sable) falls onto the rocks. I lean towards the other side and place the watercolour sketchbook carefully down (I don’t want the soluble graphite tonal wash for the sea to pool or smudge). I stand up straight again, with a slight tinge of pain in my foot – gout attack imminent, thanks to the diet of red meat and beer that the South Africans I lodge with are feeding me.
Lastly I flick out my earphones but I can still hear the music, now tinny and distant. All this seems to have calmed the Ugandan and he shouts slightly more slowly.
‘Al-Qa’ida! (A short burst of tribal language.) Okay? (More tribal language.)’ I look over my shoulder in the direction he is pointing – out to sea. Al-Qa’ida commandoes raiding ashore? All I can see are two Signals guys fishing on the next outcrop along and a rainfront beyond heading towards us.
I look back towards him and he seems happier now that he has shouted at me for a while. It’s my turn to point – to the compound on the other side of the runway. ‘I am from there,’ I say, ssslllooowwwlllyyy. He adopts a facial expression that shows that he understands. I reckon I have half an hour to forty five minutes before the rain reaches me, so I sit down again and try to regain my focus on the watercolour sketch. He stands and watches over my shoulder as I mix paint.
I blank out his presence in the same way I blank out elements of the landscape that spoil the composition of the sketch.
Every now and then I feel the need to turn my back on Mog and face the other way. This has been one of those days, where I feel the need to look out to sea.
A sea of troubles…
A low tent sits at the back of the Ugandan Field Hospital, hidden in a small clearing hacked out of the thorn zariba that covers most of the area to the west of the Mogadishu Airport, scattered in clumps along the coastline There’s a smell of rot not unlike like cheese as we dip down to enter the tent. It sounds like there is an alarm going off but it’s the cicadas, Hassan tells me.
And here he is. Tall and thin with dark skin, looking more black African than Somali, a light bulb-shaped head with short hair, a small goatee, oddly fashioned side-burns that are like mutton chops fashioned into spikes, a green vest and a pair of red basketball shorts. A long thin leg ends in a massive flat foot in a sandal that looks like a cartoon version of a real leg (it’s reminiscent of the style of the Asterix comic strips). You could almost miss it if you weren’t aware already – he only has one leg. The shorts are deliberately long to conceal the amputation of the left leg mid thigh and it’s only when we enter the tent that I see properly the patches of dried blood on the bandages at the end of the stump. And then it’s hard to take your eyes away from it.
He is turning his head to the side, probably embarrassed at the attention he (or is it the stump?) is getting and it’s hard to get a proper look at his face. His hand curves back at an odd angle and he rests his chin on it, but then tucks both into his shoulder. If it was a girl it would be coy.
There’s a bit of f*cking around with the Ugandans (a Colonel doctor, a Corporal medic) who has been wasting our time since we met him – taking us to see the women’s fistula clinic, a new hospital block that has just been built, a containerised operating theatre… when he knows all we want to see is Jake the Jihadi Peg. The medic arses around by making the detainee walk with crutches when his leg and arms have obviously atrophied in the gap between being captured and now. He is freshly post-op (although he does not smell fresh). The Colonel adjusts the crutches again and again and every time puts the detainee through obvious agony. Eventually Hassan intervenes and sits down on the camp bed beside him and chats to him amiably in Somali for a while before nodding to me. Guled simultaneously translates into my ear as Hassan talks. I tap the Ugandan photographer and point to Hopalong, just in case he decides to film a joint in the tent frame or my shoes instead of a prized captured al-Shabaab footsoldier (previously a feetsoldier). He flips out the screen of the digital video camera and turns it on, then twists the screen in such a way as to make filming as awkward as possible.
‘To start with what’s your name?’ says Hassan via Guled.
‘I am Ismail Mohamud Issak.’
The scribbling in the squared hard back A5 Moleskine begins. ‘Issak,’ circled. ‘Out of normal tribal homeland?’ The Issak heartland is up north Somaliland but there are patches of Issak down here around Mogadishu – being the capital, it is a bit of a melting pot. But a melting pot owned by the Hawiya, nonetheless.
‘How old are you?’
‘I am 21 years old.’
‘When did you come to this hospital and why?’
‘I don’t remember when I was brought here, but all I know is that I was brought here wounded.’ (‘Unconscious on arrival’ – he is telling the truth, he was unconscious. Most people would faint if their leg was taking off mid shin by a Dushka 12.7mm machine gun round, powerful enough to penetrate armour.)
‘Where were you wounded?
‘I was wounded in the leg.’
Oh, so you’re a smart c*nt are you? I wouldn’t be acting the smart c*nt right now if I were you. ‘0:28 Attempts to conceal location of capture with smart answer’.
Hassan isn’t going to let this go, though. ‘I can see that as your leg has been amputated, but what brought about the situation where you came to be wounded?’
‘I was in fighting.’ He shifts around, ostensibly to make himself a bit more comfortable but more likely because he is being forced to give us information he doesn’t want to reveal.
‘Who were you fighting against, these Ugandan AMISOM forces?’ Hassan points at Major Tee Hee, the Colonel and the medic, all loitering in the corner of the tent and restless at the loss of control of ‘their’ prize.
‘No, I was fighting against the government.’
‘So, you were fighting against the government forces and these AMISOM forces came to help them?’
‘At that particular moment, I didn’t know where these forces (he signals dismissively towards Tee Hee and the medic) were, but at that time I was only fighting the government forces.’ This isn’t going the way we expected – there are already signs of defiance and no a hint of the co-operation Major Tee Hee promised us.
‘That fighting, where it take place?’ I can’t help myself, ‘where DID it take place,’ to Guled. Might as well give him an English lesson while we’re here.
‘At the Dabka Junction.’ I check the aerial photograph later – it’s on the border of the areas held by al-Shabaab and the government forces.
‘Where did you come from to start the fighting at Dabka? Or were you based in Dabka itself?’
Again the detainee raises himself slightly, again as if to make himself more comfortable. ‘I belong to al-Shabaab and we are based in the area around Bakara Market.’ For the first time I catch his eye and catch a flash of resilience mixed with contempt, a little glint of red that I can’t pin down to either a reflection or a deeper flash of mad fury from far behind the sockets of his eyes. It’s time for me to shift on the camp bed opposite. This isn’t what we expected at all.
‘On that day, what were your orders?’
‘On that day we had no particular orders – we just came out to fight. As a result of that fighting I was wounded in the leg and was brought here.’ Hassan has managed to catch him in the afterglow of his eyeballing me and off-footed him (although he only has one foot to off and he is sitting down anyway). Is he deliberately protecting his superiors but inadvertently portraying them as not being in control? Or is al-Shabaab using the ultimate in Aufragstaktik, where the direction is simple but at the same time so widely disseminated that every member can independently operate knowing that they are still ‘on plan’?
At the same time both the detainee and Hassan realise the significance of the slip. Before he can add anything, Hassan interjects, ‘You did not ask your superiors why you were fighting the government? You just went out fighting without asking?’
‘It is not something that we are told to do, it is something that is in our hearts and something that we wanted to do.’
‘So what were you fighting for?’
‘I believe in the Holy Jihad.’
‘So when did you join al-Shabaab?’
‘Four or five months ago. I am a new recruit.’
‘And before that, what did you do?’
‘I was a teacher, in Barava District (a town in Lower Shebelle).’
‘Were you teaching in an ordinary school or in a Q’ranic school?’
‘I was teaching in an ordinary school, I was teaching Science and English. The semester finished and I came back to Mogadishu. And when I went back for the next semester I had a quarrel with the administration. What happened was, you know, nepotism, my place was filled by another person so I became jobless.’ He clenches his fist as he speaks and it stays clenched as he speaks, gently but steadily thumping the mattress. ‘So I left the Barava District and I went to Bulo Marer village. In Bulo Marer I did not have a family house, my father and mother, they were not there, so I had to stay with some friends. I tried to find some kind of job while staying with my friends but every place I went, there were all the privileges and the nepotism so I could not find any work. And while I was there I contemplated the whole situation, the situation in Somalias, and so I made up my mind, my decision, to join the mujahideen, al-Shabaab.’
Here we go. I star this section in my notes. The first protracted answer begins to give us what we want. It’s all standard jihadi background – a scientific leaning (the only reason he has such good English is that sciences tended to be taught in English here, hence the odd combination of teaching subjects), a clash with both the existing, a seemingly immutable system (he comes from a major clan but is in the heartland of another, bigger one) and a run in with a fickle, unfair authority figure are pretty standard proto-jihadi experiences. And the constant repetition that the decision was HIS… almost as if he is expecting the accusation that he was forced/duped into joining. Or perhaps he is trying to convince himself. I can’t tell if he is clever or stupid.
‘So who did you meet to put you into al-Shabaab?’ (‘Get.’)
‘I went to no-one but some of my friends with whom I was living at that moment were themselves al-Shabaab. I was recruited there and worked as a soldier in al-Shabaab.’
‘Who brought you to Mogadishu?’
‘I was for several months in Bulo Merer and Merka town. Then I just thought that I would come to Mogadishu for a change, a personal decision, because those places were somewhat rural, I wanted to come to the big city. So I came to Mogadishu.’
Hassan decides to rattle the bars of his cage. ‘So in al-Shabaab,,do you have the freedom to go from one place to another? Without permission?’
The detainee glares at Hassan at the suggestion that he was ordered to do something. ‘It’s not a secular system, it’s a religious system. The religion gives you freedom that a person can go from one place to another. We have our own system. But at that point I took a small holiday. That is how I came to Mogadishu, when I took that holiday with permission.’
‘Then why did you go fighting when you were on holiday?’
‘I met my friends who were, at that time, going for fighting, so I just went with them.’ A fighting holiday by the seaside. Pity he went down this line, he would have enjoyed Britland.
‘So you unintentionally just went with some people who were going fighting?’
‘No, I did not just join them from the street. I went with them intentionally.’
There’s a danger we’re going to get tied up in this so Hassan decides a slightly different approach. ‘How many of your fighters died in the fighting?’
‘They did not die. They went to heaven and will live forever. There were two of them.’
Hassan looks at me but there’s no need. I didn’t even need the translation from Gouled. The detainee rose visibly on the bed and turned to me, square on.
We’ve got a proper hard core one on our hands.
‘And how many of you got wounded?’
‘Only me.’ He is still reared up on the bed and stays like this for a while, then turns slowly to Hassan. ‘What are you, an ordinary citizen, a reporter… Or something else?’ Hassan ignores the question and the detainee ignores Hassan ignoring him. He turns to face me again but slowly slumps as the questions continue, tiring with the effort of maintaining his posture of resistance.
‘Where are your father and your mother?’ asks Hassan.
‘My father died but my mother is still alive.’
‘When did your father die?’
‘A year ago.’
‘How did he die? Killed or a natural death?’
‘What did your father do for a living?’
‘He was a businessman, buying and selling livestock. In Wanleyeyn District in Mogadishu.’
‘Do you what disease he died of?’
‘I don’t know, it was a sickness that came from God, maybe it was his heart, maybe he died of diahorrea, I don’t know. I was not with him at the time.’
‘Where is your mother?’
‘She is here in Mogadishu.’
‘But you are not from Mogadishu, you are from Barava.’
‘I was born in Mogadishu. I went to Barava all by myself. My family was still in Mogadishu. I went to Barava jobseeking. My mother is in Medina Distict (in Mogadishu), where I was born.’
‘What does your mother do?’
‘She is a housewife.’
‘So who maintains the family?’
‘I have brothers who work. I have four brothers. Two are here in Mogadishu, the other two are in Puntland. All are older than me; I am the youngest so they are the ones who maintain the family. I also have two sisters. The oldest is married; the youngest of the family is still too young to be married.’
‘And your wife?’
‘I have no wife.’
‘Now what is your feeling, as a young man of twenty years old, towards this fighting where you lost your leg?’
‘My leg was amputated on the will of God. Everything that will happen to you has already been put in the book by Allah so you cannot avoid it. That is what I believe.’ He tries to rear up again but slumps back. ‘Everything that is going to happen to you is going to happen to you. And in the future what is going to happen to me? I don’t know, but it is not something I can stop so I am not worried about what is going to happen to me in the future.’
(Predestination, I write in my notebook. Hmmm… You probably should be worried, my one-legged friend.)
‘Okay, now: if you were cleared of sickness and allowed to leave this hospital, would you go back and join al-Shabaab?’
‘That question is too difficult for me to answer. I cannot make any decision, I am a patient in a hospital, so it is not something I can talk about.’
‘Are there al-Shabaab members who tried to visit you or reach you?’
‘There is no way they can pay me a visit!’ He laughs genuinely for a second at the absurdity of the suggestion then realises that it is not so absurd. The AMISOM base is porous and there’s no real way the Ugandans could tell an al-Shabaab member from a normal Somali. And then he realises where Hassan is going with this line and, for the first time, his eyes flicker in the beginnings of panic from Hassan to me to Major Tee Hee to Guled to Hassan to the medic to me to the Colonel to Hassan.
‘Do they go and visit your mother or enquire after you through her?’
‘They don’t know my mother. My mother does not know I’m here.’
‘But, at least, do they know that you are a patient undertaking treatment in the AMISOM hospital?’
‘No, I don’t think they know.’
‘So, will you go back to them when you get out of the hospital?’
‘I told you, I cannot make a decision now.’
‘At least, what is your idea? Have your ideas changed ideologically? Do you still believe in them? The ideology, which was taking part in the Holy Jihad, has anything changed in your mind?’
‘This is not an ideology. These are words from God’s book. Those words are from the Holy Book of the Q’ran and Allah’s words never change, they will always remain the same and I must follow them.’
‘So does that mean you are going back to the jihad?’
‘I am telling you, the Holy Book remains the same. The book remains the same. And I am telling you that the jihad will never change and that is what I trust, I trust in the Holy Q’ran.’
‘Is it possible that you might change your mind and not go fighting the government when you get out?’
‘I cannot make decisions now, I am in hospital.’
We’re starting to go around in circles so we pause and I tap the Ugandan to turn off the video camera (which, it transpires, he did after the first few minutes because he was bored… But we only find that out later). Hassan turns off the digital audio recorder. We’re finished, though, we’ve got what we want.
But Major Tee Hee isn’t finished.
‘This…’ He swipes at the campbed with a thin branch he has picked up along the way and has been chewing throughout ‘the interview’. ‘This is no use to me, this… CHATTER. What use is this to me?’ He is performing for the Colonel who, although he is a doctor and out of his particular chain of command, is from the same tribe as the Force Commander and will therefore be reporting back on Major Tee Hee‘s performance over red wine later this evening. My jet lighter, which I thought was still in my daysack, appears in Major Tee Hee’s hand. (It’s the same ease with which my silver-framed Rayban Aviators appeared on the bridge of Major Tee Hee’s nose earlier in the day.) ‘You have found out whatever it is you need to know,’ he says contemptuously, ‘but there are things that we need to know.’
The scene descends into a colour mix – the aubergine black-purple of the skin, the beige of the bandages, the blue-white of the jet lighter flame that changes to a yellow-orange flame. But then only one colour, red. Again in the eye – but no longer defiant red from deep inside but instead a reflection in a wide, petrified-with-fear then contorted-in-agony eye.
Later, listening to Cicada’s cover of Roxy Music’s ‘Same Old Scene’ again and again on the iPod because it seems like the right soundtrack for this episode in my Personal War on Terror. Will this line of thwarted, awkward, bullied young men ever end? It ends for them in a self-destructive, sexual flash of red (unfortunately it’s usually a group experience although only one participant is consenting). Then another appears from somewhere else, different but the same.
He’s just like the sad little electrician from Casablanca whose suicide vest failed to go off in the marketplace in the predominantly Shi’a area of Kadimiyah in Baghdad, landing him in a US detention facility and eventually earning him the pleasure of my company for an hour or two. I had imagined him back in Casablanca, sitting alienated at the end of the dinner table as his four older, graduate sisters and his Moroccan Navy officer father chatted around, over and through him. No wonder he was easy prey for the recruiter in the local mosque, cunningly making him think he had decided to join the Holy jihad under his own steam, saving up the money to travel circuitously to Iraq to join the fight against the infidels – and to be handed not a rifle but a suicide vest.
And now this one with all the same experiences that produce the vulnerabilities, the same flaws. It’s a pity, at the level of the individual there were points where he could have been steered in another direction, DEFUSED. But this one has passed that point, just as the effeminate Moroccan sparky had.
In different circumstances, a lifetime of obscurity in a jail cell would be a most suitable conclusion (a fate that genuinely chills the suicide bomber).
But this is Somalia. Used up, we handed him over to the forces of the Transitional Federal Government this morning in the knowledge that the sentence was death – but not on his terms.
As I go over the scene, again and again with the music blaring and the brush hovering over the watercolour palette but never making a mark, I catch a dark shape at the periphery of my vision, just over my left shoulder. Someone is striding up the slope towards where I’m sitting.
The Ugandan eventually gets bored – he turns and wanders back up to the headland to one of the two gun positions that face out to sea to deter any attempts at an assault on the camp from that angle. Stupid muzungoo, painting here in Mog, he’ll tell his two comrades when he clambers in under the plastic sheet that provides them with alternate protection from the sun and the spray from the sea (and now, in Mog’s rainy season, the brief but thunderous showers).
But there was imagined alternative resolution – the speed draw of the SIG P226 9 millimetre pistol from the back of my shorts, the pad of the first joint of my thumb activating the laser designator on the pistol as the barrel comes up on line with his head and torso and the flash of red on first his chest (crack-crack, knocking him off his feet as the full force of the first two rounds impacts him in the main plate of his body armour, the shock forcing him to drop the AK at the same time) and then, standing over him as the red dot that shows me where the rounds will land moves up his body and I see, for the second time, the red flash in another man’s pupils.
But the Ugandan survived. Not everyone does.
 Ugandan People’s Defence Force, the main contributors to AMISOM until the Kenyan intervention in 2011