Before departure from Nairobi, we were asked to sign a document indicating our next of kin and who else should be informed in case anything happened to us. It’s eerie signing off such detail but such is our job at times.
This was a day after the News Editor telephoned me on January 18 inquiring if I could accompany the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) troops to Somalia. I quickly responded in the affirmative.
This would, however, haunt me for the next 48 hours before we assembled at the Moi Air Base in Eastleigh, Nairobi, for the trip.
The fact that my family was uneasy about my taking the trip and were worried about my safety, did not make it easy for me.
I had in November last year been to Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, where I stayed at the Jazeera Palace Hotel that has suffered frequent terror attacks blamed on Al-Shabaab.
In September 2012, Kenya’s then Foreign Affairs minister Sam Ongeri escaped unhurt on a visit to the volatile capital during a suicide attack outside the hotel that killed at least five people. The hotel was bombed again last month and more than 10 people killed.
As a journalist, I have covered volatile situations in Darfur, the Sudan, South Sudan and Egypt.
But although I have always wanted to see the battle against Al-Shabaab first-hand since KDF launched Operation Linda Nchi against the Somalia-based terrorists in October 2011, the visit to Kismayu and Afmadow sent shivers down my spine. This is because Somalia is one of the worst places on earth a journalist can find himself.
However, I was keen on telling the world what was happening inside Somalia, what the state of the conflict really is currently, and what life is like for the Somali people and Kenyan soldiers.
Our flight – Kenya Air Force’s Y12 – touched down at Kismayu International Airport on January 20, shortly before 10 am.
The port city of Kismayu, which is in ruins following years of civil war, is Somalia’s third biggest and boasts two airports.
The new airport is about 10 miles inland and has a runway that the management says can allow any plane in the world, no matter its size, to land. The airport is being renovated.
However, wreckages of vehicles and bombed structures tell a different story — a reminder of the battle witnessed over the control of the facility that until recently had not been used since the overthrow of dictator Siad Barre’s government in 1991.
The old airport, which remains derelict, lies kilometres away.
Immediately after landing at the new airport that was under the control of Al-Shabaab militants before they were driven out by KDF in September 2012, we were directed to an Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC).
It was my first time to ride in an APC which joined the convoy to Jubaland presidential palace where the inauguration of the new administration was to take place.
I was in the company of four other journalists and several dignitaries.
Jubaland President Ahmed Islam Madobe was at hand to receive us, with all other visitors to the residence after undergoing thorough security screening. We, too, had to pass through several roadblocks before we got there.
A mangled vehicle, which President Madobe was travelling in when it was hit by a land mine a few weeks ago, lies by the roadside from the airport — a chilling reminder of the unpredictable security situation in Kismayu. Mr Madobe is the only survivor of the attack, which was the second targeting him since February last year.
Jubaland is crucial for Kenya as it acts as a buffer zone against Al-Shabaab infiltration. Kenya has suffered many terrorist attacks, including last September’s Westgate Mall siege, that left at least 67 people dead and many others injured. Kenya is currently on high security alert over fresh terror threats.
After the inauguration ceremony and a sumptuous lunch at the palace, the crew of journalists boarded the APCs and were taken to KDF’s camp at the new airport where we were met by the commander of the Kenyan forces under what they call Sector II, Brig Walter Raria.
Standing more than six feet tall, the well-built Brig Raria indicated to us that contrary to earlier plans to host us at the camp, we would be moved to the Old Airport. This followed intelligence reports that Al-Shabaab were planning an attack.
Al-Shabaab, who Brig Raria said had been weakened and depleted, usually carry out what in military terms are called “probing attacks” on the KDF by shooting aimlessly just to show they still exist.
And, true to the intelligence, gunshots from the terrorists were heard in the night. KDF responded with heavy artillery.
In the second day of our stay in Kismayu, we experienced the probing attacks more closely as the Al-Shabaab militants randomly shot at our camp in the Old Airport. The attacks started shortly before 10 pm, just a few minutes after we went to bed.
KDF responded by firing towards the positions of the enemy.
Sackfuls of sand
When I heard the shots from the bunker where I was staying, I ducked under my bed even though Brig Raria and other senior officers had assured us of our safety especially in the APCs and when in the bunkers. The bunkers are surrounded by sackfuls of sand, which the officers said no bullet could penetrate.
The only caution we were to take, the officers said, was not to raise our heads above the barriers or move outside during combat.
“Your bunker is the safest place to be during attack. Don’t move,” an officer had warned us.
Outside our tent, donkeys left behind by fleeing Al-Shabaab were obviously scared by the gunfire and were braying incessantly, worsening the situation. What would happen if Al-Shabaab overcame the soldiers and captured the camp? Would I be tortured, kidnapped or even executed?
It was after the shooting subsided that a soldier came to our bunker and assured us that we were safe.
“Just go back to sleep. All is well,” he assured. This, apparently, was a normal occurrence to them.
Life in the military camp is not easy. Supper is served before 6 pm. There is no electricity and no form of light is allowed after 9 pm — to avoid providing a target to Al-Shabaab militants.
Movement is restricted and one has to remember the night’s code word if he or she bumps into soldiers so as not to be mistaken for an enemy. At night, sleep is hard to come by as there are constant noises of snakes chasing rats — clearly Al-Shabaab are not the only danger lurking in the bush.
To my amusement, some of the soldiers said what they feared most were mosquitoes.
They laughed off the gunfire from Al-Shabaab, likening their gunshot sounds to the burst of popcorn in a hot pan.
Even during the day, our crew had a difficult time filming or taking photographs in Kismayu. In some areas, locals pointed at us, indicating we should stop photographing from the APCs.
Our team also visited Afmadow, a farming area now under the control of Amison after the KDF ejected Al-Shabaab.
But due to the poor state of Afmadow airstrip that made it difficult for big planes to land, a light aircraft with a capacity of only four passengers was brought to fly us there. However, since there were eight of us, including the KDF members from the communications unit, we flew there in two shifts.
In Afmadow, a team which received us led by area head of KDF Lieutenant-Colonel G.G. Marrow told us it was safe and that we had a choice of riding in an open vehicle or the armoured vehicles.
At first we were hesitant but, after consultations, we jumped into the unarmoured vehicles to be driven around. It was obviously a daring move, but we had faith in the assurances of the Kenyan soldiers.
We realised that Afmadow is just like any other town in northern Kenya with locals going about their business normally apart from the presence of Amison and Somali National Army forces.
The local provincial administration, police and locals freely interacted with us and even the soldiers, with some communicating in Kiswahili.
I learned that most of the residents had Kenyan identification documents and always come to Kenya to vote during the General Election.
As in Kismayu, there were shootings at night in Afmadow, which saw our crew scamper for safety despite earlier assurances by KDF that all was well.
The fear was aggravated by a “tactical” takeoff the KDF pilot had to make in Afmadow when he came to collect us. The pilot had to fly low close to the Indian Ocean to avoid a possible attack by Al-Shabaab.
Back in Kismayu, we had a chance of accompanying KDF troops in patrols, an incredibly dangerous mission. Dressed in body armour and helmet, we attended a briefing prior to the patrol. Then we strolled some kilometres from the Old Airport camp to Kobwein area in search of clues for the whereabouts of Al-Shabaab.
After walking for about 2km, we found jerrycans abandoned on the road, an indication that some people had escaped on sighting KDF soldiers. A number of young men and women were also detected on the APC antenna and KDF personnel moved swiftly towards them. They were stopped and searched to establish their identity and intentions.
I was only at peace when we got back to the camp.
Participation in the patrol, which is done every morning and evening, requires tremendous dedication, willingness to put oneself at risk and great physical stamina. The ground patrol entails walking on foot for kilometres in the searing heat.
Working under Amisom, KDF has at least 3,600 troops in the portion of the country they call Sector II which forms part of Jubaland. Sector II spans the country’s Lower Juba and Gedo provinces.
Unlike Afmadow, which is hot and where the camp is more like in a bush, the site at Kismayu Old Airport has exclusive coastal access. The beach nearby was once popular with European sunbathers but, after two decades of civil war, it is deserted.
During the visit, the Kenyan forces in Kismayu and Afmadow were in high spirits and gave an indication of wanting to proceed with liberation of more areas from Al-Shabaab.
Some of the KDF vehicles have inscriptions like “I love Jillib,” which the soldiers said showed they were eager to march to the town which is an Al-Shabaab stronghold.
The KDF soldiers have dug bunkers, set up tents and makeshift bathrooms in their camps, which are dotted with artillery guns and tanks that are always ready for combat.
There are green plastic sandbags everywhere alongside trucks and APCs clearly marked “African Union”. A surveillance drone sits in the hangar. The camps have officers’ lounges with satellite television.
I was amazed by the friendliness of the KDF personnel and the other activities they were involved in, including providing medical care and water to populations affected by war.
In the end, I returned to Nairobi safe and sound — allaying fears of friends and family, and carrying back a great experience from the war-torn country.
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