One day in Mogadishu

Published on 25 September 2007

WFP’s newly appointed Deputy Country Director in Somalia Denise Brown writes about her first visit to Mogadishu. For security and logistics reasons, the WFP office for Somalia is based in Nairobi in neighbouring Kenya. WFP has 11 field offices in Somalia.

WFP’s newly appointed Deputy Country Director in Somalia Denise Brown writes about her first visit to Mogadishu. For security and logistics reasons, the WFP office for Somalia is based in Nairobi in neighbouring Kenya.

The helmet wouldn’t fit over my headscarf. A practical issue that whoever designs helmets hadn’t considered. The 5 kilogramme bullet-proof vest did, however, fit nicely over my very conservative long jacket and pants.

But then there was no lock on the toilet in the UN compound – I wanted to ask one of my WFP male colleagues to stand

It’s a shell of a city, with nothing like Kabul’s bustling Chicken Street, or Baghdad’s Karrada with its shops and restaurants.
WFP Somalia Deputy Country Director Denise Brown

guard but figured that may not be an appropriate request from a Deputy Country Director (DCD). I braved it alone, without incident.

There was no mirror. Just another sign that UN women, whether national or international, are in short supply in Mogadishu.

I was eager to go on my one day trip into Mogadishu, two weeks after my arrival as DCD for WFP Somalia. How would it compare to the other war-torn cities that I had experienced – Kabul? Baghdad? Phnom Penh?

No comparison

Frankly, there is no comparison. It’s a shell of a city, with nothing like Kabul’s bustling Chicken Street, or Baghdad’s Karrada with its shops and restaurants. The streets were calm as we rolled through in our four ‘Mambas’ -- armoured personnel carriers operated by the African Union troops stationed in Mogadishu.

No visible guns, remarked one colleague, but plenty of Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and Ethiopian soldiers were stationed at every corner.

I was nervous all the same. The movie Blackhawk Down kept replaying through my mind.

Port vital

For a WFP official, Mogadishu’s deep water city port was an essential destination. Reopened for just six months after years of closure, it means that WFP can ship in large quantities of food more efficiently, then move the food through the city and out to people in need in central and southern Somalia.

With WFP planning to feed 1.2 million people in Somalia this year despite piracy threatening our sea supply lines, Mogadishu port is even more vital to many of those suffering because of conflict, poor long rains before the harvest and floods.

The port authorities were articulate, thoughtful, well-informed and grateful to WFP for our support and use of the port. We had tuna fish sandwiches at the end of our discussion, a friendly snack to seal our understanding.

Insecure security

Then a tour of the port. As we stepped out of the manager’s office the troops snapped to attention, their guns clicking. African Union troops, TFG troops and maybe even a few Ethiopian troops.

I think they made me feel more insecure than anything else. With such heavy security, surely there was an imminent threat?

I kept looking around but it was hard to keep an eye on my surroundings with the headscarf slipping over my eyes. I removed it surreptitiously and replaced it with my hat. No one protested.

The Syrian crew unloading their ship looked at me -- the only woman wandering around the port -- curiously out of the corner of their eyes. So much for the camouflage of a UN aid worker.

White-knuckle ride

The plane ride in and out on the UN Humanitarian Air Service flight was, however, the highlight of my day. It was a white-knuckle ride: up and down very quickly, skim close to the surface of the Indian Ocean full of tiger sharks, and quickly onto the runway to avoid those potential surface to air missiles. Our Sikh pilot looked as if he had done this a hundred times.

I braved it all. I kept smiling. My male colleagues were watching me closely. Would the new DCD, the newest member of the Somalia ‘fraternity’ survive the day? I did. And I am planning my next visit, with a small hand mirror in my pocket.