Shooting in Somalia? Dial 888 for police

2013-12-02 11:09

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Mogadishu - The bullet-scarred streets of Somalia's war-ravaged capital are rife with danger, but after two decades of anarchy, the besieged residents can now at least call the police if there is a problem.

Colonel Yusuf Mohamed Farah sweeps open his arms wide, proudly showing off the busy operation centre of the new emergency police telephone hotline: a small and simple room with a single telephone, high frequency radio, a table and two chairs, and a battery to keep operating during regular power cuts.

"It is not an easy task, but it is a good thing that we have done in installing the 888 emergency number... and it is going well," said 46-year-old Farah, head of public relations for Somalia's police.

"We are receiving so many calls every day, with people asking us for assistance."

Since the collapse of Somalia's hardline government in 1991, the only option if there was a problem would be to beg for help from the local warlord to send his gunmen.

But the new 888 emergency number set up this month is receiving at least 40 calls a day from across Mogadishu's 16 districts.

In the sweltering heat of the cramped operations room, the walls peeling with flaking paint, officers operate the simple equipment trying to react to emergency situations in Mogadishu, one of the most dangerous cities in the world.

Farah, who worked as a security officer in the military regime toppled in 1991, insists the hotline is a step forward.

"It is a good restart... Many of the public are calling the 888 line every day, to give either information or report an emergency," he said.

Islamists stage regular attacks

Al-Qaeda-linked Shabaab insurgents launch regular suicide bombings or commando attacks, while the sea-side capital is awash with guns and ordinary crime. Rape of women is especially rampant.

But since the Islamist Shabaab fled city trenches over two years ago, in Mogadishu at least, there has been some progress, with a stream of investors and the streets now crowded with labourers rebuilding houses shattered by years of bitter fighting.

But after so many years out of operation, setting up an emergency number has some teething problems.

"Many people make calls, but some of them are wrong callers, and then others will call only to ask you questions," grumbled Ahmed Abdi, a police officer who works at the centre.

"But some really are calling in to report an emergency... We are still working to tell people what we do, so people will be more familiar with the importance of the 888 line."

As Abdi speaks, the telephone rings, and he rushes to pick up the receiver.

This time, another false alarm, as down a crackling line the caller is looking for a mobile telephone company - who used to operate the 888 number as their own helpline - to ask for help with her connection.

Police vehicles

The Somali government this month asked that the line be returned to the police for emergency use, but many callers still dial the number expecting advice or complaints on their phone service.

The operator yet again patiently explains the line is now being used by the police.

"We have cars used for emergencies, in the case of a call we send these cars to respond to the incident if it is possible," Farah said.

On Mogadishu's streets, the public appear to welcome the idea, though many say they remain dubious of how effective it will be, and that they doubt the police will really respond.

"A friend told me the 888 line is working these days so I tried it, but unfortunately it was ringing out with no answer... I know it is just the beginning, but for now I don't think they have the capacity," said Mogadishu resident Mohamed Nur Ali.

"It is better you run and go direct to the police station instead of wasting time on telephone calls, because I don't believe they are ready yet for that," another resident Said Muktar said.

"How can they respond while they don't even have the proper police vehicles?" he added.

Read more on:    al-shabaab  |  al-qaeda  |  somalia  |  east africa

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