Welcome to Mogadishu

By admin
24 October 2013

Rudie Thirion, our new blogger, used to be a church minister but now works in war-torn Somalia, advising and training people in landmine safety and will share details of his life in the Horn of Africa.

  Hazards of a long trip

It was 2004 and I was making my way to Eritrea to work on a project for Mechem, a Denel company which, among other things, was involved in clearing of landmines.

Back then I hadn’t crossed the borders of South Africa often. There was a holiday in Mozambique and a trip to Angola for a project for landmine victims.

But now this boy from rural Namibia was sitting on a flight from Joburg to Nairobi, Kenya, and from there on to Asmara in Eritrea via neighbour Djibouti. My assignment: three months as logistics coordinator on a Mechem contract for the United Nations (UN).

Asmara, Photo: D-Stanley on Flickr

I had barely arrived in Asmara when I was told a mechanic called Piet Botha and I had to hit the road before dawn the following morning in his recovery vehicle. Our job was to deliver a trailer with cement to a UN project at a place called Shilalo.

After only a few hours of sleep Piet and I set off. The first part of the road was tarred, and then it changed to dirt road – at first a good road which continued over several passes to the western lowlands. And then one hits a valley and you think the trip is almost over.

Rural Eritrea. Photo: Peter Casier on Flickr

But it’s not. The road turns narrow and rocky, then sandy and then it becomes a corrugated track. It carries on and on, until it becomes impossible to sit comfortably.

In its previous life our vehicle was a military Samil-50 recovery vehicle with an armoured and mine-resistant cab. Now it’s sprayed white, with “UN” painted in big black letters on the doors. The springs are hard, the seats are even harder, and there’s a red fire extinguisher next to the left seat.

I first sat this way, then that way, on the one cheek, then on the other, then I lifted myself up on my arms so I could travel with my bum in the air. Then the cheek-swapping process started all over again, and still the end was nowhere in sight.

When once again I was looking for somewhere to hold onto in order to lift my bum, there was a loud whooshing sound and suddenly the cab was filled with smoke. But it didn’t smell of smoke and as far as I could see, nothing was burning. Piet hit the brakes and at the same time threw open the door. He let loose a torrent of words, most of which I can’t repeat. But somewhere in that torrent I recognised “fire extinguisher”.

Fire extinguisher powder. Somehow while trying to lift my body I had grabbed the extinguisher handle and sprayed the cab. Needless to say Piet and I didn’t get off to a very good start, but we did later become good friends. And my first real African trip became an unforgettable experience. How did I end up in such an isolated place? Well, it was partly because I needed an income, partly because I wanted to make a difference, and it was also an opportunity express my wanderlust. After all, the farm on which I grew up was called Nimmerrust (there’s no rest). More about me

In my previous life I was a minister and chaplain in the defence force. I left the force in 2000 and retired as a minister.

In 2004 I had a job offer from Mechem, which has various landmine action contracts with the UN. I was first sent to Eritrea, and then to Afghanistan. In Afghanistan I worked on two projects, both clearing landmines, and I spent a lot of time first in a Tapir (a mine resistant vehicle), and then in a Casspir with steel wheels and mine rollers.

Top: Me and my Tapir outside Girisk in Afghanistan. Below: The Casspir with its steel wheels and mine rollers.

Since then I’ve worked for Mechem on a few contracts and afterwards for a number of nonprofit organisations in various parts of Somalia and the Sudan. The kind of aid work we do depends a lot on the duration of the contract and on how much funding is available. In 2011 I started working for Bancroft Global Development, an American organisation, as a technical MRE (mine-risk education adviser) on a UN contract with headquarters at the humanitarian offices of the UN Mine Action Service (Unmas) in Mogadishu, Somalia.

Here I live in a UN camp right on the beach and train Somalis to deal with landmine safety issues in their communities. It is very far from my wife, Elize, in Pretoria and from my three children and grandchildren, but I visit them every three months or so.

My villa by the sea! The brown door is the entrance to my room.

Even though war-torn Mogadishu is slowly but surely losing its reputation as the world’s most dangerous city, our movements “on the other side of the fence” are still very limited. We need permission from the safety staff to leave the camp and then, depending on where we want to go (often into the communities), we have to travel in armoured Land Cruisers or personnel carriers, with protection from the African Union peace-keeping force. We always have to wear helmets and bullet-proof vests whenever we leave camp.

We work very hard here: up to six to seven days a week, 10 hours a day. Our camp is right on the beach and when I have a moment to myself, and the wind isn’t blowing too hard, I can fit in a bit of snorkelling.

The tide pool next to the camp where I go snorkeling in low tide.

A scene here in the camp where a Bosnian, a Norwegian, a Tunisian and a Namibian are standing around a braai of Somali crayfish, isn’t an unusual sight . . .

We are braaiing crayfish, but here we are four South Africans and a Kenyan.

Not long ago I read that non-governmental organisations such as ours have already managed to train almost a million people in landmine safety. If in the process we have been able to save a few lives, legs, arms and eyes, then I am deeply thankful.

* Rudie Thirion is a former chaplain who is currently an aid worker in Somalia. His home is in Pretoria but he spends most of his time in a United Nations camp in Mogadishu. He will be blogging for us on his travels and experiences north of the equator.

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