Stranded in a warzone: Anti-apartheid veteran desperate to get back home

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Somali security forces patrol at the site of a terror attack outside the Pizza House restaurant in Mogadishu. (File: AFP)
Somali security forces patrol at the site of a terror attack outside the Pizza House restaurant in Mogadishu. (File: AFP)

Stranded in the middle of a raging civil war in Mogadishu, Somalia, anti-apartheid veteran and constitutional expert Hassen Ebrahim has waited a long time to come home.

Thousands of South Africans are stranded all over the world and have appealed to the government to help them return home, but lockdown regulations have made this difficult.

International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor previously said the department was doing everything it could to assist them and would do so in collaboration with other governments.

Ebrahim is one of these citizens who have requested the department's help.

Having had a long history as an anti-apartheid activist, Ebrahim was one of the leaders in the ANC's underground structures. He also took part in the negotiations surrounding South Africa's new Constitution in 1992, among other things.

His work as a contractor for the UN brought him to Mogadishu last month where he is providing strategic and policy support for the Somalian government.

Speaking to News24, Ebrahim said: "I have been working in countries coming out of conflict for over 10 years. Some of these countries include Somalia, Zimbabwe, Libya, Yemen, Nepal, the Philippines and Liberia."

He has spent about a month stranded in Mogadishu at a hotel close to the airport - a green zone in an area which has seen a rise in mortar attacks over the past year.

"When considering the number and regularity of attacks, some would classify Mogadishu as effectively a warzone," Ebrahim said.

"As international workers, we are located in hotels that are located around the international airport which is effectively a secured area some describe as a green zone.

"Unfortunately, Ramadaan is also a month in which al-Shabab has been known to launch offensives making security more difficult."

It is a situation which Ebrahim stoically said was "always scary … but we do live in a warzone. It is the norm out here".

The Muslim holy month of Ramadaan starts on Saturday. 

'I wish this was different'

Ebrahim has faced challenges during his time in Mogadishu.

While his mission started in early March, his eldest brother died a month later, but due to a lockdown that was imposed in Mogadishu shortly after his arrival, he has not been able to get back home.

The lockdown was set to be extended into May, Ebrahim said, leaving him with little options.

"I lost my eldest brother in South Africa due to ill-health on 8 April. I was informed of his passing by WhatsApp.

PODCAST | Covid-19 Chronicles: South Africans stranded abroad are locked down, locked out

"Aside from not being able to perform my obligations and pay my respects, I have not been able to provide the support to the family as is required of me."

Being away from his family during this time "is the difficult part", Ebrahim said, adding: "I wish this was different."

His ticket back home, scheduled for the end of March, was cancelled and the airport in Mogadishu closed.

"I investigated all possibilities including UN and EU flights out of Mogadishu. I cannot afford a charter, and there are not enough South Africans here to warrant it."

A glimmer of hope

Having registered as a stranded citizen with the department, Ebrahim found a glimmer of hope earlier this week when he was told a chartered plane from Pakistan would be making a stop in Mogadishu for refuelling before heading to South Africa.

"Arrangements were made for me to board the plane and return to SA," he said.

While the captain of the plane was aware Ebrahim was to board, he had strict instructions to follow protocol.

Just before boarding the plane to finally come back home, he was turned away.

"[The protocols] included the requirement that passengers were required to have Covid-19 certificates confirming that they tested negative. Unfortunately, I did not know of this requirement."

He said in Mogadishu, it was impossible to get this certificate as there were no laboratory facilities to provide one.

"All tests carried out have their samples sent to Nairobi and are returned a couple of days later. Unfortunately, the certificate is also of limited time value."

Survival

While Ebrahim said he had the essentials he needed to survive, he added he had run out of chronic medication.

"The only challenge is that I am a diabetic and suffer with high cholesterol, and dependent on chronic medication which has just run out.

"Supply of this medication in Mogadishu is not reliable."

But Ebrahim is still hopeful the restrictions will be lifted in early May and the requirement for the Covid-19-negative certificate will be relaxed.

"If not, this could pose quite a serious [problem]."

To keep him sane, he said he was in constant communication with his family.

"This is critical because they are my backbone… They find this a bit difficult to manage. I have merely let them know that the situation is tough.

"Fortunately, they have been most understanding. I have a truly wonderful wife and children," said Ebrahim.

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