To Embed or not to Embed in Mogadishu
First days in Mogadishu have been frustrating to say the least. While the re-assuring security blanket that comes with staying within the highly fortified compound of AMISOM headquarters def helps you sleep better at night, the constant restrictions on movements has been a major source of annoyance.
While I have already got some decent material of Ugandan AMISOM troops (I even managed to bring a studio light to try and do some strong portraits of the troops), there have been 3 suicide bombings in the city outside the confines of the compound but have been unable to get to them as getting out on short notice has been nigh on impossible.
Even getting clearance to join an AMISOM convoy to sensitive areas like the frontline now where Burundian AMISOM troops have been fiercely engaging Al-Shabab in its last stronghold in the city, Daynille, has been a Kafkaesque task that makes anything out of Catch 22 look like a simple bureaucratic procedure.
As a public relations exercise the restrictions set in place by AMISOM actually end up being counter-productive. A case in point is the restrictions placed on access to casualties. In general AMISOM is very sensitive about casualties and try their best to keep journos away. But by doing so – the restrictions themselves become the story rather than the much more important fact that AMISOM troops have been fighting bravely here and in unbelievably tough conditions. Take the recent images released by Al-Shabab that purportedly showed 70 Burundian troops that were killed in the ongoing clashes in Daynille. When Paddy Ankunda – the very likeable press spokesperson for AMISOM countered that in fact only 10 had died at the time (and 2 were missing), the international press widely reported this figure with a pinch of salt. Suddenly AMISOM intransigence becomes the story rather than the far more important fact of the herculian efforts being made to take the rest of Mogadishu.
A member of UNSOA who works at the military hospital and is closely linked to dealing with casualties coming in from the frontline has confirmed that Paddy Ankunda’s figures are in fact close to the mark. There have now been 16 deaths and 46 injuries from the ongoing clashes. By trying to deny journalists access to the casualties it makes it harder to believe either side – even if the figures released by the AMISOM press spokesman were probably true at the time they were released.
In my opinion – there is no more powerful method of getting the message across of the hell the AMISOM soldiers have been going through and to get this far against Al-Shabab than by being open about casualties and allowing access to the frontline even during ongoing operations. And on that front, I can testify to the courage and bravery the troops have shown here. They have achieved something that was even unattainable by the Americans back in 1993 (and of course made infamous by the film Black Hawk Down) and secured the city – while also being careful not to inflict too many civilian casualties and therefore gaining the respect and support of the local Somali population. And in Somalia gaining local support is absolutely crucial – one of the main reasons that Al-Shabab has lost ground recently is because of its loss of popular support (if there was any even to begin with). In Somalia – as with Afghainstan – it is the people who decide who stays and who goes ultimately – one way or another.
I managed to get access to the military hospital yesterday through my UNSOA contact and have finally convinced AMISOM to let me up to the frontline during ongoing operations today (if all goes well – and a lot can still go wrong). I have also decided to dis-embed for a day on Monday with a colleague and staying (along with Al-Jazeera and a couple of Swedish journalists) outside the confines of the compound. After a frustrating week, I look forward to trading a bit of security for more freedom of movement to see the broken capital here without an AMISOM filter.