Freelancing in Mogadishu and final thoughts on Somalia….
Have been laid low with stomach bug and have been suffering with severe back pains recently – I am beginning to feel the years marching on & the lifestyle is def taking its toll… I’ve had typhoid now twice in the last few years and thought I was on my way to a third – so a bit of self-prescribed R & R in Nai was in order in between preparing myself for my next trip to Uganda and South Sudan..
It gave me a bit of time to reflect on my fortnight in Mogadishu. Wading through the pics I have been weighing up the pros and cons of going in as a freelancer. It was certainly a very different experience from what I imagined. The first thing to note is the extremely controlled nature of working there and the tough conditions especially as a photographer to operate in. Dis-embedding doesn’t make much of a difference either, although movements are a lot more flexible, being constantly surrounded by an entourage of armed guards severely restricts what is and is not possible and it doesn’t help in terms of putting your subjects at ease.
The time spent at any one place is also heavily restricted as – from a security perspective – it can attract unwanted attention. While embedded and shooting on the front line for example I would literally get a few seconds to snatch a few pics before being quickly ushered on to the next point of interest or rather what was perceived to be the next point of interest. Even when dis-embedded, the problems were just as acute: A story on mental health issues shot at a few clinics in the city was all done in the space of a few hours while constantly being ushered by a group of 7 or 8 armed guards. Not that I am not appreciative. The dangers in Moggie – while not as immediate as they were even a few months ago – are still ever-present. Being unfamiliar with the territory – it is always better to be safe than sorry of course – but the burden, along with the constant time pressure, of always having to be aware of your guards and their movements and to co-ordinate with them all adds up to make taking pics and shooting a decent story extremely tough. You do learn to adapt quickly though – while shooting portraits at the WFP-sponsored feeding centre for example – a gun went off not 10 metres away from where I was set up – an instant look at 1 of the armed guards – who didn’t even flinch – and I was instantly re-assured it was just a local guard firing in the air probably to try and control the overwhelming crowds… still – when you’re trying to use a studio light to take portraits and having to balance available light with flash – having a gun go off literally next to you isn’t the easiest of environments to work in…!
The second point to make is the problem of gathering relevant info and getting access to newsworthy images. After the first week of my trip it became obvious that any pics that I could feed news wire services were going to be very difficult to come by. Access to military engagements or casualties is extremely restricted as I have mentioned before. It had always struck me as strange that such a relatively important issue as the changing fortunes in Somalia and the ongoing international, African-led mission which has seen massive gains in the past few months, have not been so widely reported and covered as other conflicts and international interventions have been. Part of it of course is that in the West we only really care when ‘our boys’ are involved. But that does not fully explain why Somalia – where the battle against Islamic extremism is second only to Afghanistan (and possibly Yemen) – has not been more widely reported.
A lot of it comes down to the fact that the African military contingents involved in the conflict are loathe to be seen in any way to be suffering from even the most minor of setbacks and try and keep journalists away from the action mostly as a precaution to what they might see or report. The Kenyan mission in the South of the country is a great case in point. Here the Kenyans have advanced all the way to the edges of Kismayo in the last few weeks – the last real Al-Shabaab stronghold in Somalia – but because of a blanket ban on access to the front line there has hardly been too much international coverage. It is a shame in many ways – because – as I have said before – the bigger picture – that of Africans solving their own problems in their own backyard where others have failed and with limited resources – is lost in the haze of conflicting information in the Somali conflict. There is a general ‘Black Hawk Down Syndrome’ where everyone is keen to hide as much of their own suffering and casualties as possible in case it leads to a backlash back home or worse – among those funding the mission and pressure mounts for a withdrawal. Such fears though seem misplaced – there is a strong general will in the region and among the Somali population to rid the country of Al-Shabaab and this completely overrides fears of the short-term pain and the backlash that may be unleashed by doing so.
In the fog of this war – the one truth is that there has already been a lot of suffering on all sides. From the AMISOM soldiers on the ground, who with minimal military air and naval support have pushed forward to secure Mogadishu in extremely tough and hostile conditions and who undertake a tour of duty that lasts a minimum of a year – to the Somali population itself, the strain of the conflict is overwhelming and at times unbearable.
My personal contact with the local Somali population was restricted for reasons I have mentioned above – so it was an eye opener to visit the mental health clinics in Mogadishu. It is estimated that over a third of the Somali population suffers from some form of mental health issue – by far the highest percentage in the world. The never-ending conflict and recent famine has slowly taken its toll on the people and with no serious available resources, medical facilities are often overwhelmed by the flood of people requiring medical assistance. The simple fact that there are only three psychiatric nurses in the entire country speaks volumes as to the scale of the problem.
Overall though I came away with the distinct impression that the situation is improving slowly but surely in Somalia (albeit from a very low starting point). There is a general will on all sides to rid the country once and for all of Al-Shabaab.
More than anything else what will help in the future is the increasing amount of business – esp in Mogadishu. One of the most positive influences on Somalia’s future is the wealthy and successful Somali diaspora. They seem keen to come back en masse if the country were to stabilise. They have kept Somalia going through the most difficult years with remittances said to be in the region of US$1 billion per year. And with the return of security to the capital, they have already started to pour money into the country as witnessed in the flourishing small businesses in Mogadishu itself. With the return of business – whatever happens in the highly unstable political arena of the country – an extremely war-weary general population will do everything and anything to make sure security and peace prevails.
So – is it worth freelancing in Mogadishu as things stand? It was an extremely long and hard 2 weeks but I’ve come away with three solid photo stories that I will begin to market in the next few weeks. I have already sold a handful of images to Canadian and European media outlets and might have a couple of my portraits from the WFP-sponsored feeding centre up at a UN exhibition in Vienna and Geneva. The trip will pay itself over the next few months and some of the work will add a lot in terms of depth and strength to my general portfolio. For all the restrictions and problems, it was def worth the time (illness!) and expense.