Thursday, 14 June 2012

Getting Away From Somalia

As a journalist specialising in Africa, my job is to cover all fifty four countries on the continent. However, Somalia takes up a lot of my time. 
There is plenty to report about Somalia; it has now entered its third decade with no effective central government, and has been in a state of conflict since the late 1980s. 
Perhaps I could be excused for trying to get away from it for a few days, by booking myself into a luxury hotel in Ethiopia. 
My hotel

I had gone to Addis Ababa for a break. As usual, a lot had been happening in Somalia and, quite frankly, apart from being exhausted, I wanted to escape for a while from all things Somali.
I was staying at a beautiful hotel. And I was looking forward to a bit of lounging by the pool, pampering in the spa, and catching up with old friends.
I had been hoping to swim in the pool
I arrived on a Monday morning, bleary eyed from an overnight flight. I checked in and went to my room for a wash and a nap. Later, I went downstairs, thinking I would have a quiet lunch outdoors in the garden.

I didn't get to spend much time in the garden 
As I strolled through the lobby I saw a familiar face. The British ambassador to Somalia was there, standing in a small, tight huddle of people. He did not look happy. Neither did the others. They had desperate looks on their faces, foreheads knotted in frowns, arms tight against their bodies.
I went over to say hello to the ambassador. "He's still not here", he said. "The Somali president was meant to be here this morning. We were meant to be meeting hours ago, and his plane still hasn't arrived."
I had heard vague rumours that a big Somali meeting was due to take place in Ethiopia, but I had pretty much ignored them. I was on holiday.
As the day drew on, the reserved elegance of the hotel was disturbed by the arrival of delegation after delegation of rather noisy Somalis. The country is split up into different parts, so there were no less than three presidents, plus three other delegations representing three other power bases.
To my dismay, I realised that my efforts to escape Somalia had failed. Somalia had come to me, and the story was too big to ignore. A crucial deal was being made to ensure the country's seemingly endless political transition ends on the twentieth of August. Most of Somalia's top leaders were here. They had basically taken over the hotel.
The official meeting was taking place at the African Union headquarters in another part of town. But the real deals were being made in the corridors, side rooms, restaurants and bedrooms of the hotel. They were even being made in the lifts. I heard a fascinating exchange between the top United Nations and American envoys for Somalia. By chance I shared a ride with them up to the fourth floor. I wish it had been going to the top floor. I would have heard even more diplomats' gossip. And even more exasperation with the Somalis.
It was a journalist's dream. I could interview everybody who was anybody because they could not get away from me. I stumbled across the usually elusive president of the transitional government, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, on my way to the business centre. And it was there that the US envoy kindly gave me a copy of the political agreement shortly after it was signed.
The Somali president Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed (and me)
I was reminded what all this was about when, in a remote corner of the hotel, I met a member of the Somali parliament who had recently been attacked by a suicide bomber from the Islamist militia, Al Shabaab, which still controls much of the country.
He looked confused and a bit frightened. When I spoke to him, he gestured towards his ears. "I still can't hear anything", he said. "It's the effect of the blast". His arms had been horribly scorched, a raw bright pink against the dark brown of his skin.
Somali leaders are often criticised for spending too much time in comfortable hotels outside the country. At endless political meetings like this one, instead of concentrating on ending the violence that has destroyed so many people's lives, like that MP's.
So I didn't get my break. But I learned a lot more about Somalia and how deals are made. Because of the decades of conflict, Somalis are scattered all over the world. From America to Australia. From Dubai to Denmark. Perhaps I should just accept the inevitable. I'm going to bump into them wherever I am. And wherever they are, there is a story to tell.

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