The Yaqshid Animal Market is shit, dust, and hair. Piles of decapitated camel heads with rich eyelashes and dopey, cartoon lovesick expressions. Goats halfheartedly hopping on each other’s backs to fuck then giving up in the compressed heat. Beggars so wracked by polio that they seem to be sitting on piles of brown pick-up sticks with toes. Baby-faced militiamen with darting jaundiced eyes, khat stained teeth, and AK-47s strapped to their backs, spitting into each other’s faces over how many eggs a jug of camel’s milk should fetch. A level of concentrated chaos only Somalis are capable of achieving. And—Jesus.H.Christ—do you love them for it.
In 2005, Yaqshid is the most dangerous district, in the most dangerous city on the planet and the U.S. government—directly and through intermediary companies like the one you work for, Viable Solutions—is flirting with some of the most brutal warlords Mogadishu has ever known. Men like your client: Abdullahi-Deere.
When you think “warlord,” you imagine a gold-toothed, bare-chested, ammunition-bandolier-strapped badass perched on a leopard-print throne with scantily clad concubines clinging to his calves. Abdullahi-Deere sports linen leisure suits, a short-cropped salt & pepper Afro, and wire-rimmed spectacles. But, if you measure warlordness in terms of being an asshole, Abdullahi-Deere is one of the biggest warlords you’ve ever met.
You and the two other members of your ‘mentor team’—Moussa and Ibrahim—meet Abdullahi-Deere in Yaqshid at the beginning of the contract in March 2005.
Peeling plaster flaps in the air conditioners’ freezing breeze in Abdullahi-Deere’s office. Despite the bourbon-brown leather sofa and loveseat, he doesn’t invite any of you—not even Ibrahim, who’s Kenyan Somali—to sit. The centerpiece of the office is a polished oak desk that looks like it got lost on the way to a Vermont antique store. The desk’s main purpose seems to be the display of a shoddy wood carving of two prancing cheetahs with the Somali flag in their teeth. You doubt that the day-to-day demands of warlording requires much in the way of office environment.
Ibrahim—rail thin with eyebrows so prominent they look hair-sprayed—begins the pleasantries in Somali, “This is Simon, our American mission medic.”
Abdullahi-Deere responds in English, “He looks Ethiopian.”
You are tall, dark skinned, and sharp featured. Ibrahim had made the same observation, in almost the same tone, when you met him in Nairobi last week.
Behind his desk, Abdullahi-Deere glowers at you and Moussa—the two true expats—like a schoolyard bully.
“And young,” Abdullahi-Deere adds, with the casual scorn of one unused to disagreement. At twenty-six, you’re the youngest expatriate on Viable Solutions’ staff. But you have more background than a lot of the guys on the other mentor teams, so fuck him.
“And this,” Ibrahim continues, “Is Moussa, our Chechen mission security officer.”
“Security Officer? Security Officer?” Abdullahi-Deere raps his knuckles on the desk and sucks his teeth.
Moussa bristles. You feel that guilty relief of watching the coach bitch out the other wide receiver. Before meeting your ‘mission security officer’ you assumed Chechens were a swarthy people. But Moussa is ruddy and freckled, thick in the middle, with a receding hairline and dense beard.
“The only reason you two are still alive.” Abdullahi-Deere waves a hand around his head indicating, you suppose, Yaqshid, his district. “Is because.” He places his palms on the desk and leans in. “I. want. It. So.”
You stand—hands clasped behind your back, shivering in the artificial chill—and don’t say a word. You’ve never felt so far from home. Exactly the escape you wanted.
According to your contact with Viable Solutions, four weeks in Mog earns you one drunken week in Nairobi, just enough to keep the tension at a low simmer.
During your conference call phone interview, Moussa and two assholes from the Nairobi office explained the R&R scheme before breathing a word about the actual job. Then, obviously reading, Moussa recounted, “The role of the mission medic is to build relationships that will strengthen U.S. partners’ emergency medical response capacity.”
“What does that mean exactly?” you asked.
“Go to hospitals, meet doctors, exchange professional information.” Moussa sounded as if he were explaining the fry machine to the new guy at Arby’s. “You know, shit like that.” The U.S. funded contract called for a ‘mission medic,’ so Viable Solutions was hiring one.
You do your homework among the expat crowd in Nairobi during your first R&R and hook up with Dr. Osman a hard drinking, chain smoking, French-Moroccan emergency physician working in Mogadishu’s Banadir hospital. Contracted through the International Red Crescent Society—one of the few humanitarian agencies still operating in the Somali capital—Doc Osman’s altruism is a welcome change from Viable Solution’s mercenary crew.
Three times a week, you assist, advise, and query, but Doc Osman, in soft melodically accented English, decides. You get more real trauma experience—mostly gunshot wounds—playing Doc Osman’s nurse at Banadir than you did during your seven years as a Special Forces medic.
The “through and through” injuries typical of medium caliber weapons like the AK-47 are easy: plug and patch jobs. It’s the smaller bullets—the ones that lodge in the patients—that are a bitch. At least half of the weapons-related injuries you treat in Banadir are on kids under the age of five. At first, the skeletal children’s doe-eyed silences and glue-caked noses freak you out.
“It gets easier,” Dr. Osman says. Then—pinky past the first joint deep in his nostril—he tops off your teacup with brandy. You have never encountered a more unembarrassed nose picker.
You learn to ignore the patients’ grimaces when tapping around for the clink-clink of .38s lodged in thighs and shoulders. But you never shake the stench: a mixture of excrement, sweat, and despair. Or the faces of the mothers, etched with pain and fear, but not a hint of indignation—as if Mogadishu had squeezed every drop of human dignity out of their emotions.
Via email you tell your friend Michael back home that you’re “doing God’s work.”
Michael doesn’t cut you an inch of slack. He knows you’re on the run. His reply: “It sounds more like you’re undoing man’s.”
In the heavily fortified Peace Hotel—which hosts Viable Solutions’ setup along with the Red Crescent’s expat staff—you tell Moussa and Ibrahim about a boy you and Doc Osman saved earlier that day. Swatting flies on the covered veranda, you find you can’t shut up about the bridges you’re building between the company and the humanitarian community.
Moussa looks up from his plate of stewed chicken bought live in Yaqshid the day before to ask, “If vegetarians eat vegetables, what do humanitarians eat?”
Before you can answer Ibrahim interjects, “Humanitarian work keeps people alive, development work gives them a reason to want to stay that way.”
“Yeah. Okay, Ibrahim.” You curl your lip. “That shirt and slacks don’t change the fact that your job is to beg Abdullahi-Deere for the privilege of installing shitters in his district.”
You figured that Ibrahim at least—as a Somali—would appreciate your work at Banadir. You sneak glances of him picking meat off a drumstick. Ibrahim’s forehead bears the prayer bruise that is a mark of pride among devout Muslims—the same way cauliflower ears were a badge of honor among the guys you wrestled with in high school.
Ibrahim cleans his fingers with a napkin while examining his shirt’s French-cuffs. “I refuse to treat my country like a war zone.”
“But it is,” you reply.
“Does not mean I have to treat it that way.”
A Kenyan medic from one of the other mentor teams pulls a plastic lawn chair to your table under the terrace.
Your jambo jinsi wewe earns a laugh from your fellow paramedic. “Better to say habri gani, Simon.”
Ibrahim lips compress into a thin line while you catch up on the curriculum for the first-aid classes for Abdullahi-Deere’s men.
The Kenyan medic scarfs down his food then runs to join his team’s convoy gearing up in Peace Hotel’s courtyard.
“Why do you waste your time with that slave tongue?” Ibrahim asks.
Moussa winks. “Because it helps you get laid in Nairobi.”
“My ancestors were slaves,” you tell Ibrahim. “Yours fucked camels.”
Ibrahim surprises you with a snorting laugh. “Our esteemed warlord host’s ancestors fucked camels. My people are city folks. Mogadishu natives. The Marehan clan. Siad Barre’s clan. We’d long run by the time Abdullahi-Deere and these other camel herders started squatting here.”
Ibrahim launches into a soliloquy about the brutal, longtime dictator whose ouster triggered the perpetual war the country now finds itself in.
“Somalia needs another Siad Barre. This country cannot be governed, only ruled.” Then Ibrahim adds, almost to himself, “The question is if any of these Abdullahi-Deeres are strong enough to do it.”
Ibrahim’s voice takes on a defensive tone as he gestures around Peace Hotel’s HESCO fortified interior. “You should have seen Mogadishu under the mighty mouth, Simon. A cosmopolitan, Mediterranean capital. The most beautiful city in Africa.”
Moussa smirks and points at Ibrahim. “You ran from your war.” He shifts his finger in your direction. “You fought in your wars and went home.” Moussa jams a thumb in his chest. “I was born and raised in war. Just like Abdullahi-Deere’s men. I am at home here. Now.”
He’s right. None of you—not even Ibrahim—click with Abdullahi-Deere’s militiamen the way Moussa does.
According to the contract, Moussa’s role is to “empower U.S. government partners to attain self-sufficient security solutions,” or more specifically to plead with Abdullahi-Deere for the privilege of training his militia to shoot straight. Every morning you, Moussa, and Ibhrahim line up Abdullahi-Deere’s militia in Peace Hotel’s courtyard for guard mount. You inspect the militiamen’s weapons and equipment, all of which—from the blue uniforms and baseball caps to the AK-47s—Viable Solutions has issued. One could accuse the U.S.’s War on Terrorism of a lot of things, but not stinginess.
“When was the last time you unloaded this magazine?” Moussa asks, with Ibrahim translating. Moussa tosses you the offending magazine. You lift it for the three columns of men to see. “Gentlemen, the springs wear out if you don’t periodically unload these.”
The mostly teenage Somali militiamen snap out palm-forward salutes and flash brown teeth in competition for Moussa’s praise.
All the men you’d respected growing up had served in the military. As far back as you can remember joining the military and serving abroad had been central to your idea of legitimacy. That was back when you still had an ethos and the seemingly endless supply of fucks to give that goes along with it. During your senior year of high school Michael referred to your pending enlistment as, “indulging your fascist side.” You hated to admit how much he was right. You understand fascism’s primal appeal in a way Michael can’t. But the Somali militiamen’s susceptibility to it—their eyes begging for a leader to worship—frightens you. And that’s not the only thing.
All of your militiamen chew the bitter amphetamine khat. The trade of khat is probably the only business the war didn’t affect. Many male Somalis wake up chewing the drug. By midday automatic gunfire pops throughout Mogadishu, dying down to a lazy crack-crack-crack by evening, as the Somalis come down from their highs, then spiking up at night when they start chewing again.
Abdullahi-Deere’s militiamen are brutal, drugged-up, teenage gun-thugs—your brutal, drugged-up, teenage gun-thugs. The Somalis shot vigor through everything—from their rough embraces, to their intense discussions, which always seem on the verge of fistfights. Yeah, you like the militiamen—absolute angels compared to the smack-addicted pedophiles you’d worked with in Afghanistan—but your rapport with them doesn’t touch Moussa’s. Watching Moussa buzz around the office after training sessions with the militiamen never fails to give you a kick.
“Wow.” You grin at your Chechen colleague. “Look at Mr. Been-There-Done-That bubbling optimism.”
Moussa rises from behind his desk. “Oh, the youngster wants a shot at the title, yes?” He feigns a couple grappling lunges in your direction.
From his stocky frame you rightly guessed Moussa had once been a wrestler. His ample midsection suggests that while he had long stopped training like a heavyweight contender, he never stopped eating like one.
You pin him pretty easily, but he’d trained long enough for the wrestler’s back step and arch to become reflexes.
“Ten years ago I would have given you the run for the money,” Moussa says, grinning, hands on his knees.
“I bet.” You huff a bit more than necessary for the sake of Moussa’s ego.
“You know,” Moussa says, “the best grapplers in the world come out of the North Caucasus.”
“Nah. Iowa and Brazil. Everyone knows that.”
“You want cows, you go to Iowa. You want STD, you go to Brazil. You want grapplers you come to the Caucasus.”
Later that night on the roof of Peace Hotel, you, Doc Osman and, Moussa pass bottles of Jack Daniels and samagone—Russian moonshine from the aircrew—and watch tracer rounds zing across the city.
“The only reason the three of you are still alive is because.” Here you take a breath. It’s important to get this bit just right. “I. Want. It. So.”
The three of you giggle like teenagers.
Moussa touches two fingers to his eyebrow and Doc Osman lazily hoists the bottle.
“To motherfuckin’ Abdullahi-Deere.”
There are worse gigs.
“Seventeen days,” Moussa tells you. From the moment his boots touch Mog, Moussa counts down the four weeks until he can return to his family.
“Seventeen days,” you echo.
Moussa’s real life is the fifth week, the one he spends with his family in Grozny. For you, neither the drunken seven days in Nairobi, nor the pressure-cooker four weeks in Mogadishu are real life. That’s the point. Companies like Viable Solutions are havens for vagabonds, refuge for mercenaries, missionaries, and misfits. And you loved this place for giving you the opportunity, on any given day, to play all three roles. Your type of love for Somalia was the problem—men like you tend to treat their lovers badly.