I thought I was the only writer in the world that felt this way and it secretly shamed me. Until today when I discovered that Neil Gaiman, of all people, thinks the same way.
I thought I was the only writer in the world that felt this way and it secretly shamed me. Until today when I discovered that Neil Gaiman, of all people, thinks the same way.
There are moon dogs out.
The world is asleep under the stars and what diamond hard stars they are too. As I drive back into the city from a day in Fort Rae they seem to outshine the headlights.
The road back from Rae is a hundred miles of twisting and turning gravel that leaps up and down through low hills choked with spruce, aspen, tamarack and a few fir. In the dark it becomes a terribly hostile place made more intense by the absence of traffic. An accident here or a breakdown would mean a night in the minus twenty weather hoping, praying for a traveller. It’s because of that, that there is a survival kit in the back seat and an arctic sleeping bag. We don’t take chances in this country. There is nothing between Rae and Yellowknife except a few wolves.
As I drive east toward midnight the stars glint hard through the windshield. I turn down the instrument panel lights and let the stars beat through the headlights. There’s Orion directly in front of me and just to the left the Big Dipper is making its slow wheel about the sky, tied always to the north star and I can’t help thinking about Manitou and Black Bear playing cards on the other side, past the sky. It’s funny how a child’s story takes on real life in this country. Perhaps he really does exist.
The road is frozen gravel so there’s no need to worry about sliding but where it goes through a curve the traffic has carved just one track. When it turns to the right the lane stays where it is supposed to but on a left turn the bare gravel is far to the left and that means any vehicle coming the other way would be met head on. It’s a game of chance and anxiety. Whether to stay on the hard pack snow and let any traffic slip past or stay on the gravel and keep the speed up on the gravel. Every curve is a guess. I pass one truck heading west from Yellowknife and see its headlights bounced off the trees well in advance so I relax. I know that I’ll have the warning to get back to my side of the road. The trees are coated in hoar frost and the headlights turn them into silver cutouts plastered against the stars. There’s magic here.
Halfway back now and there’s an odd light directly ahead. It seems like the glow of a city but I’m too far from Yellowknife for that and the air is too clear to allow any city to light up the air anyway. You can be a mile from Yellowknife and not know it because the city lights aren’t reflected the way they are in the south.
The glow is troubling. There’s a hardness to it that doesn’t seem right. Thoughts of flying saucers are easy here, it’s so lonely. If I was an explorer from Alpha Centauri sent to earth to spy on the human race what better way to gather data than to drop down on a lonely highway in the arctic and pick up the one vehicle for fifty miles in either direction.
There’s nothing on the radio, too far out. The heater is noisy and I turn it off to concentrate on the light. It’s growing too quickly for it to be stationary and it must be moving. Then darkness, as I slip down through a dark valley guarded by rock walls and up a long curve of the hill. No light. Then light.
The moon for God’s sake. It sits in the trees as it rises above the horizon. It’s huge. it seems to fill the width of the road and looms above the windshield of the car. The light is being refracted through the atmosphere I tell myself and the moon is being magnified but that doesn’t take anything away from the spectacle. Its light blasts down the highway at me and in a straight stretch I punch off the headlights. Hardly any difference. The moon has turned the highway to a twilight sliver. We rush on together, the car and me and the moon. The stars shine on still so bright I can see them when I look away from the moon. We’re a team the moon and me and we drive on and on under its light until the road curves into darkness and the headlights must come on because I never want to use the survival kit. Darkness envelopes the car and the loneliness is back but then the curve is finished and once more the moon is back.
Midnight is passing. I forget how far I have driven. I have no idea where Yellowknife might be and that troubles me. Must always know where you are in this country. The old habits built up in this very region from that silly little seaplane base down the road from the motel are coming back.
Know where you are all the time, goes the rule, then you will know where you are lost.
You get killed when you get lost in an unknown place.
Strange rule but it works. There’s a telephone in the car. Now that I am closer to Yellowknife I could use it if the car breaks down. But that wouldn’t help me much. What am I going to say? “Hello, uh I need a truck to pull me out of a snowbank. What’s that? Where am I? Uh, somewhere between Rae and Yellowknife. Just start driving and I’ll be on the road.” Christ it could take the rest of my life to find me.
The moon has dogs. They’ve come up either side of the mother. Pale little children riding coat-tail as if they were afraid of getting lost. What does this mean? I think to myself. Is this good luck, or bad, do they herald good weather or a snarling blizzard? God the weather knowledge I have lost over the years. Must relearn it.
A glint of light between the left dog and the moon. It’s the airport beacon sweeping away to the arctic sky. What nostalgia that brings back. It sweeps over me. The nights and nights I plowed my way back through some skag down the MacKenzie river overloaded with gear and fuel trying to land a 185 at the base, never really sure where the airport was and then suddenly seeing that white slash of light sweep across the sky and I knew I was home and the floats would be touching Back Bay in twenty minutes. Dangerous life and I don’t miss it but you always remember the good things about the past, never the bad, and that beacon is one of the good. The beacon is good to me too. I start to reenter the world. I start to see the moon and her dogs for what they are. The stars retreat to being stars and not silent watchers over the wilderness. The magic is leaking away and the car slips closer to Yellowknife.
I see some lights beaming from the top of the territorial government office tower and then the YK Tower and then the highrises. The airport and its snow wrapped bush planes waiting for break-up and the endless summer days goes past on the right and then I’m back. The city swallows me up and the north goes away. There’s sadness as I take the car back. I am giving up the treasure of a sensation and a life few would ever experience. I live within myself content and with the secret knowledge that the moon and her two children put on that show just for me. Somewhere I hear Black Bear’s grumbling chuckle and I love the world.
As I was working today on the draft for The Disaster Tourist — How Journalists and Relief Workers Survive and Thrive in War Zones I came across a photo I had taken in Kukes Northern Albania during the Kosovo War when tens of thousands of refugees flooded into Albania.
I was working as a spokesperson for CARE Canada and the team had rented this house not far from the border. The family that owned it was more than happy to move out and live in an underground shelter in exchange for hard currency, and they provided the meals.
Well, getting food in War Zones and Disaster Areas can be a problem and in Kukes, unless you had a lot of money you had to make do with what you could get your hands on.
In this case, it was chickens. Our landlords had a lot of chickens in their back garden and that is what the team ate. For breakfast, lunch, and dinner, every day after day, for about a month, we ate baked chicken.
We could get other food but that would have meant buying off the black market, which was probably stolen relief food so that was out of the question. But we got lots of offers including many from a local hoodlum who was trying to move up in the ranks from sometime hitman to crime boss.
But beer was cheap and plentiful so all was good with life.
Cobra Flight is marked down 75% as part of a special promotion at Smashwords.com
That means you can have hours of tense suspense reading for little more than one U-S dollar.
This is only available for non-Amazon Kindle eReaders. But, there are ways to convert the ePub (the world standard format) so that it can run on a Kindle.
Here’s a free short story for you. It’s only about 25 hundred words so you can read it here easily enough, but feel free to print it off or send it to your favorite ereader.
Guy Marceau was having trouble with his dog team. For the fifth time in an hour Guy called to the lead dog and halted the sled. He cursed under his breath and fought his way through the drifting snow to the third lead dog, tangled in its bridle.
They were savage, half wild dogs made worse by Guy’s frequent use of the whip. He slashed at the hopelessly struggling sled dog and screamed a torrent of French and Indian swear words at the trapped animal.
“Tabernac,” he said into the bitter wind sweeping across the wide frozen MacKenzie River. “These goddamn dogs had better smarten up or they don’t get fed tonight.” They were restless, far worse than normal, when they’d lunge for a hand if they weren’t whipped down constantly.
The dogs had their heads turned into the wind and they were barking wildly. Guy could see nothing against the blowing snow.
“What the hell’s the matter with them?” Guy muttered and turned to scan the wide river.
The answer called thinly and weirdly over the MacKenzie, the cries of another dog team, driven hard from the south.
He looked down at the excited dogs, “Bien eh? We’ll have company for supper tonight, dat’s good.”
The other sled was not yet visible but Guy knew they could only be coming from Fort Liard and probably en route to a trapping line or Fort Norman on the shores of Great Bear Lake to the north. Guy wondered who might be driving them. Whoever it was there was a good chance he would know the man. There were very few white-men north of Edmonton and in the five years Marceau had spent in the far north he had come to know the few men living in the scattered settlements or running trap lines. He had come a long way since the defeat of the NorthWest Mounted Police at Duck Lake in 1885.
The other team was now visible on the other side of the river. Guy carefully unslung the Sharps from the sled and cleared the action. Although the code of hospitality in the north said that men meeting on the trail must meet in friendship and share the fire, Guy knew that a little caution was always needed.
The Sharps wouldn’t leave his hands until he knew the other as friend. The metal was so cold against his leathered hands it felt like fire. He tightened his grip as the other sled swung across the ice towards Guy. The man raised his hand in salute and Guy unconsciously replied.
The stranger stopped his team several feet from Guy. The dogs still strained their harnesses to get to one another but the barking and lunging was easier to put up with than the work it would take to unsnarl two teams and the harnesses if they ever got at each other.
The man was tall, more than six feet, he towered over the Metis. An Eskimo parka from the shores of the Arctic Ocean didn’t hide the shoulders built during long days of sledding.
From a buffalo fur cap metal flashed in the light. The badge made Guy lower his rifle.
Marceau had never seen the policeman before but had heard from others that this was the new Mountie sent north from Edmonton to maintain order between Forts, Norman, Providence and Liard, a beat of several hundred miles requiring months to cover.
“Bonjour m’sieu. I am Guy Marceau. Are you coming from Fort Liard?”
“Bonjour,” the man replied nodding to Guy’s question. “It’s good to meet someone else on this godforsaken river. I almost made camp an hour ago but decided to push on instead, that was lucky wasn’t it.” The Mountie grinned.
“Good to have someone to share the fire.” Guy said it cheerfully, but he felt this Mountie was no friend. He’d seen him before although the where eluded him.
“I’m Constable McNern, Northwest Mounted, from Liard,” he jerked his thumb to the south as if there could be any doubt where Liard was, the only place on the river for days of traveling any direction.
The name brought the memory back for Guy. It went back those five years to Duck Lake when Marceau, under another name, and another cause, was Riel’s adjutant general.
Marceau had led the Indians and other Metis on the massacre. They killed the wounded and all who surrendered. A few escaped and told the tale to others. McNern among the few who had got away.
The Mounties had a permanent interest in tracking down Marceau. The constable would be sure to recognize him once he started looking past the beard and name.
It was though McNern was reading Guy’s thoughts. “Don’t I know you m’sieu? I’m sure we have met somewhere.”
The cold vanished from Guy’s body with the tension. He stared at the man. The moment seemed to hang solid, then it eased when the constable shrugged away the effort to remember. McNern turned slightly to his sled. “We should head in to the trees there and make camp.”
Guy breathed out and nodded, “Oui, the sun is going quickly.”
It didn’t matter at all about the sun. They could have traveled on under the light from the moon and the stars the way most winter travel was done in the Arctic but it seemed as good a time as any to make camp. They would be up hours before the dawn and running north along the river anyway and the sun would find them twenty miles and more further down river.
Guy followed behind the Mountie’s sled toward the shore, giving thanks to the cruel arctic winters that forced a man to grow a thick beard to hide his face from the razor winds.
The two of them shared the fire and the rations in silence for long cold minutes, but the need for human contact between the two men started conversation. They talked of the weather and the amazing series of cloudless days and clear nights that had lasted since Xmas. They talked of the fur season and how a man could get rich if he could just stay out in the bush long enough without freezing or starving to death. They sat around the fire with their sleds turned on side to stop the runners freezing to the snow and to act as wind-breaks for their backs.
The wind was as permanent as the cold and the loneliness.
Both knew they were the only humans for a hundred miles on the frozen river and they felt it. Guy talked of a few women, most of them other Metis, but a few Indians as well, and he talked of his mother in Trois Rivieres. He hadn’t seen her for almost twenty years, not since the day he killed his first man and left Quebec for safety in the west. And of course he didn’t tell McNern about the brawl that started his love for killing.
It was McNern who did most of the talking. The cap badge winking and flashing in the firelight and managing to catch GuyΓÇÖs eyes full on from time to time as though it was trying to burn a hole in his head. At times it flared in size and seemed to take on a life of its own.
McNern was still new to the far north and hadn’t learned all that is needed to keep loneliness away. His wife and child were still in Edmonton and he wouldn’t see them for another two years until his tour was over. He felt the separation badly. For the first time in a very long life of misadventure and depravity Marceau felt a stirring of conscience. It would pass. He would make it pass. It had to for his safety.
* * *
The three hundred foot high sand bluffs of the east bank hid the first hints of the dawn as he built up the fire. The sun was making its skittering climb across the horizon but it would take its time and daylight was a good three hours away. The dogs ate frozen whitefish and left no waste. It was their only meal of the day. Guy soaked dried meat in tea before trying to gnaw it.
The team drove north quickly.
Guy traveled alone and fast.
He was happy.
It was a good day. The wind was blowing to the west and sweeping the light snow from the river ice. The dogs had just enough snow dust under their paws to stop from slipping and they pulled and ran like possessed beasts.
When Garneau at last swung in to the bank for an early camp in the mid afternoon the sun was slipping back down from the sky. It was the best day’s run ever, more than double any other and he didn’t feel guilty about stopping earlier than normal. He was tired from lack of sleep and slept hard within minutes of making camp.
He didn’t hear the dogs at first.
Their moaning took awhile to penetrate the twisted dreams charging through his sleep. At first he thought the dogs were only hungry because he hadn’t bothered to feed them after the long run. He struggled out of the sleeping furs and stumbled along the bank to the snowdrift where the dogs had burrowed to sleep and to keep warm. Only as the sleep cleared from his brain did he recognize their moaning was terror, and it puzzled him because the dogs were only a scattering of generations from wolf stock and rarely showed fear of any kind.
The noise set the hairs on the back of his head on end. His unease made him more savage than usual and he kicked harder than necessary to drive the dogs from their burrows.
He kicked them all but King, the lead dog, and the second lead.
The moon showed the two dogs at the bottoms of their holes, throats cut and the blood turning the snow black.
No animal, Guy knew, could have done the damage. No person either. The snow only showed the wind blurred prints of dogs.
Guy shuddered. The frozen trees looming above the riverbank menaced. The creak of snow and ice on the branches were footsteps in the silence. Against his back the wind pushed and rushed against him daring him to turn around.
The horrible dread grew. No power in the world could have made him turn. His mind filled the river bank behind him with all the evil malignant wilderness spirits his blood half believed in.
His mind screamed at him not to turn for that would unleash the fiendish horror of the wood spirits. Safety was in not turning to look.
He stood frozen with terror, his knees vibrating with tension, his eyes not seeing and all the time the cold eating at his bare fingers and uncovered ears. The savage pain of freezing skin finally triggered muscles. In panic he harnessed the remaining dogs, never looking up the riverbank and never lifting his eyes to the tops of the trees. The furs and the food he left behind.
The dogs screamed from the lash and screamed more as he pushed down the river. Malignancy bounced and leaped after him and he wouldn’t turn even in mid river. The chase would go on to the end.
The sharp crack of the whip was constant with the keening of the runners on ice and the howling of the dogs. He heard none because everything was directed behind him to hear the approach of demons.
One by one the dogs dropped with exhaustion as day turned into arctic night. Kicks couldn’t get them up and the sled stops became longer and longer until he too started to drop. A small treeless peninsula became camp.
Without furs he slept badly and all night his ears were tuned for the slightest whimper of a dog, or, the creak of a spruce bough. Each time there was sound, a snow-muffled dog cough, a crack of ice in riverbank tree or the rapid hiss of ice bouncing across the snow crust the adrenaline shot through his body.
Three times he nerved himself to rise and creep along the peninsula to the trees in search of wood for the fire. Each time that he returned into the brightness of the moonlight he was bathed in sweat and his eyes glazed. The dark was peopled with things that hated man, and he was man.
Long before first light the terror became too much. He shook the frozen harnesses from the snow and headed for the dogs, determined he was going to flee this wilderness for the safety and warmth of Fort Norman.
He uncovered the dogs, first one, then a second, then in a frenzy all.
The blood was black against the snow.
Without food, gun, knife, extra clothing, he staggered out into the middle of the Mackenzie and started for safety, seventy miles away through the cruelest climate on earth.
All day he ran, walked, ran some more, stumbled and shambled and ran but he didn’t stop.
Through the brief sunlight, into the starlight, then the moon, and back into the sun. He never looked behind.
His breath came in hurting shuddering gasps. His fingers were black from the poison of dead flesh, killed by the cold. He hadn’t felt his toes for twenty miles. White patches grew over his cheeks and forehead. Blood flecked his lips. He could go no further. He dropped unconscious to the ice.
He lay insensible, his body heat leaking away into the six feet of river ice below. His limbs began to freeze and by all the laws he should never have awakened again. But a different cold seized his heart and squeezed.
Ice claws gripped him around the throat. Ice hands. Guy opened his eyes and looked through the pain that blurred everything red.
Dimly, then sharply as the horror gripped him, Guy Marceau saw the face leaning over him.
It had been mangled out of all recognition by wolves feeding on the corpse Marceau had buried in the snow. Tatters of flesh stuck out from the bone, stiff with freezing. The slashed throat gaped deep.
Guy had cut through to the vertebrae. Black frozen blood smeared across the ripped and mangled face, half hiding the left eye, splashed across the front of the beaver fur hat.
Guy’s eyes rolled up as he died and stopped forever on the sun-glinted badge metal with its engraved command that had lived on past the death of its owner, Maintiens le Droit, Maintain the right, or maintain the law, its power unleashed by the foulness of Guy Marceau’s crime.
It flashed with the fires of hell as it sent him down to them.
Recently a friend sent me a copy of something I had written for a competition in either the late eighties or early nineties. It won an Honourable Mention in its category, a designation that I can recall filled me with deep disappointment because I always expect better than I can deliver. Considering that this was a Canada wide competition, a competition that has launched many writing careers, it certainly was churlish of me to object to not winning a first prize.
The story, or essay, was later read on all of the CBC AM Radio networks, including on the international short wave service. As such, I should have received a fair bit of money for its broadcast but I had entered the contest under a false name because I was working at the CBC, and the rules forbade any participation.
I do wish I could recall the false name I used.
Anyway, enjoy the next 700 words, but I can’t answer any questions about the Llamas because I have no idea where I got that title.
Creston, British Columbia, Tivoli Theatre. Empty spittle plastered ticket office.
International Harvester school buses move with the sudden runnels of desultory traffic through the dying town. Clutter of business signs, Creston Cafe, Pro Hardware, Sears catalogue office, all housed in false fronts joined one to another as though imitating the walls of granite surrounding the town, hemming it from the progress and wealth it hungered for and has all but given up on.
The mountains are the only thing that distinguish this town from the thousands of others like it cluttering the map speckles of ink dots and faint names between the cities. Were it not for the mountains Creston would not be. Night and mountainside eight hundred feet up, rain, fog, sign saying one lane for two kilometres. And then a fall of more clogging fog as the car slows and slides into the sluice under the ice slides.
Creeping along in second gear. Avalanche, Do Not Stop, says the sign. Cannot go fast either. Inching along over the road.
To the right a rounded triangle of concrete curb, then; “Uh. Can you move to the left please.” From the passenger on my right who has been silent since the car started to creep. I move left a bit closer to the rock wall. There’s no need for me to be here but I humour the passenger. Not a place for an argument.
Car at the other end of the narrow lane and moving toward us. Nasty feeling of not knowing where the back end of the car is as we back into the pull out. Flash of friendly headlights on the way by as a thank you and we are left alone again on the mountainside.
Steep winding road to a summit far away from the world. Lost in trees cloaked in pillows of freshly fallen snow. Tenseness of left hand turns and curves on gravel at night with nicotine bluing the glass and the wipers smearing.
Road goes away and the car moves on faith.
Ferry. White and green gloss paint.
In the belly the car nose to bumper with the others and the trucks hulking in the centre. Up the steep metal ribbed stairs to the gloss paint and the smell of cooking oil from the snack bar run by a fourteen year old girl and an older woman behind the bulkhead putting the orders together.
Man sitting at the counter describing to a stranger the death of his son in Montreal over the holidays. Shot accidentally or on purpose by a man cleaning his gun in his house. There’s a doubt and a mystery and a crying in his suffering yet calm talk.
Mad rush to the cars below decks as the ferry suddenly docks. There had not been the slightest suggestion we had been anywhere near the shore. How the crew knew I didn’t know. And then the rumble of the trucks and the flight down the twisting dark road.
Highway puddled with water getting set to freeze in broad car traps of slipperiness.
A red flaming snake of taillights slithers through the never straight road and the night for the east. Poor bastard in the lead is pushed by the tail. Some can’t take it and drop from the ritual of leading to the side of the road to wait the darkness before creeping on by themselves.
Night creeps over Arrow Lake deep in the Selkirk clefts.
Prince George and a dull washed out mall.
Coffee shop suddenly full of old people. Nowhere to go and nothing to do.They roost and chatter and pass the hour. Just as bats have atime to leave the cave and gulls a time for the shore, the old are ruled by the tides of human need and spirit and will move again with the passing of their tide. What other tides might there be? All of the interior wet and damp and coated with the black constant sheen of rain.
Energy levels drop.
No point to anything because each day will be the same as the next and of the last.
I hadn’t realized when I wrote Cobra Flight how alien and unknown the Eastern Arctic, (better known as Nunavut these days,) is to many people. Judging by some of the questions I have received, the scene of action could as well be somewhere in the arctic regions of Mars as Canada.
In retrospect I should have included a map, and future additions to the series will contain maps. And I promise that if I update the first edition of Cobra Flight I’ll get a map into it as well.
In the meantime, here is where most of the action takes place, well up far in the most north easterly corner of Canada’s Arctic. The line roughly shows the various flight routes and communities.
It really is uncanny that the moment I am writing about this very thing, the cold bouillabaisse of foreign submarines in the High Arctic it should pop up in the mainstream media.
Thank the gods of the multiverse I haven’t been writing about thermonuclear war.
Anyway, here is the latest cover for Shark Flight, minus the typo in the title I wrote about yesterday.
I am well into the writing of the sequel to Cobra Flight. Today I received the mock-up for its cover.
The title is provisional but apart from that, this is what the cover will look like. (note the glaring typo in the title. Either it is a form of copy protection for the artist until I pay him or more likely it is that horrible little demon that follows me around on these projects, the dreaded Typographic Monster From Hell.)
And of course there will be paperback and audio versions as well.
I spent something like six months in Somalia during the civil war in the run-up to the arrival of foreign troops in a failed attempt to restore order.
Those six months in 1992 and 93 felt more like six years, or perhaps the entirety of my life. When every day is a fever dream of madness, time stretches out.
I suppose some people must think of Mogadishu as their dearly loved hometown, but for me it will always remain a city dreamt of by a terminal drug addict, and Somalia a rough first draft for the end of the world.
Every aspect of life in this sadistically tortured country has been twisted so grotesquely that more than one aid worker has wondered out loud whether we hadn’t so much come to a land of unfortunates as we had died and arrived in the waiting room for the pits of hell.
Mogadishu was once called the Paradise of the Indian Ocean. Well sure, perhaps once, but it has become clear over the months of civil war and famine that some metaphysical planning board has re-zoned it as a bedroom community for hell.
On this Sunday in the late November before the international armies arrive and arguably made things worse I’m sitting in the back of a massively armed Toyota Land Cruiser on a short errand to the docks and then the main market, or as I’ve come to view it, the Looted Goods Recycling Center.
The Toyota is called a technical for some vague reason having to do with Italian terminology left over from Italy’s occupation of the country for much of the century. There are other theories of how the term came about but they all mean the same thing. A looted heavy duty SUV or truck to which a heavy calibre machine gun has been mounted. They will also frequently have three or four men armed with light machine guns hanging onto the outside and usually at least one inside. The term and the idea of arming a four wheel drive vehicle has spread since its introduction in Somalia in the early nineties and now can be found in just about any war zone or disaster area around the world.
The two guards on the roof of the Toyota that I am in each have an AK-47 in addition to the heavy machine gun bolted in front of them. Inside with the two of us are a driver and two more armed Somalis. You could tear a house apart with the firepower these guys are carrying.
There’s a neat little system at work here. Any non-Somali who walks anywhere outside of an armed compound, no matter how short the walk, runs an extreme risk of being beaten, robbed and killed. And since the only vehicles available are in the hands of Somalis who have acquired them from god knows where, you’re pretty well stuck with having to pay upwards of a hundred dollars a day (cash in uncreased US 20 dollar bills please) to go anywhere. If you refuse and try to walk, the same people will probably shoot you down just to maintain their business position.
Newcomers make the mistake of feeling at ease as they speed through the littered streets protected by violently trigger happy guards until they learn that the weapons and the gunmen are only there to protect the vehicle. The guards won’t lift a finger to protect their passenger unless it’s a question of keeping the poor bastard alive long enough to collect the day’s hire.
Technicals come under attack frequently because the battle wagons are the most highly prized of looting tools and that means all vehicles are potential targets for freelance hijackers.
There’s a tremendous amount of status associated with weapons and technicals. The teenagers who make up the bulk of the technical guards are at the top of the swagger list. They get the women, the drugs, the fearful respect and anything else they want just by a negligent wave of a gun muzzle. They’re dangerously violent at the best of times but horribly and psychotically murderous in the late afternoon as the effects of the amphetamine like plant they chew takes effect. Khat, in all of its spellings is the drug of choice in northeastern Africa. Most of it in Mogadishu is flown in daily from Nairobi in specially charted light aircraft. It is grown mainly in Ethiopia and has to be transported to the buyer in not much more than 24 hours otherwise it loses its potency.
The highest sport on the status list is reserved for the few even more crazy who ride around in trucks converted to carry such Somali sport hunting weapons as recoilless rifles which are a kind of baby tank cannon. On a couple of occasions I’ve seen trucks sporting rocket clusters ripped out of abandoned Somali MIG fighter aircraft. No one seems to know whether they could be fired but really who would want to doubt. An air to air missile fired at close ground level range would go through a block of buildings like a sword through a mouse.
You should see the destruction the warring factions have inflicted on this
town. There’s hardly a building without a shell hole in it, there’s no electricity, no water, no businesses.
The scale of looting and extortion is astonishing. Except for those homes and buildings that were fortified and defended constantly throughout the civil war, everything has gone. Windows and frames, plumbing fixtures, doors, electrical wiring, all stripped out of the buildings and sold somewhere else, mostly in Yemen across the Red Sea or south in Kenya. All of the above ground telephone and power lines have gone, even some of the buried cables in the downtown have been dug up and shipped away for resale. It’s a city of concrete and cement and nothing else a rotted corpse of a city.
The arrival of international aid groups has given the looters the best time they’ve ever had. Shiploads of highly valuable relief food and tonnes of equipment meant for the refugee camps disappear with depressing regularity the moment they arrive in the country.
Some of the worst offenders are the very guards who are supposed to stop it.
A word about the guards. They’re supplied by General Mohamed Aideed, the leader of the faction which holds control of most of Mogadishu and a fair part of southern Somalia. These technicals might be hired and paid for by the international aid groups but they still work for Aideed and Aideed is the top dog in the looting food chain. Foxes guarding hen coops have nothing on technicals guarding relief supplies.
The technicals are used to guard Mogadishu port. Well that’s what they’re hired for, but mainly they hang around helping their relatives steal food.
CARE employs 900 technicals at the port. And whether they show up or not, whether the port is operating or not, they demand payment, some twenty thousand dollars every four days, (in uncreased 20 dollar bills please.)
The International Red Cross also operates from the port and oddly enough they too employ exactly 900 technicals. They are of course the same people being paid twice for doing not much at all.
Every once in a while, about twice a day really, technical units at the port will get into arguments with each other and start firing. They might be well armed but no one has given any of them any training. When the arguments start the bullets spray wildly all over southern Mogadishu and only coincidently is the actual target ever hit. We’ve learned rather quickly to get under cover when the firing starts to avoid the 7.62 millimeter lead rains.
Things settle down when the sun sets and the Khat chewers slump into inactivity. But, then there is a second wind towards midnight and for no particular reason the various factions will fire off rockets and heavy artillery at no particular part of the city so sometimes the night sky just blossoms with fireworks and booming explosions.