An excerpt from The Disaster Tourist by Rick Grant (in production)
Thursday Sept 24/92 Wilson Airport, Nairobi
Wilson is said to be the second busiest airport in Africa after Johannesburg. It’s busy because of the profits to be made from the dying in the north, and profits in supplying the drug Khat to the living in the north.
It’s a small airport, the sort of place you’d find in any town of less than a hundred thousand anywhere else but the tarmac parking areas are crammed with Cessna 402’s, 185’s, Caravans, Twin Otters, DC-3’s, A Beech 18 and even an old C-119 Boxcar. When the wing heights allow they’re parked with wings overlapping. The scream of turbines and the rattling roar of pistons engines goes on continually from dawn to the quick setting of the Nairobi sun. The line-ups for the active runway would be more expected at Chicago or Toronto than mid-Africa. The waiting room of what was a small country airport is crammed with relief workers, drug traders, and Somali relatives waiting for those who have the hard currency to buy a flight out.
There are planes owned and operated by most of the relief agencies. Some like the Red Cross stand out across the heat shimmer of the distance, the Red Cross symbol standing fiery against the white of the fuselage. The letters UNICEF splashes down the length of a twin engine loading supplies. The UNHCR and other United Nations organizations has their planes, all painted dead white.
A great part of the United Nations’ air force is made up of former Soviet aircraft. This Antonov 32 was under charter to the UN in Somalia in 1992
Other agencies charter as they need it for the flights to Wajir, Bardera, Mogadishu, Baidoa, and a dozen more places noted for the depth of their tragedies.
The charter operators make a killing here. It costs about five thousand dollars to put an eight seat light twin into Mogadishu, a bare three hour flight. Some of the cost is the danger, but a lot is demand driven. There’s so much demand and so much money to be made that planes registered in the United States and Britain are here. They’re forbidden to operate on Kenyan routes but that doesn’t matter because the big money is in the land of death to the north. And they pay local officials huge amounts in bribes, and in cash at that.
The lottery winning amounts of the relief operations is nothing compared to the profits in the khat trade. Khat is a plant which produces a chemical which acts like amphetamine. Users strip the leaves from the stalks and chew them in a large wad inside the cheek. Those who use it become inattentive, reckless, and highly nervous. A taxi driver on khat is dangerous, a technical on khat is murderous.
Khat isn’t illegal so there’s no barrier other than transport.
It’s not used in Kenya.
It’s devoured in Somalia.
The planes from Wilson fly into Ethiopia where the crew cram the cabins with the best type known as myraa and fly it into Somalia. There it’s traded for American dollars. If there are people with the money they’re also crammed into the cabins now smelling strongly of fresh khat and flown to Kenya.
About one hundred thousand US dollars in profits flows into Wilson each day.
From there at first light the endless sky parade of khat planes takes off for Somalia. At any normal airport anywhere else in the world aircraft are cleared to taxi and take-off on a first come first served basis. But not at Wilson during the Somali crisis.
“You pay your money and you get to go.” The World’s Shortest King Air Pilot told me. “If you don’t pay, and none of the relief organizations will pay the bribes, then you wait and wait and wait some more until finally a bored controller lets you go.”
The Khat, people smuggling, arms dealing, aircraft race each other to Mogadishu West, a soft red dust airstrip 50 kilometres outside Mogadishu. It’s known as K50Moga and boasts the best security of any airport outside Israel.
K50moga is lined with heavily armed technicals belonging to the drug dealers and clan leaders. Each technical is equipped with at least one heavy 50 calibre machine gun mounted on a tripod welded to the roof of a Toyota Land Cruiser, the most highly prized vehicle for use as a high speed mobile gun carrier.
With so much weaponry manned by highly agitated teenagers chewing on khat, things are always a slippery hair away from general slaughter. A person would have to be beyond clinically insane to start anything at the airstrip.
For several hours each morning the airstrip if enveloped in a billowing cloud of dust as aircraft after aircraft land, dump their cargo and load their money. There is no air traffic control and planes will touch down with dozens of feet behind newly arrived planes while others dart into the landing traffic and blast full throttle off the ground.
The road leading from K50moga to the highway in name only is lined with ancient British Bedford and Italian trucks, decades old. There are newer ones but they are carefully hidden from opposition clan members who would steal them.
Somalia was littered with these ancient and barely functioning trucks. They were the only things available to the relief agencies because the gangsters had all the new vehicles.
This is a daily scene and has to be. Khat does not last longer than a day or so before losing its effectiveness so there is no way to stockpile or control the supply and it has to be flown and delivered each day.
In the meantime the relief planes loaded with food, medicine, health professionals and relief workers head on to the main international airport in Mogadishu or one of the other cities in the country. And at every one of the landing spots there will be heavily armed Somalis waiting for their landing fees.
Today we are leaving Wilson Nairobi for the southern city of Bardera in southern Somalia.
It is a nasty violent place reeking with the stench of overripe decomposing bodies. The death toll is like something out of the European Plague Years. But, it is relatively calm compared to the hallucinogenic hell of Mogadishu and I am glad we are not going there.
Our well aged twin engine Rockwell Aero Commander is clean and I hope that is a sign of decent maintenance.
The Aero Commander has internal combustion engines like most cars do instead of the much more reliable and much faster turbine engines used by other relief groups. It will take us much longer to get to Bardera than I would care for.
Mount Kenya rises so slowly out of the clouds as we climb north from Nairobi that at first it looks only like a lumpier than normal cloud, but gradually its swelling erection pokes into the washed blue and it emerges from the cloaking clouds with its three peaks gleaming cream with snow.
It’s the second highest mountain in Africa. The highest is on Kenya’s southern border, the fabled Kilimanjaro.
On a later flight I will see it standing softly against the horizon. It and Mount Kenya are so tall that either can be seen on just about any flight near Nairobi.
Kilimanjaro looks nothing like the wonderful symmetrical pictures taken from across the Serengeti plain. Instead, it’s a lopsided double breast of a mountain.
Just about any day of the year there are many many tourists trudging away years of inactivity, cigarettes and booze on a three-day trek to the top. I wondered whether there are the frozen dried bodies of tourists on the eastern slope alongside Hemingway’s dried out snow leopards.
It’s a two-hour flight to Bardera over gradually opening scrub, the everlasting acacia thorn. The Acacia Tree must be the oldest tree in the world. Only something ancient before the times of evil could ever have survived in the dusty hell of northern Kenya and southern Somalia.
It is all long sharp thorns and unbreakable twigs and branches. It was designed in an evolutionary war to survive anything. But oddly, giraffes and camels can feast nicely on it without hurting themselves.
The strip at Bardera is dirt, now getting badly rutted from the impact and runout of military Hercules flying in from Nairobi with tonnes of food.
The so-called short rains are starting. If they start to come regularly the strip and the roads in this region will become impassable.
The landing approach is a slow steep left turn, first along the river, and then back toward the town. The strip is wide, long enough, and wet brown in the middle. A wet spot is seeping from the center through the ruts. It doesn’t look that bad but underneath there is no strength to the ground. It turns to a mush of sand and dust on impact.
Nice gentle touchdown, no bounce, but then suddenly the sickening sink of the left main wheel as it catches in a Hercules rut. A swerve, then a violent kick of rudder and we are straight. Sheets of sandy mud shoot along the sides of the little plane turning the passenger windows opaque.
“I thought we were going to buy it,” the pilot says with heat in his voice, “Somebody is going to get killed if they don’t fix this.”
That shocked me. As a pilot I have never heard, not once, any pilot ever admit out loud that they had been frightened. To do so in front of my colleagues who were not pilots and had no understanding was beyond belief.
The heat in the cabin rises. We scramble out of the low-slung cabin through the single door and come under the eyes and muzzles of a jeep full of technicals sporting loaded automatic weapons.
The strip is the only way in for food. No food convoy could make it over from the Kenyan border without being looted within miles of crossing. The same applies for any trucks trying to move into the southeast from Mogadishu.
Without the strip there can’t be any seeds and tools relief program either. It’s a British attempt to fly in enough seeds and enough hoes, mattocks and whatever to give the farmers a chance of putting in a crop for the coming season. Some still live on their land but there are many in places like Bardera that are condemned to the sub existence of the feeding centers and the camps unless they can be reequipped.
They’ve lost everything in the civil war and then the chaos of the clan wars, the outright genocide and murderous campaigns by warlords to establish their own fiefdoms.
While getting enough food has always been a problem throughout Somalia, war and clan violence has brought never ending famine.
Without war, there is almost never a chance for famine.
With a few weeks of food supplies, seed grain and the tools then the people can leave the camps and return to their land. And with their land the chance that they will be able to support not only their families but also turn out enough of a surplus to feed a few others. It’s the only real chance of easing the swarming crush of the refugee camps and it can only work if there is peace.
Farmers cannot work their land if there is fighting. All they can do is head off into the bush in the hope of saving themselves.
“There’s no problem getting people to fix the ruts,” says the Australian team leader to the still shaken pilot, “but they don’t have anything to fix them with. When this place was taken by Aideed’s forces in June the retreating Barre forces looted everything.”
“They didn’t leave a shovel, a hoe, or any hand tool behind.”
Without hand tools a farmer is under a sentence of death for he cannot plant and if he can’t plant then the only thing to do is start a foodless and waterless trek through the Somali desert to towns such as Bardera and Baidoa where the aid agencies have been able to get food in.
“Without hand tools there’s no way to fix the strip. It’d be half an hour’s work with a small grader, days with shovels and hoes, but it could be done.”
The self-styled general Aideed, the architect of Somali hell is here in town and we will meet him in what I am convinced is complete and utter waste of time. It also feels deeply mind dirty like contemplating a meeting with Hitler to talk about Jews. I have been in a state of disgust about this meeting since it was proposed, but I must go.