Out of Somalia: The dog it was that survived against the odds

Click to follow
The Independent Online
MOGADISHU - When I first saw Technical I didn't think this diminutive skeleton of mangy, bloody fur would live. She dragged herself rather than walked and was barely able to drink milk from a saucer. In the worst days of Mogadishu's war she was found at the airport, left behind by the pack of wild dogs which lived off unspeakable things. Not only was the airport regularly shelled but Somalis do not tolerate dogs, and treat them as unclean.

Technical was rescued by the then head of Save the Children Fund (SCF) in Mogadishu, David Shearer, and named after the battlewagons which were used in the fight for the city. In the anxious days and nights when David, his wife and the rest of the SCF team wondered whether the house would be hit by a shell or raided by a murderous gang, Technical provided a focus of attention and distraction. Slowly she grew stronger and the sores began to heal. And what if she was fed better than many Somalis? That is one of the bitter but unavoidable ironies of places like Somalia. Aid workers - and their dogs - tend to put on weight there. There is no point in impairing your own health if you are trying to help.

Now a year old, Technical is a lively and destructive puppy. She is deeply imbued with the Somali spirit - usually looking for an argument with a rag or a rope or your shin. I would like to offer her as a symbol of survival and recovery but she lives within the cordon of aid. There is little sign that outside that cordon Somalia is picking itself up. Will the children who survived starvation be as lively and bright as this puppy? The doctors say not. They will be permanently impaired, slow of thought and reaction.

The survivors are now surveying a country whose destruction is scarcely describable. The area around the Green Line in central Mogadishu, once graced with elegant Italian buildings and monuments, looks like Stalingrad or the heart of Berlin in 1945. A few battered buildings poke up amid heaps of rubble.

The US Marines have taken over the old Ministry of Finance building and sandbagged the windows and the shell holes. Their Country and Western music blares out across the whole area; it sounds casual, so callous. As I walk away from their checkpoint into the blasted bomb sites a Marine shouts a warning about the roaming band of children who are following me. They are begging but one of them carries a long metal spike.

Up at Villa Somalia there is no music. This was Siad Barre's palace, where he lived and entertained foreign visitors in the garden. His troops made their last stand at this palace in 1991. Now its walls are blasted and blackened with rocket fire and pocked with thousands of bullet holes. Every window has been blown out, and inside and out there are carpets of sparkling glass splinters.

The palace is silent except for the occasional bird call from the gardens. But inside there are still skeletons in uniform lying among the wreckage or looted filing cabinets and desks. In one room the floor is inches deep in letters - thousands and thousands of letters written by Amnesty International members to President Barre, demanding the release of political prisoners. One from Tunbridge Wells, another from Aberdeen, others from Germany, France, a village in Sweden and Florida. 'Dear President Barre, I am writing to ask you to release . . . Yours sincerely.' Not all are opened but they did arrive. Symbol of hope or useless gesture?

'Where is your permit? What do you want here?' The young Somali's arrogant, aggressive tone was startling. A year ago he would have had a gun and I would have apologised and left. Now he was unarmed and we both knew a Marine patrol was not far away. I challenged him: 'What permit?'

'From the government.'

'What government? - there is no government.'

'You must leave here - now.'

I swore at him and stayed put. His bluff was called, he had no gun, he was no longer king. He went away grumbling. Triumphant feelings that young thugs like this had been rendered powerless gave way to the depressing thought that Somalis were no longer in control of their own country or their own destiny. All they can do is sit by and watch resentfully as outsiders - journalists, aid workers, UN officials, and soldiers from two dozen countries - lord it over them and in their turn grow resentful that the Somalis are not more grateful to the rest of the world for saving them.

Perhaps at this stage survival is all Somalia and Somalis can hope for and they cannot expect to shape their own destiny. But in the longer run, if they do not take control of their own world, it will collapse again when the outside powers grow tired of Somalia and turn their attention elsewhere.