Only aid can defeat the gunmen: After his kidnap ordeal, Tony Worthington urges support for peace and rebuilding in Somaliland

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The Independent Online
LAST WEDNESDAY we were in a convoy of four vehicles on an appalling road in Somaliland when the gunmen stepped into our path and fired shots in the air. We had been visiting Actionaid water projects and were on our way to two small Red Sea ports.

Mark Robinson MP and I were travelling with two Actionaid staff, Jeff Chinnock and Robin Le Mare, and Anne Johnstone of the Glasgow Herald.

The gunmen separated us from our Somali hosts. Robin escaped capture in the last vehicle by hiding under a blanket. We had been kidnapped.

Mark, Jeff, Anne and I were driven to a typical Somali mud hut where we were to spend the night. Mark asked that Anne be allowed to go back with the Somalis from our convoy and to our delight the gunmen agreed.

Later it emerged that there were five gunmen, all carrying Kalashnikovs. But it was difficult to tell at the time. People kept coming in and out of the hut, with its smoking log fire.

We were treated well - offered tea, allowed to go to the bushes. Later, food and blankets came up from the nearest town, Erigavo, where Actionaid has its base. We were excessively polite as we tried to build up a relationship with the gunmen, but their English was virtually non-existent. However, we managed to understand that we might be there a few hours or a few days; that it was a local matter and that we should not worry. We were not convinced.

At 6.30 in the morning we were walked about half a mile to a forest clearing. We saw how isolated we were - about 6,000ft up in the Hargan mountains and one and a half hours' drive from Erigavo. This is a land without police, army or communications.

The gunmen sat near their battered old Jeep with its Somali National Movement flag. We were free to move around because escape was impossible.

The long wait began. The rumours started flying: it was about land; a sub- clan feud; about Actionaid's staffing; about opposition to an independent Somaliland. We kept trying to befriend the guards but the truth is that we still do not know why they had done it.

Food, clothes and a note arrived from Actionaid. The Imam of Erigavo was to be called in. Ten elders were on their way. Then a most remarkable man turned up. He said he was the regional medical officer. He said he knew the men, had fought with them in the civil war. He was negotiating with the gunmen to persuade them to release us.

But the situation was worsening. The gunmen were tired and desperate. The doctor alarmed us. He said he would drug them, which seemed risky. He took our blood pressure and said mine was high. He would try to negotiate my release. We were not happy about this because it seemed important to stay together. Whom to trust?

More people drifted in and out of the area. Farmers with Kalashnikovs strolled by, herding cows. We heard the gunmen were divided. Their leader, who was elsewhere, had disowned them and would not intervene. One gunman in particular was determined to keep us prisoner. We became conscious of other people drifting into the area. We were told they were on our side.

The tension was mounting. The gunmen were being argued with in an attempt to break down their resistance. Suddenly some of the gunmen were overpowered by those who had come to help us. The difficult one ran towards us pointing his Kalashnikov. The doctor drew his pistol and shouted: 'You shoot, you are dead.' The man threw his gun in the air. But another gunman ran for the hills and started firing at us. Our friends shot back.

We were told to run. The doctor held me all the time with his body towards the gunfire. 'While you are running with me they will not shoot you,' he said. We ran, dodging and weaving through the forest. It was clear that our defenders were there in strength. We rushed to some waiting trucks with armed men on top. The doctor got in the cab with me and again said that they would not shoot him - otherwise his clan would kill them.

We hared off at breakneck speed to Erigavo pausing only to add clutch fluid to the Land Rover. We received a tumultuous welcome in Erigavo where we heard there had been a big demonstration against the gunmen in the afternoon. After 20 hours, we were free.

Our rescuer, Dr Abdillahi, to whom I owe my life, illustrates the new spirit in Somaliland. He was asked by the elders to assemble a team of volunteers to rescue us, peacefully if possible. Like our captors, he had been in the Somali National Movement army, which in January 1991 drove out Siad Barre, the dictator of Somalia. He had then returned to Erigavo, where he works with two other doctors and 50 staff in the hospital. All are volunteers. The hospital has been physically restored with Save the Children money but there is no money for salaries and precious little equipment.

Somaliland is in the north-west of Somalia, and remote from the obsessions of the world and the UN with Mogadishu. It is the old British Somaliland Protectorate which, perhaps foolishly, joined with Italian Somalia on independence in 1960. Our delegation was greeted rapturously, but always the people said: 'Why have you been so long in coming?' The Republic of Somaliland was declared in 1991 but no country has given it diplomatic recognition.

Somaliland suffered appallingly in Somalia's civil wars. The capital, Hargeisa, was bombed into oblivion. Virtually every building was left without a roof. Five years on, the impression is of cemeteries amid rubble. There are millions of mines still around which a British company, Rimfire, has begun to disable. Disarmament of heavy weapons is going ahead at speed.

Before our capture we went to the stadium to see Hargeisa's 4th Brigade hand over the big stuff. Other militia groups have already done so and more will follow. But there is no money to pay for guarding the compounds or for rehabilitating the militia.

The UN, through the United Nations Operation in Somalia (Unosom), is seen as both incompetent and malign in Somaliland. Certainly the UN organisations there are a mess. The UN High Commission on Refugees does have a plan to resettle the thousands of refugees from Somaliland, and Unicef attracts praise but has little money. But the Food and Agriculture Organisation's efforts are fitful and the World Health Organisation is a disgrace - in a country without a health service, it seems to be doing nothing. The UN development programme does not have a plan for Somaliland.

Our magnificent aid agencies, such as Actionaid, Save the Children, Oxfam and Care are doing superb work, organising water and veterinary projects; encouraging business; rehabilitating schools and hospitals; advising on education and health.

Those who criticise our visit as risky should remember that Somaliland is the safest part of Somalia, but despite the fact that our aid workers are there 52 weeks a year, aid to the north-west has been sadly low.

But this is not about aid. It is about foreign policy. Recognition of Somaliland is seen by many as provocative to the rest of Somalia, but without recognition Somaliland cannot receive major development assistance.

Why is it that last year alone we could spend pounds 325m on the UN military initiative in Somalia (Britain's share was pounds 20.6m) and almost all of it outside Somaliland, supposedly because it was not as badly affected by the fighting and the famine?

Now that Somaliland wants to help itself we should support it - and quickly. Otherwise the future does not lie with our rescuer, Dr Abdillahi, and the hundreds of thousands of peaceseekers in Somaliland - it lies with the gunmen who captured us.

Tony Worthington MP is the Labour foreign affairs spokesman on Africa, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent.

(Photograph omitted)