blast wave thundered through the compound, ripping the expletive on my
lips in two and cramming half of it back down my throat. The radio-room
supervisor, Hassan Osman, and I stumbled to the balcony. In that
cathedral-quiet moment between the detonation of the car bomb and the
staccato barrage of gunfire, we knew they were coming. Shabab militants
were storming the compound, squeezing off bursts from the Kalashnikovs
at their hips, leaping the gate’s smoking wreckage. It was June 19,
“Dewaine. Dewaine.” Hassan’s voice was steady, his hand on my shoulder. “Do the public announcement.”
the P.A., I instructed the several dozen United Nations staff members
to duck and cover and then tried to figure out what to do next. With
every rifle crack, my world flashed in a monochrome of stark, tactical
decisions, like life and death reduced to their lowest common
denominators. Even in the moment, the irony of stumbling into my first
firefight more than a decade after leaving the Marine Corps was not lost
on me. Since leaving the military, I’d grown used to my buddies shaking
their virtual heads, via social media, at the fundamental insanity of
inserting yourself into war without having the good sense to engage in
Mogadishu was a study in
violent coexistence, a brutal ecosystem where new conflicts sprouted up
without ever quelling the old. The Somali capital’s recent history
included warlords, the Islamic Courts Union, the Ethiopian military, the
Shabab and a shaky Western-backed government. This attack on the United
Nations Common Compound — 10,000 square meters split between offices
and living quarters, just off Mogadishu’s airport road — felt like the
city’s fiercest predator had finally decided to take our measure.
the initial blast, our Somali guards immediately returned fire,
dropping the first two Shabab gunmen who came through the breach.
Between clipped radio transmissions from the African Union Mission and
the Somali government, four more militants unhesitatingly charged over
the bodies of their companions. The guards’ gunfire funneled the
attackers onto the accommodation side of the compound.
cover of suppressive fire from the towers, several of the guards and I
leapfrogged the buildings on the accommodation side to herd staff
members to the safe rooms on the opposite end of the compound. Pulling
back the bolt on the office Kalashnikov to reveal brass bolstered my
courage before our mad dash through the compound, but it was the valor
and tenacity of our Somali allies that actually saved lives.
left a permanent scratch on my heart, but talking about the attack
remains difficult. I’ve never wanted to risk implying that I’d done more
than I did, or to say what I really feared: that I hadn’t done enough.
The Shabab murdered 15 civilians, aid workers and contractors at the
compound that day, including four of our Somali guards.
In Mogadishu, I
led a United Nations Department of Safety and Security office
consisting of three other international field security coordination
officers — a Russian, a Ugandan and a Bulgarian — and about 20 local
advisers, drivers and radio operators. Save for an unauthorized
Chinese-made Kalashnikov, purchased by one of my predecessors and handed
down to every senior field security coordination officer since, we were
armed with nothing more than our wits.
Somali government soldiers after insurgents attacked a United Nations compound in Mogadishu.CreditMohamed Abdiwahab/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
armed security, we depended on a Somali-owned private security company
and the host government, with whom we carried out United Nations program
delivery — agriculture and sanitation projects, polio monitoring,
shelter programs — in and around the city. Armed security arrangements
with private companies tend to unnerve humanitarians, who rightly worry
about violating the principles of their profession. But my four postings
with the United Nations taught me that in areas of conflict you could
have a clean humanitarian conscience or deliver aid, but rarely both.
Despite the inherent tension between United Nations agencies and the
armed entities they relied on, our security system in Mogadishu worked.
My team got aid personnel to some of the toughest locations in and
around the capital.
I fell right in
with my Somali security counterparts. I chewed bitter khat, a leaf with
effects similar to amphetamine, with these guys, screeched through
Mogadishu’s 17 districts behind their escort vehicles, and kicked up red
dust while waiting for them during prayer stops on the roads to towns
so recently vacated by the Shabab that you might still find the
militants’ dirty dishes in the sink. Colonized but never broken, the
Somalis were a wiry, arrogant and daring people for whom friendship ran
deep. For all of Somalia’s trouble, I met fewer dispirited men in
Mogadishu than I did in Manhattan.
the attack, the personnel based at the compound, including me and the
other foreign staff members on my team, relocated to the United Nations’
main compound in Somalia on the sprawling grounds of Mogadishu
international airport. Protected by Ugandan and Burundian troops,
displaced internationals could now join the mission staff, hacks,
military officers and contractors who converged at the United Nations
Mine Action Service’s “Little Kruger Bar” — foreigners with faces
crimsoned by alcohol and the sun, many of whom could spend the weeks in
country without ever leaving the airport or speaking to a Somali.
new mission in Somalia was officially established only two weeks before
the attack and had barely started moving into the compound on the
grounds of the Mogadishu airport. The United Nations’ only unified radio
room in Mogadishu — which maintained contact with its humanitarian and
development convoys throughout the area — remained at our now-abandoned
compound. I knew I couldn’t ask Hassan and his fellow radio operators to
return to work at the hollowed-out buildings of an organization that
the Shabab claimed were thwarting “Allah’s Law on earth & must
therefore be dislodged.” But when I conducted my morning radio check
from within the airport grounds the next day, it was Hassan’s voice that
“Sierra 1, this is Mike Sierra Base, you’re five by five.”
“War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern Times,” the journalist
Linda Polman says that “the job of humanitarian aid worker is No. 5 on
the Top 10 list of dangerous occupations, after lumberjack, pilot,
fisherman and structural iron- or steelworker. It’s the only job on the
list where most of the fatalities are caused by intentional violence.”
From Chechnya to Dadaab refugee camp to Mogadishu to Gaza, I
consistently found that most of this risk is borne by local staff — the
polio-vaccination monitors, the convoy drivers, the project officers,
the guards and the radio operators — who make up the backbone of
international aid organizations.