Tuesday, September 28, 2010

46 - Double Security

Erigavo street
At the little basic inn in Erigavo, capital of Sanaag district, I not only have a laden pomegranate tree outside my room, but vastly reinforced security too. There's qat-chewing Mohammed, of course, with his drooping rifle, but it so happens that there's a bunch of officials from the UN's security section doing an in depth study of the situation in Somaliland after the deadly 2008 bombing of UN offices in Hargeisa in preparation for increasing its staff – at present limited to 50.

The eastern districts of Sanaag and Sool, to the south of it, are considered particularly sensitive because Puntland to the east, named after the ancient land in 5,000-year-old Egyptian accounts, claims part of them based on clan links. Such is the legacy of the colonial European map-carvers of Africa. Some tribal militias in Sanaag and Sool don't want to be part of Somaliland, but to join Puntland, which claims autonomy within Somalia as opposed to Somaliland's independence. There's ample room here for exploitation by Shabaab, other multiple complications and clashes. Puntland's claim reaches to a couple of dozen miles or so to the east of Erigavo, so if they're thinking of setting off a little fireworks display, tonight's fine by me since UN security's security, bristling with automatics, inspires a little bit more confidence than Mohammed's qat-addled WWI bolt-loaded bang-bang.

Erigavo main drag
Lust In Translation - The fully veiled young lady next to me in Erigavo's rough and ready cyber cafe tells me in perfect English what to do to get the silly machine to work; and no, she's not Carruthers MI6 in drag. A lot of Somalilanders have lived in Europe, speaking flawless English, Swedish or whatever else was the language of their land of sojourn.

And now I'm having currency troubles again: Somalia's shilling is the tender in Erigavo and it's some five times more worthless than the Somaliland shilling, so if Somalia's highest note is 1,000 shillings and it takes 32,000 shillings to equal $1, just do the math. I'm joining the crowd in carrying huge bricks of them piled high on my shoulder.
With UN in Daallo forest
Ramped up security
For The Birds - And not just for the birds. Perched well over 6,000 feet above sea level, Daallo national forest, a mecca for endemic species and for the few foreign bird watchers hardy enough to venture this far, is in a truly spectacular position on the ridge of a massive amphitheatre of sheer reddish-brown-banded cliffs with a perpendicular drop of thousands of feet to the green valleys and plains below. Not the place to get an attack of vertigo, muggins!

There was a small group of Finnish birders here a few weeks ago, but fortunately none today - past experience has proved it difficult to tell which are the more exotic, the local feathered fauna or the birders themselves whose faces seem to have developed a striking resemblance to the objects of their fanaticism.

The local tourism chief has come along and the UN security guy has also decided to have a decko, so now we're five in my vehicle along with three UN land cruisers, two of them full of automatic- and rifle-toting guards. Mohammed has never been to this region before and his girl friend is calling his mobile from Hargeisa, so he's cock-a-hoop. Hussein is sure we've got lost as we jitter-bug along a corrugated stoney track amid moss-draped trees, and he's bleating 'too far, wrong road' all the time. What road? But we're on the right track; shortly we're on the brink, literally; the security guards playing chicken and clutching tree branches on the rim of oblivion, while vertigo-incipient muggins does a nice little cringing dance - one step forward, two steps back.
The precipice

Beyond the vertical drop and the wide bowl of plain and valleys below, the folds of further chains rise in the haze before dropping to the shrouded sea shore. A large tusked boar rustles its way through the bushes. There are also deer, hyenas and leopards in the park, the latter rarely seen due to their stealth and nocturnal habits. External visitors recently included a National Geographic team.

A Matter of Principle - We move back from the brink to a clearing where the British built a rest station with stone houses back in the 1950s, when Somaliland was still their protectorate. All that remain now are roofless ruins and battered stone walls, the result of Somaliand's war with Somalia in 1988.

More precipice
Hussein, Abdi and the guards start discussing politics. They're praising the recent elections and are fully up to date on latest developments, including British Prime Minister David Cameron's cautious pro-Somaliland statements in the House of Commons yesterday. They want the world to recognise their independence. And why not? It's a question of principle and hypocrisy. After all, if world governments recognised their referendum in 1960 to join up with Somalia, on what grounds will they not recognise the 1991 convention and referendum to separate from Somalia?

Our convoy starts moving back to Erigavo. Ha, one of the UN's escort vehicles has got a puncture - nanny nanny poo poo! And Mohammed's started mooing at the cows.
Precipice close-up
Manny, Get Your Gun - Back in Erigavo, Hussein gets his knickers in a twist because I've driven off to the internet cafe with Abdi - but without Mohammed.

'You're out without a gun,' quoths he over Abdi's mobile phone; 'you must return to the hotel.'

'When I'm finished,' quoths I.

'It's OK for a foreigner to wander round Hargeisa, Berbera or Burao alone,' quoths he, 'but in Sanaag and Sool the government insists on an armed escort because of the proximity of Puntland to the east and Somalia to the south. Not that there's any risk at all,' he adds as an afterthought, 'it's just government regulation.'

On emerging, we find Mohammed sitting outside with no sign of his gun, but with a goofy grin on his face to fend off my putative assassins or kidnappers.
Playing chicken on the brink

On the 14-hour trip back to Hargeisa, Mohammed demonstrates even more versatility. I give him some chewing gum, and he is now producing a whole series of octaves in smacking noises right in my left ear. Now he's serenading us along with the tape deck in oriental sounding songs – a pretty good voice, actually. And now he's beating out the rhythm into the back of my seat with his knees and toes. Wow, I thought that only happened on airplanes.

And Into The Sunset - The sun is already setting way before we reach Hargeisa. The curfew tolls the knell of parting day/The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea - only this times it's hordes of dirty great snorting camels over a parched dun plain with scattered green shrubs.
The brink

Chickens returning from the brink
A look back
Ruins of guesthouse from British colonial days
Flowering bushes
UN puncture
The plateau
Home, home on the range
The range
Camel herd
More homes on the range
A lonely mosque
Yet more homes

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