MAKE SURE YOUR DRIVER IS NOT ON "QAT"! Travel Journal - 2001 Somalia

Sunday February 25, 2001: Berbera, Somalia: Mohamed and I had to make special arrangements with the hotel’s chef to get some porridge and bread for breakfast at 5:00 a.m. By 6:00 a.m., we were on the road traveling to two additional cities—Berbera and Burao. Outside the hotel the fog was so dense that it left all the plants and soil very wet. I wondered if that was the way God used to water that part of the world in prediluvian times. We aren’t really all that far from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and that amount of dew on a daily basis could certainly keep a desert in bloom.

Somalia Part 4 a.jpg

As we drove out of Hargeisa, I noticed compelling reminders of the devastating war everywhere I looked. And yet the people are returning to Hargeisa and rebuilding as best they can. The geographic placement of the city no doubt played a significant part in Hargeisa becoming a great city in the past. Those same elements and characteristics made it a natural trade center, which has created a demand for rebuilding the city.

It took us almost three hours to drive from Hargeisa to the port city of Berbera. On Friday, it had taken us about thirty minutes to fly the distance in the old Russian puddle-jumper airplane. En route, we had a close call with disaster. We were traveling in a Toyota Land Cruiser, and I was reading and writing notes as we drove. The road was full of potholes, and our driver was traveling at quite a pace. The steering wheel was on the right side of the car, and I was sitting in the front passenger seat on the left. To miss all the rough places in the road, the driver was dodging all over the roadway. I really didn’t think too much about it because we were about the only car traveling on the road. 

When I looked up from my reading, I realized that we were traveling on the wrong side of the highway at a high rate of speed. But I noticed there weren’t any potholes in the road for the driver to dodge. As quick as lightning, the Land Cruiser veered off the shoulder with both left wheels in the gravel. I looked at the driver and immediately realized he was sound asleep. I leaned over and grabbed the steering wheel with both hands to try to ease the vehicle back onto the road. The driver’s foot was still on the gas pedal when he woke up with a start. His first reaction was to jerk the steering wheel. Had I not providentially been holding on to the wheel with both hands, the force of that jerk would have caused us, at that speed, to swerve and roll the vehicle. As it was, the driver almost pulled the wheel out of my hands. Rocks were flying, and everyone was bouncing around in the Land Cruiser.

I told the driver to stop immediately. The whites of his eyes were totally bloodshot. I suspected right away that he had been chewing qat, the narcotic from the green leaves and twigs. I explained kindly to Mohamed that I didn’t travel all the way to Somalia to be in an automobile accident. The driver was supposed to be a professional driver, but he obviously didn’t realize the extreme danger he had just placed all of us in. I insisted that the driver get in the backseat and that someone else resume the driving for as long as I was in the vehicle.

Upon arriving at Berbera, we drove immediately to the government compound where the mayor’s office is located. In the building adjacent to the mayor’s office, court was being held for a suspected criminal. The courtroom was open on two sides, and the town’s citizens were jammed solidly around the court building to observe the proceedings. Mohamed told me that the people had been without justice so long under Siad Barre’s regime that they all show up now to watch, and they enjoy the new justice system and the rule of law.

Somalia Part 4 b.jpg

Berbera is a main port city in Somaliland. In spite of the distance from Siad Barre’s headquarters in the south, he used the port during his tenure. So even though Barre bombed and shelled the city, Berbera wasn’t as severely damaged as Hargeisa and other northern cities.

Both the minister of health and my new friend, the mayor of Hargeisa, had called the mayor of Berbera to announce our visit, and he was waiting for us. After we had talked for a while, he invited us to visit the port facilities to be assured that his people could adequately handle our forty-foot Project C.U.R.E. containers. We did go to the port, and I was favorably impressed. During the late 1980s, the United States constructed a very efficient port facility that will more than adequately meet Project C.U.R.E.’s shipping needs.

Our appointment with the director of the Berbera hospital was set for 10:00 a.m. Like the hospital in Hargeisa, the British built the Berbera facility at about the same time, but the difference in the condition of the two hospitals was most unbelievable. The hospital at Berbera was nicely painted white and meticulously trimmed in pale blue. The windows were washed, the cement floor had been mopped, and the staff was smiling.

Dr. Abdi Abdihahi Ali serves as the hospital director. The 175-bed facility is the top referral institution for the region of Berbera. Someone had given the hospital a new computer and taught the staff how to use it. The hospital administration really came alive under Dr. Abdi’s direction. They use the computer to print out financial programs, and they know, for example, that their highest revenues come from the radiology and surgery departments. They design and print patient admission and processing materials, and they told me that if they had additional computers, they would store and print patient records and prescriptions and track department needs and personnel records. I was really impressed.

Dr. Abdi shared with me that a hospital in Italy had come alongside and helped them. Everything changed since that day. The Berbera hospital doesn’t have much more in the way of hospital equipment or supplies, but Dr. Abdi and his staff have hope. That hope flows from the fact that someone believed in them enough to not only give them a computer and show them how it worked but occasionally sends individuals to train and encourage them.

The Berbera hospital, compared to the Hargeisa hospital, is a classic example of the adage “What’cha gonna do with what’cha got?” Attitude and creativity sparked by hope is transforming this hospital. Anything Project C.U.R.E. sends to Berbera, Somaliland, will be blessed and multiplied in the future.

The hospital staff asked for books for their medical library, lab equipment and training, reagents, blood-pressure cuffs, stethoscopes, and any and all medical supplies. They desperately need baby incubators, oxygen supplies, surgical and OB-GYN instruments, and a microscope that works.

For lunch Mohamed and I were taken to the shore of the gulf port, where the restaurant personnel caught fresh fish, split them open, rubbed rock salt into the meat, propped them up by the open fire, and cooked them for us. They were delicious! The freshly cooked fish reminded me of the way fish are caught out of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in Basra, Iraq, propped up with sticks, and cooked on an open fire. The Iraqis also use the method of rubbing rock salt into the meat before cooking it.

Mohamed and I had committed to drive another four hours to the city of Burao, where we would complete a needs assessment at the regional hospital there before turning around and retracing our steps to Hargeisa tonight. 

Somalia Part 4c.jpg

The hospital in Burao was as pitiful and discouraging as the hospital in Berbera had been positive and uplifting. Dr. Faud Yusato Ismail is the director, and I don’t think he had recovered from the trauma of the war. His countenance was stormy and his behavior angry. Years of frustration had no doubt taken their toll. To sum up the condition of the Burao regional hospital, I’ll simply say it was terrible, awful, and worse than you can imagine. They had none of the basic supplies or equipment needed to run a hospital—no IV solution, no gauze or medicines, no functioning X-ray machine, no lab equipment or reagents, and no alternative lab to which they could send tests. In the operating room, there was no anesthesia machine, the suction machine didn’t work, and there were no basic supplies. There was also no working autoclave in sight.

What the hospital did have was sick and injured patients housed in old, dilapidated and unsanitary facilities.

I asked to view the journal where all the procedures are recorded by hand. Many patients were there because of auto accidents, malaria, gastrointestinal parasites, and tuberculosis. I smiled as I read through the list and saw that several patients had been admitted for “stap” wounds by knife. And a surprising number were there because of gunshot wounds. There is still tribal unrest even in the peaceful north.

Somalia Part 4 d.jpg

The thing about the Burao hospital that made tears come to my eyes was the pediatrics ward, where I saw children who had lost arms or legs over the past few days because they accidentally detonated old, hidden land mines. Siad Barre’s war on his own people not only killed tens of thousands of innocent civilians prior to 1991, but it left the survivors with a horrible legacy: children acting as little human land-mine sweepers.

As I stood by the bed of a cute little seven- or eight-year-old boy who had just had his left leg amputated below the knee, I wondered why the ex-president of Somalia, who perpetrated such atrocities on his own people, had been allowed to strut off to Zimbabwe, where he continues to live a life of privilege under the protection of President Robert Mugabe, never to be hauled before the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague and made to pay for his horrific crimes.

It was a long trip back to Hargeisa tonight, but I was too exhausted to worry about traveling unprotected across the mountains and deserts of Somaliland. Not only was my body exhausted from the punishing journey, but I was emotionally wrung out from what I’ve seen and experienced during my time in Somalia.

Maybe, I thought, fourteen years of being in the worst hot spots of the world is enough. Maybe folks younger and tougher than I might be able to accomplish the frontline tasks and not internalize the sadness and hopelessness quite as much. But by the time I got some hot supper and had arrived back at the hotel in Hargeisa, I had recovered my equilibrium. I’ll be ready for another day.

Next Week: Leaving Camelot