Behind the scenes: in Somalia with the Foreign Minister

04.05.2017 - Article

Harrowing impressions from an extraordinary trip

In the streets of Baidoa, Somalia.
In the streets of Baidoa, Somalia.© Inga Kjer/photothek.net

As the Foreign Minister’s motorcade trundles along a rutted track through Baidoa, the mood in car no. 2 grows increasingly sombre. The constructions moving past the bulletproof windows are more ruins than houses, shacks made of metal and plastic bags sinking down into red mud. In the piles of rubbish and debris, emaciated goats are looking for grass, veiled girls wade through the mud with bundles of firewood. “Is that the refugee camp already?” the passenger asks.

The poverty in the streets of Baidoa, home to 130,000 people, is only the tip of the iceberg. Most of the diplomats who accompany Gabriel have seen a fair bit of the world. But what is at the end of the 30-minute drive through the ravaged urban landscape leaves no visitor unmoved.

Hundreds of thousands are at risk of starvation

Hilac refugee camp in Somalia
Hilac refugee camp in Somalia© Inga Kjer/photothek.de

It is the second stage of a special trip by Foreign Minister Gabriel. Never before has a German Foreign Minister visited Somalia. It is regarded as one of the most dangerous countries in the world. The country has been wracked by more than 20 years of civil war, terrorism and economic slump. Islamist militias, tribal leaders and government forces continue to fight one another. Now, severe drought has driven the country to the brink of famine which could claim hundreds of thousands of lives throughout the entire region.

For security reasons the visit is kept secret until the delegation has left the country again. Special Federal Police forces accompany Gabriel and his staff at every step. A security briefing is held before take-off in Germany. “Don’t move away from the group under any circumstances, not even 100 metres away,” the commander instructs the members of the delegation. Before their departure, all travellers have been asked to provide their blood group as well as the size of bullet-proof vest they will need.

Sub-machine guns within reach

A propeller-driven UN aircraft takes the delegation to Mogadishu
A propeller-driven UN aircraft takes the delegation to Mogadishu© Inga Kjer/Photothek.net

A white UN propeller-driven aircraft takes Gabriel to Mogadishu, the first stop on his trip. The United Nations has a small base directly at the airport. Blue helmets from Uganda and international special forces guard the small container village in the sweltering heat.

While Gabriel holds talks with the Somalian Foreign Minister, the accompanying journalists are driven around the grounds. The cars are so heavily armoured that the doors can only be opened with two hands. The driver keeps his sub-machine gun within reach at all times, right next to the handbrake.

No doctors, no schools, no work

Tens of thousands of families lost everything.
Tens of thousands of families lost everything.© Inga Kjer/photothek.de

After the political talks in Mogadishu, we travel on to south-western Somalia. Many areas in the region are controlled by militias. In the vicinity of Baidoa, Gabriel wants to see for himself the situation of the people who have fled from other parts of the country to escape famine and violence. Throughout Somalia, there are now more than one million people who have fled their homes.

Foreign Minister Gabriel in the refugee camp near Baidoa.
Foreign Minister Gabriel in the refugee camp near Baidoa.© Inga Kjer/photothek.net

On the fringes of Baidoa, the Minister’s mud-spattered motorcade comes to a halt. When we disembark, our shoes sink ankle-deep into the soft ground. The red clay is home to tens of thousands of refugee families. As far as the eye can see, waist-high huts have been built on the bare ground from branches tied together with strips of old cloth. The men, women and children crouching here in the mud have no access to medical care, jobs or schooling.

Gabriel tries to talk to the people with the help of an interpreter. A woman crouches in front of her tent with a coughing baby in her arms. She tells the Minister that she used to have several cows, but the drought claimed them one by one. Like thousands of others, she can only survive thanks to the aid supplies. Yet the situation is becoming more and more acute. Every day, increasing numbers of people are fleeing to camps like this one in Baidoa to escape starvation.

Germany doubles its aid

Especially children are threatened by hunger.
Especially children are threatened by hunger.© Inga Kjer/photothek.net

Gabriel has decided to double German assistance for Somalia to almost 140 million euros. Yet Germany will not be able to save the people in Somalia singlehandedly. In an appeal to the international community, Gabriel declares, “What we urgently need is more international assistance.”

As the propeller-driven aircraft takes off from the runway in Baidoa, the sea of tents gradually disappears on the horizon. However, the images of the devastated city and the suffering of the people there will no doubt accompany the Minister and his staff for a long time to come.

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