The sun was almost extinct as we climbed the steps in front of Berbera police station to find an old man in a wicker chair. Two armed men in dusty berets flanked the Police Chief but he himself displayed no military attire. He wore only a swathe of burgundy fabric, richly embroidered and firmly swept around his bent body. His face was scarred and wreathed by steam from the teacup he rested carefully on a saucer. The steam rose beneath his tiny dark eyes and he inhaled as he looked out over the pinkish town. From behind his teacup the Police Chief listened to Captain Paunch then spoke some quiet instructions. A man in a collared shirt appeared and translated for our benefit. We were to come back in the morning. The Police Chief would not see us now.
Soldiers conducted us to a smart hotel, made reservations for us then left. We were told in no uncertain terms by the manager that, should we leave the grounds, the Police would be contacted immediately. As we sipped coffee and contemplated our house arrest Colin came hurrying with news “The owner wants to see us!” From Colin’s tone we could see the coffee would wait and we followed. At a table on the grass outside the hotel restaurant was seated a smartly dressed Somali man. He smiled broadly and addressed us in perfect English, “”My name is Mohammed Kadar and I am the owner. Firstly, I am aware of your situation. Please know that you may stay here, free of charge, and I would like to invite you to dine with me as my guests.”
We sat and cautiously ordered meals, while Mohammed Kadar spoke “I am a hotelier and property entrepreneur. Over the years I have seen very few tourists in Somaliland and I would like to extend to you our tradition for warm hospitality. I hope that you will return to your countries with positive experiences and that this will hopefully support the growth of a tourist industry in Somaliland.” He then added that perhaps the national news would be interested in meeting us. We were a little uncomfortable with the idea of being used in the media as symbols of social change. As we saw it, this made us potential targets for any group focused on sabotaging that social change. We mumbled a few non-committal responses, “maybe tomorrow or something”.
Barely had we forked a morsel of our fresh fish suppers when we found ourselves staring down the barrel of a camera lens. Considering our being a little stunned by this swift development the group coped well, myself excluded. When my turn came to be interviewed the camera panned to my face. Wide-eyed and sweating I began, “I am delighted to have the opportunity to visit Salami man…I mean Somaliland”. Shit! I froze, mute. My eyes darted to Bas. He was staring back at me. As the silence dragged, he mouthed noiselessly “what are you doing?!!”. My eyes snapped to Rich who had lost interest and returned to his fish. On realizing that this was what most people watching this news segment would be doing, my panic eased and I was able to burble some sentences about how safe it all was here. The little red camera light blessedly went off.
The news crew left us. Mohammed Kadar passed his gaze across our faces and spoke, “I am glad you feel that you are safe here. For so many years the international community has been saying that we are not safe. The UK foreign office forbids visiting under any circumstances. I think that many Somalilanders are beginning to doubt themselves. They say to one another “are we safe, if the world says we are not maybe we are not”. On this thought we retired to bed.
At 7am our escort took us to meet with the Police Chief a second time. In the police headquarters we sat before a broad mahogany desk with our hands in our laps like naughty school children. The anxiety around the table was palpable, we had no idea how serious our illegally exploring Somaliland would turn out to be. Behind the desk the Police Chief was unrecognizable from the day before. Yesterday’s thin frame was lost in an imposing construction of decorated epaulets, brassy buttons and pomp.
The Chief surveyed us, deciding whom he would address. He then barked in Somali “Who is your Chief”. One of the soldiers lining the walls shot a finger at the back of my head dragging the Chief’s eyes to meet mine. It seemed this faded military dinosaur could only operate in a system of clear hierarchy. If previous experience in Africa is anything to go by, rank is assigned in order of beard size and as such I had been designated leader. I was invited to tell our story, which I dutifully did and hoped I was faithfully translated. After a few moments the Chief spoke from beneath wilting grey brows, “You will be taken back to Hargeisa. We will send a soldier with you. First you must go to the Mayor of Berbera, you will go there now!”
We ambled across a hot concrete courtyard to the next stratum of power. We were not in the least bit reassured that our small legal violation seemed to warrant such a high level of appraisal. As we congregated around a similar broad mahogany desk a younger man in a suit greeted us in English, “I have heard about your situation and you will understand that you must go to Hargeisa to see the Minister for Interior”. This engagement had not been made clear to us but we nodded meekly. The Mayor spoke to us, with a detached but reproving air, about the seriousness of this episode and the possible implications of our behaviour. We exchanged frightened glances. Why did we need to see the Interior Minister? Yesterday this was a small bureaucratic faux pas; today it seemed that we were on the cusp of an international incident.With every moment that passed we felt ourselves sinking deeper into a mire of strange politics we did not understand. The Mayor concluded his diatribe with “…of course before you go you will have to visit the Port of Berbera”. This parting shot was a little confusing but we nodded along and allowed ourselves to be lead out.
Next we were driven to a small port outside Berbera. We were met by a man who lead us among the aging wooden ships and shiny steel liners with the manner of an excited tour guide. “This port was recently refurbished in 2009, it receives 5-10 ships a week importing all manner of things including, electrical goods, food, motor parts, fuel etc. Exports include mainly camel!” As he said this he gestured to an enormous Greek passenger ferry. We peered through the stern and saw that the cavernous hull had been partitioned into thousands of small stables, each filled with hay. It looked as one might expect the Ark to look had the great flood struck during the Greek economic crisis.
As our guide proudly discussed his port we came across a surprising realization. The politicians seemed to be attempting to give us a guided tour of Somaliland’s top attractions while keeping us under close arrest. This industrial port seemed to be the Mayor of Berbera’s idea of a holiday highlight. We dubbed this surreal sightseeing as the “Golden Handcuff tour”.
The Harbour Master, who also spared some time to meet us, insisted that on our way back towards Hargeisa we stop at Somaliland’s main historic site, Laas Gees. On our departure he said to me “give them this and tell them I sent you”. He passed me a hand written note. With our chit in hand and a soldier in the passenger seat we set off back towards Hargeisa.
At the entrance to Laas Gees we were astonished to find that our scrap of paper did not cause the gates to fly open with a trumpet blast and drum roll. There was still baksheesh to be payed. After arguing bitterly for his bribe the sentry jumped happily into our Landie for a lift up to the cliffs. Eight people in the Landie was made possible by the park guard’s sitting in the front passenger seat on our bodyguard’s lap. Watching them manoeuvre themselves awkwardly into position with their AK47s still strapped across their shoulders was quite a pretty picture.
The anthropological site of Laas Gees is found among a series of caves and bluffs jutting out from the flat desert west of Berbera. On the walls of the caves are preserved 10,000-year-old images of troglodyte life in a warm palette of ochre, red and brown. From the caves one can cast out over the plain where snakeskin riverbeds lie like ghosts of the cirrus threads that streak the sky. As the sun begins to burn all the yellows of this ageless landscape into the rich reds of the cave paintings it provokes an old contentment, a feeling of fraternity with our distant forebears.
Next day in Hargeisa we were collected from our hotel by two men from the, quite Orwellian, Ministry of Information. They lead us to a large government building where a crowd of people was waiting for us. From the depths of the mob a news crew materialized to interview us. We were reeling from our new found celebrity in the capital as we followed our friends from the Ministry of Truth inside the government building. Through several narrow corridors we found a doorway swamped by a mass of bodies. A thoroughfare was made for us and we pushed through it. As we entered we were instantly petrified before a riot of flashbulbs and lenses. Piecemeal we gathered our wits and realised that the lenses were pointed to our right where a man in white robe stood. One of our guides pointed to the man and said, “Prime Minister”. Strangely we were all, I think, a little disappointed that the fanfare was not for us. It is extraordinary how quickly fame goes to one’s head.
When the crowd in the room had thinned we were seated around a conference table towards the back of the room and the Minister of Tourism came to sit with us. We exchanged the pleasantries that by now we were very accustomed to. The men from the Ministry for Distribution of Opinion filmed our discussion and prompted us with things we ought to say.
What followed was a series of similar conversations with each of a string of dignitaries:
Head of the Army
Head of the Navy
Mayor of Hargeisa
Chief of Immigration
Minister For Tourism
Minister for Information
Leader of the Opposition
Attaché for the People’s Republic of Administration and Liaison Officer
We were hungry and little tired of the circus when the white robe of the ringleader swept back into the room. The Prime Minister sat at our table quietly and waited while the cameraman prepared. We also sat silent, star struck. He disposed of the pleasantries quickly and spoke to us with calm conviction of the severe implications for his country of their “unrecognized” status. He described fervently how his endeavours to bring Somaliland forward have been obstructed by this ruling and of the effects these limitations have had on the people of Somaliland. Despite his frustrations his outlook was positive. He was confident of his ability to build a future and his self-belief was infectious. When the Prime Minister left we were moved by his words and more than a little inspired by his ambition.
The following day we explored the streets of Hargeisa, tasting the foods and enjoying the bustle of business in the market. As we walked countless people stopped us in the street. “Hey you are the tourists!”, people would shout from cars “I have seen you on the TV”, “Welcome to Somaliland”. We were unable even to hide in a crowd watching football, we were sniffed out by yet another news crew for interviews. Our fame in the capital was growing it seemed.
After dinner that evening we were picking our way home through the sandy backstreets of Hargeisa when from the shadows a man appeared. He was wearing torn clothes and his face bore the badges of a brawler. “You are the tourists aren’t you,” he said. “I have seen you in your red Land Rover. You are staying at the Jasmine hotel aren’t you?”. We did are best to appease this friendly, if frightening, character and continued home. At the point at which one’s identity and movements are well known by a city’s disreputables it is perhaps time to leave. We returned to Ethiopia the next day.
Although we were a bit arrested and spent the greater part of our trip quite frightened we could not help but depart with a fondness for Somaliland and indeed a strong empathy for their cause. They seem to have done all the right things to earn their independence from Somalia and it must be said that their young and well-educated political class inspires confidence. Perhaps in a few years the international community will change their view and we shall all be passing our summer holidays on the beaches of the Costa del Somalia.