Today we have something a little different – Rob Casey, owner of Black Tusk Survival, talks us through his time in Somalia and describes what it was like to be in the middle of a real SHTF situation.
What on earth is the putrid stench?
After landing at Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, the doors to the aircraft swung open and in came this rush of horrible stench.
I arrived in Mogadishu just a couple of days after the U.S. Marines set foot on Somali soil (beach actually) on 9 Dec 1992. It was a very short flight for me as I had been in neighbouring Djibouti for the previous three weeks waiting the opportunity to leap frog forward into Somalia.
When I stepped off the plane I stepped into a world unlike any other. The stifling heat of the midday sun and the barren sun bleached landscape were common in many places around the world –nothing unusual about that, but the vile stench, that inescapable smell, was definitely not common to other places I had been to.
It was a very dynamic and unsafe environment –a real SHTF type of place.
We were foreigners and not welcome in Somalia, so we had to move fast and with purpose. Shortly after arriving I managed to hitch a ride into the countryside out of the capital Mogadishu. Along the way the answer to the stench issue was pretty evident; it was dead bodies and animals lying in the open everywhere. It would take a massive clean-up effort to get rid of all the bodies –a detail I was happy to not be a part of.
Somalia was completely lawless. There was no government, no government officials, no rules, and of course no laws, so this environment was ripe for warring clans.
The pecking order was men with guns (obvious clan affiliated) ate first, next men without guns ate, then women would eat, and finally… well the children didn’t eat. The small children were starving on a scale that sickened everyone who was witness to the atrocities. The foreigners were there to change that pecking order –feed the children and get rid of the guns.
Gun battles would break out on a regular basis. In the beginning it was just clan against clan trying to knock each other off, but the longer the foreigners stayed the more the clans would try to let the air out of the foreigners.
Eventually, moving through the cities and towns in vehicles and coming to burning tires in the middle of the road blocking your path usually meant a clan’s intentional diversion and detour, leading to an ambush ahead in a pre-planned kill zone.
Want to learn more about real life SHTF situations? Try this: Survival Tips and Stories from Bosnian War Survivors
There is the joke about someone in a restaurant calling the wait staff over to point out the fly in their soup, and in response the wait staff informs the guest that they’ll have to charge them more for their soup because of the extra protein.
The weird thing about Somalia was there was no real fly problem. It wasn’t as if you went about your day swinging and swatting at flies.
However, that being said, it was a completely different story when it came time to eat. We were eating U.S. Meals Ready to Eat (MRE’s) with spoons. The second the spoon came out of the packet of food into the open air, hundreds (seemed like thousands) of flies from out of nowhere would land on the spoon and food.
In no time at all you learned two things very quickly –the shortest distance in the world was between the MRE packet and your mouth, and the fastest thing in the world was the spoon travelling between the packet and your mouth. And the whole time you ate you tried to block out all those dead bodies, and where those flies could possibly have come from.
The learning curve in such a hostile environment is steep and often times slow because you can’t see the trends until you’ve been there for some time.
Over time I learned to move either by foot or by vehicle in the mornings. It was cooler, but more importantly it was much safer.
I learned that after sleeping in very late, the clan member’s routine meant turning to their daily intake of Khat (pronounced in Somalia as ‘cot’ –like the thing you lie on and toss and turn all night). Khat is a local plant, and the locals would chew the green leaves of the pant which gives them a high.
By 1 or 2 o’clock the drug induced high is peaking and the user (armed) becomes aggressive, and as a direct result, the daily mid-day gun battles begin. If you can lay low and avoid travel as much as possible during these times it increases the chances of completing your visit to Somalia by plane instead of in a box.
The routine was the same day after day. They slept in, they woke and ate a meal. Started chewing Khat leaves, went to gun battles, came home for dinner, crashed early and slept in …and a new groundhog day started all over again.
It didn’t matter where you were in Somalia, a city or in the country, Khat was prevalent everywhere as it was used for either escaping the horrors of what was happening to the country and the people, or if you were armed it gave you the bravado to go into your daily gun battle.
I sampled the Khat, not to get high but to educate myself on how it tasted -that was horrible education, it also made me glad I was not trying to eat enough of it to get high on it.
When we would engage the locals in conversation we learned pretty quickly to watch closely for the guys with the green stained teeth and gums. They were the Khat chewers and were generally unpredictable, uncooperative, and quite often potentially aggressive.
Somalia was such a worn torn place all the buildings were badly damaged, and since they did not have electricity no one lived in what was left of the buildings.
Instead most seemed to live under circular tarped huts held up by arched branches. They lived together in large communities, some as large as 100 tarped huts, each individual family living under a predominately blue tarped igloo looking dwelling, only difference is; in an igloo you could stand up inside, these tarped huts were not that tall.
It seemed the entire country was denuded of trees. The trees were either used for their tarped huts as well as fuel for fires to cook and keep warm.
With the lack of food of course came a whole country of malnourished and starving people.
Seeing someone not malnourished automatically meant you could safely presume you were dealing with a clan member and he was probably armed whether you saw his weapon or not.
The weapons of choice were mostly dominated by the Russian AK-47, occasionally you would see an American M-16, and then there was the Russian made, shoulder fired, RPG-7 (Rocket Propelled Grenade). The weapons often seemed primitive looking because they were poorly maintained; wood stocks on rifles were quite often splintered, broken and taped, or missing altogether.
Then there were the “battlewagons” as we called them. Officially they were called “Technicals”. They were simply a machine gun mounted in the bed of a Toyota Pick-up Truck. The gunner would stand in the bed of the truck to fire the weapon. They were light, fast, highly mobile, and a considerable threat to the foreigners operating in country.
These battlewagons were often used to hijack relief food supply convoys heading to a distribution point. This tactic is how the clans were fed relatively well in a country slowing starving itself to death.
There was this strange gap in the children that existed in Somalia. The very, very young were starving to death, it seemed the younger they were the more advanced stage of starvation they were in.
For so many of these children (babies really) the intervention of the foreigners was too late.
Yet it seemed the pre-teen children were quite alive and well –that is not to say they had it made by any stretch of the imagination, for most I am sure they did not know when or where their next meal would come.
It would seem those in control of the country would ignore and simply shoo away any kids in the wrong place, but their resourcefulness became a real asset to me.
They knew information that was valuable and they could get in and out of places I could not –I mean a child seen crawling through a hole in a perimeter fence was met with a yell and a wave of the hand to get lost. If I ever tried that I would surely get a different yell and an up close wave of an AK-47 rifle.
Now, I never sent the kids to seek information, but because of their experiences they were full of information and willing to divulge it no problem, especially if there was some kind of sweet treat involved –gummy bears were to die for!
I had witnessed this strange phenomenon with children as information sponges before in other countries.
Then there were the wild dogs everywhere. I don’t think anyone actually owned a dog in SHTF Somalia.
Most were probably turned loose and abandoned to fend for themselves which might not have been a bad decision as they would turn feral and could scavenge for food probably better than their owners.
At any rate, there were all kinds of wild dogs throughout Somalia.
As if things weren’t dangerous enough in Somalia, someone decided to throw in wild dogs for good measure!
I once tried to sit next to the charred remains of a vehicle for a little rest and some rare shade. I did not see the wild dog also seeking refuge from the sun that was well under the vehicle, but I sure heard its deep guttural growl!
Even though I had no intention of going under the vehicle, I decided at that moment I could use a little more sun.
Somalia was a horrible place – there can be no arguing that fact.
It gives me rare bragging rights to know what a true SHTF place looks and feel like.
It’s certainly a constant reminder for me of a how bad things can get and how we don’t want to end up like that.
The experience of being on the ground in Somalia for six months has given me a unique perspective, something I hope we can all learn from as we go forward.
Unfortunately for Somalia, it is still a lawless land with no government today, and terror groups now rule where the clans left off.
But still, I am so glad I went there.
I like to think there are some Somalis alive today that was a direct result of my time in country.
+ Image credits:
“U.S. Forces in Somalia – Department of Defense Joint Combat Camera Center DD-SD-00-00730” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by expertinfantry.com
“MRE 2003″ by Muttley ( Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported) via Wikimedia Commons
“2DU Kenya21” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by CIAT