Tuesday, June 26, 2012
When the party of journalists arrived at the Kenyan Defence Force base in Afmadhow, they were directed to a clearing near a thick knot of Acacia trees not far from the middle of the camp.
The officers were gathered around a table, which featured a number of empty glasses and a jug filled with a white liquid which I assumed to be pineapple or coconut juice.
“Greetings! Have some Afmadhow water!” one major said, in what I assumed to be a joke. “It is straight from the borehole and has a lot of minerals!”
When we took a few sips, you could see the journalists wincing when they realised that the liquid they were taking was actually water.
It was an early welcome to the tough environment soldiers have been enduring in Somalia for the last seven months.
They are trained, of course, to survive the most Spartan of environments, but the life in bases such as Afmadhow can be quite a shock to a civilian newly arrived from Nairobi.
As part of the induction, Captain Patrick Mutuku raised the issue of sleeping arrangements.
“You can either sleep in a handaki or APC.” Nobody understood what he was talking about.
He then explained that nobody sleeps in the tents we had seen erected around the camp. Those are only for storage of assorted material.
All the soldiers spend their nights either underground, in small holes lined with sandbags which resemble shallow graves (handaki in military speak) or on a hard bench inside the Armoured Personnel Carrier vehicles which can safely absorb the impact of incoming missiles.
What happens when it rains, you ask? Well, said Major Emmanuel Kaliakamur, the best idea is not to move at all once the rain enters the bunker.
That way, the sleeping bag will remain warm because you will be in one position but if you turn, your night will be over.
The first night was comfortable enough. Supper is usually served extremely early (the exact time, we were told, is classified) to avoid giving the Shabaab ideas on when to attack, after which everybody retreats to their bunker for the night long before the sun has set.
We retired to our respective stations on day one but were sent scurrying to the safety of the APCs and handakis at about 7.30pm when suddenly an orange fireball shot into the air amid crackling sound similar to that from fireworks.
The rest of the night was quiet and in the morning when we asked what the loud explosion the previous night had been, the duty Captain shrugged and said it was nothing but a hyena that had trampled on trip wire which is lined across the perimeter of the camp and is designed to send the ball of light to illuminate any trespassers and allow the sentries to fire at their target.
The second night was made distinctly less comfortable by the banter earlier in the day between some lieutenants who merrily recalled the day a long black mamba sneaked into one of their sleeping bags to share the warmth of the soldier for the night.
There was firing on day two, too, apparently by Somalia National Army personnel who had spotted the advance of some lorries overnight.
In the morning, when the affected guy spotted his unwanted visitor, he had the presence of mind to lie still, defying the early morning call, until the snake slithered out and could be killed a safe distance away from his body.
They turned out to be merchants on their way to a market centre and were allowed to proceed with their journey in the morning.
Despite this tough environment, the mood in the camp is generally upbeat with the soldiers playing football by day and preparing to deal with the inevitable Al Shabaab “probes” at night.
The football match is followed by a bath, which is not a comfortable shower but a rudimentary affair with one basin shared in turns by about 20 people at bathrooms that consist of some sticks cut from acacia trees surrounded by flimsy material from sacks.
The toilet facility is a similar enclosure with a tiny hole in the middle, the type which will be familiar to those who attended primary schools in rural areas.
The relaxed attitude of the soldiers, though, is summed up by this shout from one of them when we heard the crackle of gunfire in the distance on day three as he was taking his shower.
“Aaargh! Why do these Shabaabs always start playing their music when I have just soaped my hair?”