David Axe heads to Mogadishu

David Axe is a journalist and cartoonist and he blogs at the oddly titled War is boring. He’s just arrived in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, to report on the “insurgency” and the work of the African Union. I fired off a few questions to David about his assignment in Somalia and how he intends to file his stories,
A few basics first, who are you on assignment for? And are you working in just words or multimedia?

I work in pretty much all media. I’m doing print for The Washington Times; radio for BBC; video possibly for PBS and online for World Politics Review and for my blog warisboring.com. At the time of my departure, I was on staff at a military trade magazine called Defense Technology International and I intended to write for them, as well. But the publisher there got so spooked by the violence in Somalia that last night he phoned me to order me back to the U.S. (He also told me that I wasn’t allowed to go to Iraq next month, as I had been planning.) That’s bullshit – especially the Iraq ban – so I quit on the spot and now I’m strictly freelancing.

Have you been to Somalia before? If so, when and what assignment etc.?

I’ve done Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and East Timor – but never Somalia. This trip represents my attempt to get a foot in the door in Africa, so to speak.

Can you tell me a little bit more about the Islamic courts insurgents/African Union peacekeeping story you’ll be covering?

I’ve been on an insurgency/failed states kick for a couple years now: Somalia is the culmination. In my opinion, Mogadishu is the new Baghdad: a battleground in the U.S.-orchestrated “war on terror.” It represents the early stages of what is sure to be a growing problem of Islamic insurgencies in struggling African nations. It’s also a major test of the African Union and its peacekeeping forces.

I’m interested in the practicalities of the job. How are you getting to Mogadishu? What practical arrangements do you need to make as a reporter going there? Visas, fixers, accom, internet access etc.

There are, I believe, three minor airlines serving Mogadishu. The safest is African Express. For $500 they’ll fly you round trip from Nairobi. It’s only an hour by air. In terms of fixers, I networked with some editors to get recommendations on two or three fixers, emailed them and made arrangements well in advance for lodging, security and translating. My main fixer is a hotel manager with excellent contacts, good English and pretty extensive experience with Western journalists – plus he provides lodging at his own hotel. He also offers internet access. Visas are available in Nairobi for $50 on two days’ notice.

What equipment are you carrying to do the job of journalism and how will you file and how often?

I file by email, except for video, for which I will carry tapes back to the U.S. I carry two digital still cameras, a 3-chip miniDV video camera and mini-tripod, a digital audio recorder, a Thuraya sat phone, a GSM cell phone, my Dell laptop plus body armor, helmet and plenty of malaria meds and an extra pair of jeans, all in one (very heavy) backpack. And lots of cash.

Again, as a journalist, how do you go about researching a story like this. Is it all through contact with people on the ground? Do you track social media sites and the like? I’m interested to know the steps a working journalist takes to best brief themselves with the back story.

I just kept tabs on the story on-line in the weeks leading up to my trip, and checked in with my fixers for on-the-ground updates. I asked around with other reporters, too, but for the most part Western media has abandoned Somalia, so they weren’t really very helpful.

What security measures are you taking? One Frontline Club member told me this about working in Somalia, “Our security here in Mogadishu is pretty good: we’ve got four gunmen in two vehicles at the moment, though in the past we’ve had eight or ten with technicals. we use guys from the hotel we stay in, the Peace Hotel, and they completely get what it means to work with journalists, in the sense that they stay out of the way, make no attempt to influence what is being said – in fact, don’t even try to listen in. They simply put up a smart, watchful perimeter, and keep an eye on the situation. The tenser it is, the closer the perimeter; but then again, the tenser it is, the less people care about what they say, ‘cos they are shouting it anyway.” Similar story for you?

There are now at least three legitimate armies in Mogadishu that will shoot the crap out of you if you roll around with your own technicals: the Somali army, the Ethiopians and the African Union. Your guy must have worked there during the warlords era in the ‘90s or during the troubles last year. It’s different now. The insurgents are pretty aggressive, but it’s nothing like 1993. My main security is keeping a low profile and not staying too long, plus not probing too deeply into clan politics. Plus I’ll be hanging out with the AU guys, who are mostly Ugandans and seem pretty professional.

I’m sure you are aware of the recent arrests of journalists in Somalia… Are you in contact with Somali journalists and will you be working with any? Or are you just using fixers?

Yeah, I’m in touch with local journalists. Eight of them have died this year: it’s a tough conflict for native reporters. I will probably do some work with some of them, but if I associate too closely, I might get arrested, too.

You discuss on your blog the reaction of old Africa hands in Nairobi to your Somalia trip. Their skepticism doesn’t seem to concern you. Have you also spoken to western journalists who are currently there, or who have been there recently? What’s their story?

Several Western reporters have come and gone in recent weeks, including a photographer who worked with my main fixer. I don’t mean to downplay the risk, since it is a warzone and people are dying, but I believe that a certain tight-knit group of Africa correspondents got spooked by the killings of Somali journalists and decided that it was impossible to work in Somalia anymore. My fixers and the native reporters I’ve spoken to disagree with this assessment. Am I worried? Not so much that I’m going to cancel the trip. But I will be very very careful – more so than I’ve been in other conflicts.
That said, if I do get killed, don’t make fun of me for seeming so blasé, okay? Seriously, I’m aware of the risk and I believe it’s worth it. I don’t expect to live forever, and I’d rather go out doing work I believe is important than get eaten up by cancer or hit by a runaway city bus in Washington, D.C. Besides, if it were safe and easy, everyone would do it, no?