It was not what I was expecting when I first ventured into the divided city of Mogadishu in 2010. To be told that the city contained a Christian burial site seemed unlikely. After further research I realised that not only was there a Commonwealth African War Cemetery in the middle of the one of the world’s most dangerous cities, but I knew I had to visit it. As a point of principle, wherever I am in the world, if there is a CWGC cemetery close by, I will do my best to make a visit.
Getting to it was another matter altogether. For the next two years while I was working in the UK MoD, I knew it was going to be impossible to drive into the city in order to find the site. The only way to get into the city was using large armoured vehicles driven by the African Union troops stationed in Mogadishu’s international airport base. Even though I knew I would be visiting Mogadishu from time to time, I resigned myself to the fact that it would remain out of reach.
All that changed when I left the military and took up a role as a contractor in Mogadishu working for the UN and the African Union Mission in Somalia in 2012. Responsible for the security of my team of journalists and documentary makers, we needed to get around Mogadishu in smaller, more agile vehicles. I had decided that the team needed to move away from using the Casspir, an armoured troop carrying vehicle designed to minimise the effect of mines. Instead I opted for a less conspicuous means of getting around employing a private security company.
And I sensed my chance to arrange a visit.
Travelling in two vehicles; one 4×4 with dark tinted glass for me and my ex special forces chaperone, and the other a pick up truck with heavily armed men sitting in the back, we headed into the city. To all intents and purposes, our mini convoy resembled many similar pairs of vehicles crisscrossing Mogadishu at that time, containing Somali clan leaders or businessmen heading for a meeting. We blended in, even though we had no protection in the event of a nearby explosion.
Pulling out of our secure compound, I plugged in the GPS coordinates and we headed towards the cemetery on a journey that I never thought would be possible. I knew that once on the ground we would not be able to stay long; a couple of white guys in the back streets of Mogadishu is hard to disguise and despite our armed protection, I was in no mood to hang around for longer than necessary.
After a couple of wrong turns we finally crept along a rough track, surrounded by single storey buildings. The location wasn’t obvious so we disembarked and covered the remainder of the journey on foot. Somali families were milling about as they did every day; clothes were drying in the warm air, people were sitting in the shade and kids were playing football. When we were spotted the children ran for cover; then one by one, they crept out again into the bright sunlight, staring at the unexpected visitors to their patch.
The head of our security detail, a Somali, spoke to a local resident sitting under a tree and confirmed that we were at the right place. In a space not much bigger that half the size of a Hockey pitch, surrounded by a chest high stone wall, overgrown with many varieties of cacti and other shrubs, stood the remains of the Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery that I never believed I would see. It was a very special moment.
We knew our time was short so we walked around the site, careful not to draw too much attention to ourselves. It was tucked away and quite private. What we found was a site entirely desecrated bar one solitary grave stone that had remained standing, hidden in the shadows of a large cactus tree. The central cross had been smashed and daubed with graffiti. All the headstones has been kicked to the ground and broken, the white stone ground into the dust.
A hut that would have housed the book detailing the location and names of those buried in the cemetery stood empty. It was a forgotten site that deserved better.
We soon left after I had taken photographs. Driving back through Mogadishu’s streets I knew I had to do something. On my return to my room in the safety of the international base at the airport, I sent the details and photographs of my visit to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) in the UK, offering to coordinate an effort to replace the grave stones and restore some dignity to a cemetery that had become the casualty of a long running conflict.
The CWGC were very grateful for the information and images, but I sensed it would be difficult for them to do much in the short term, reflecting Mogadishu’s precarious security environment. In effect, I was told it was too dangerous for that kind of project.
Some weeks later I made a second visit to the site. This time a gentleman appeared soon after we had arrived and stood on the other side of the wall watching us. I had the sense that we were somehow intruding on something that belonged to him. Intrigued by his presence, we spoke with him. He told us his name and he explained that he had been the caretaker of the site for many years. It was an extraordinary discovery. I had so many questions for him but I didn’t have a good enough interpreter with me to understand his answers fully. Remarkably, he explained that he still had the visitor’s book back at his house, just round the corner. We took his mobile number and arranged to meet him a few minutes later.
Although we had been at the site a while, people were beginning to ignore our presence and we felt no threat. I was fascinated by his story but we needed to go. The caretaker walked away and we returned to our vehicles to drive the short distance to where he lived. We did consider whether we were being set up but quickly discounted the notion. He was genuine, and I was fascinated by the prospect of seeing what he had.
After a few minutes, parked on the side of a busy road, though safely hidden behind dark tinted glass, I waited. He eventually came out of his house, carrying a large folder; we quickly invited him to sit in the car with us.
On the final page of the visitor’s book was a series of entries from the last recorded visit on 11th November 1990 by an international delegation, including representatives from both the British and German Embassies in Mogadishu. One comment stated; “Very nicely kept up.” It was like any other page in a visitor’s book; but it was also a vivid reminder of the turmoil that descended on Somalia shortly after their visit.
We thanked the caretaker and he slipped unnoticed out of the vehicle and back to the safety of his home. We said we would stay in touch. When I was back at the airport compound I asked a Somali colleague to call him with the list of questions that I had by then written down.
The caretaker explained that despite the break down in law and order over many years, the site was intact until 2007, when al Shabab first occupied the area. In response to this development he decided to make himself scarce and removed the book for safe-keeping. Before then the caretaker had taken photographs every year of the site.
Between 2007 and 2011 he did not return because to do so would have been tantamount to signing his own death warrant. He added that mortar rounds landed on the site at one point; from what I remembered of the lay out they probably hit the small caretaker’s hut because the roof had caved in completely, as well as damaging the nearby headstones.
The caretaker explained that al Shabab also physically kicked them over because they used the site as a base. I asked him via my colleague whether he was aware of any groups, such as internally displaced people, who had tried to occupy the site. He remembered that at various times three different clan-based militias had tried to use the site but he had moved them on.
Finally I asked him whether the local people knew what the site was and how they felt about it. He replied they knew it was a graveyard and they respected the dead.
As for the caretaker, it was clear that he had very strong feelings for those who were laid to rest there.
After leaving Somalia, I wrote to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission a year later to find out whether any work had begun. The reply was clear; conducting work in challenging security environments is always going to be difficult.
One day I hope the site is returned to its original condition. I suspect the cemetery would then be protected, not only by the caretaker, but also by those local Somali families, whose lives are so intimately connected with the cemetery next door.