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Discovering the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Mogadishu

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In 2010 Mogadishu was at war with itself.

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.

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African Union Casspir armoured vehicles; normally the transport of choice in Mogadishu.

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.

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Driving incognito through the streets of Mogadishu.

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.

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Locals resting in the heat of the day next to the cemetery as a member of my security team walks past.

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.

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The entrance sign almost hidden from view.

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The only gravestone still standing.

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.

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The cemetery was in a poor state of repair.

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.

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The cemetery was heavily overgrown with broken headstones scattered about.

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.

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The visitor’s book was still in good condition.

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.

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The final entry in the visitor’s book.

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.

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My book on Kosovo is finished.

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The first draft of the manuscript.

I started writing the manuscript in 2015 during a retreat in Portugal. I have dedicated the last 6 months to writing the remainder of the story, clocking up 96,000 words in the process. I have visited Portugal again this year and spent time on the coast in Norfolk where I have managed to finish the project.

The book describes events in Kosovo over the Winter of 2008/09, a period of profound change for Kosovo’s fledgling security sector, detailing my journey through a tempestuous 6 months, acting as NATO’s Liaison Officer embedded with the leadership of the Kosovo Protection Corps (KPC) and latterly the Kosovo Security Force (KSF).

Talking with Lieutenant General Selimi and Major General Rama of the Kosovo Protection Corps before a visit by the KFOR Commander, Lieutenant General Emilio Gay (IT), in September 2008. With Simi, my interpreter, ever present throughout my tour.

Inept leadership and unnecessary political interference conspired to undermine the birth of the Balkans’ newest security force in newly independent Kosovo; a country today still only officially recognised by less than 60% of UN member states.

In spite of being under the ‘supervision’ of NATO, Kosovo’s most revered security organisation – the KPC – risked losing its standing and its legitimacy within its own society. A lack of cultural understanding and stifling political correctness led to one unnecessary crisis after another. National agendas adversely influenced decision making at the expense of people’s lives.

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The KPC’s final parade with the President of Kosovo. Pristina, 19th January 2009

Immersed in Kosovan culture and operating in an unpredictable security environment, the book is a personal account from the heart of the transition. It details how I embarked on a journey that crossed lines and took risks which ultimately led me to the heart of the country’s political elite 9 years ago.

In April 2018 I returned to Kosovo for the first time since leaving in February 2009. I saw people again who I worked closely with and who had become friends. I also had a private meeting with the current Prime Minister whom I had got to know during my tour of duty. He thanked me for writing the book; for leaving a legacy for the people of Kosovo.

Meeting Ramush Haradinaj, Kosovo’s Prime Minister.

The manuscript is now at the editing stage and I’m looking for an agent/publisher.

If you would like to know any more, please contact me.

The story behind: Kismayo is liberated – 2nd November 2012

It was a bit of a scramble to get a seat. I was the civilian Chief of Staff of the UN-contracted Information Support Team, based in Mogadishu International Airport (MIA).

During my rounds of UN offices in the camp, I heard that a UN flight was going south to Kismayo International Airport the following morning, a matter of weeks after the town had finally been liberated by the Kenyan military from the clutches of al Shabab, Somalia’s al Qaeda aligned Islamic terrorist group.

On a personal level, I was keen to see Kismayo, a mythical place that I had studied from afar whilst working in the UK military and which had been Shabab’s last bastion in southern Somalia. I spoke to the senior UN logistics man in his air conditioned office in MIA; ‘I have to go so that I can cover the story for AMISOM.’

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Mogadishu International Airport – the MIA – the secure zone for UN and other international organisations including the headquarters of AMISOM.

AMISOM – the African Union Mission in Somalia – was in need of as much positive news as we could muster. It was fairly self evident that the potential to bring this story to life through my pictures and words would be beneficial for AMISOM and the UN. And since I was working on a UN contract; the signs were good. He agreed with my logic and I was put down on the official document – the MOP – which contained a list of 12 names. With me were two other members of my team; both Somali journalists.

The flight left early the next day full of UN logistics experts, my team and the Deputy Commander of AMISOM. We were joining the Somali Defence Minister and the head of the Somali National Army in Kismayo, who were flying separately.

There were plans for a high level meeting between senior representatives of AMISOM, the Kenyan military, the head of the local Somali clan and Somali political and military leaders.

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Kenyan troops greet the delegation.

The tantalising prospect for me was the potential visit to Kismayo’s port, which had been under the control of al Shabab for over 8 years and had been the entry and exit point for the illegal trade in charcoal and all manner of other illicit trafficking. I was the only person on the flight with a camera; my brief was to record the events.

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I found a donkey wandering around the airport quite happily.

We arrived in the searing heat of southern Somalia, the international airport barely living up to its name with wildlife walking freely on the tarmac.

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High level discussion under canvas.

Once we were on the ground my military instinct to talk to the troops took over and I was able to establish a rapport with many of the members of the three different uniformed organisations present; the Ras Kamboni militia, the Kenyan Army and Somali National Army troops.

This enabled me to take photographs with more acceptance.

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Somali troops from the local militia listen in.

After the conclusion of the talks and a light lunch we mounted up into armoured vehicles and, in a long convoy, drove the 25 minutes into the town of Kismayo and on towards the port. Snaking along the only road to the airport, knowing how proficient al Shabab were with roadside bombs, was a concern, but we were spared any drama during our journey.

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Somali businessmen have their say in the full glare of the Somali media.

At the port there was one more set-piece meeting, between the senior Government and military figures and a group of Kismayo businessmen who were very unhappy about the charcoal ban that had been imposed on Somalia through the UN Security Council.

Denying al Shabab the income from the charcoal trade served two purposes; to limit the organisation’s funding and to protect the environment in Somalia. The ban was difficult to enforce, with ports in the Middle East encouraged to turn ships away. But in reality the charcoal was moving through Kismayo and other ports in southern Somalia onwards to destinations in the Middle East and there was little the ‘West’ could do about it. I had even been privy to conversations about possibly blockading Kismayo, but these fanciful notions were soon discarded.

In that port side hanger, it was the first opportunity that these businessmen had been given to air their grievances on the issue; sitting at the comfort of my desk in the MOD in London I had supported this initiative to deny al Shabab a source of income without understanding any of the local concerns associated with the decision.

It proved to be a perfect example of seeing an issue from a very different perspective.

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Kenyan troops, Somali National Army and local militia patrol the port. 

Once we had conducted a walking tour of the port I grabbed a lift with a Kenyan armoured vehicle, this time travelling in the hatch at the front which gave me a great view of the journey back to the airport. We passed through rudimentary security check points and I saw the town of Kismayo, it’s wide unpaved roads hazy with dust and small groups of locals going about their business, no doubt relieved that the extremists had been ejected from their town.

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Driving through the charcoal ‘mountain’.

We returned through huge stockpiles of charcoal lining the road as we headed back to the airport. No wonder the businessmen were unhappy.

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A successful day’s meetings.

At the airport there was time for one final group photo accompanied by plenty of promises of closer cooperation.

After a few short hours in Kismayo, a place I never thought I would ever visit, I was back in the aircraft with my team. With no sign of the donkey to hold us up we were soon taking off, leaving behind the Kenyan liberators of Kismayo, their problems only just beginning within the complex clan based society of the Jubaland region of southern Somalia.

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Security is tight at the airport.

All images ©️Ade Clewlow

Remembrance Day: a short story.

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My medals ready to be sent back through the post.

I recently did something that I had been meaning to do for 6 years; to have the last medal I was awarded during my service added to my existing medals.

I felt a moment of nervousness when I handed over the package containing my medals in the local Post Office to be sent off to the specialist company in Bournemouth. They can be replaced but there is a lot of emotional attachment with medals that have been earned during military service. I hoped that by sending them via Special Delivery I would all but guarantee their safe arrival the following Monday morning.

On the Monday afternoon I received a call from the company to tell me they were ready to send back. That was a fast turn around. I asked the gentleman to hold the package because I was going to be in the area for a few days and I would call in to collect them in person.

And that is what I did today.

To say that stepping into the Mess Dress Ltd premises was nostalgic would be an understatement. It was an extraordinary little place. On every wall there were reels of medal ribbons, replacement medals and bars for every campaign since the Second World War and Regimental ties of all persuasions.

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Every wall was full of boxes containing badges, rank slides and other military paraphernalia.

Inside I met Alex, the proprietor who has been running this business for 15 years and proudly claimed to be the largest supplier of military medals in the country. I can see why. A lady was at her desk, sitting amongst discarded ribbon and threads, carefully sowing a set of miniatures together.

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A lady takes great care with each set of medals she works on.

The shop extended away along a corridor to the rear of the converted house, the walls lined with everything you need to look your best on parade. While I was inside another young man knocked on the door and entered Alex’s medal mounting headquarters;

“What do I have for you?” said Alex.

“Could I have a crown for staff sergeant please?” came the reply.

“Which Regiment?”

“Royal Artillery.”

A simple exchange but one so full of meaning for the newly promoted Staff Sergeant.

And then I left, I shook Alex’s hand, said goodbye to the lady working so diligently on other people’s most treasured possessions, and took my box of medals with me, no longer needing to feel anxious about their return journey by Royal Mail.

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It’s the 100th Anniversary of the Armistice this year. When you watch those current and former members of the Armed Forces march on parade, wherever you are in the world, think of the care and effort that has gone into making them look their best to honour the fallen.

Writing again…

In 2009 I returned to the UK after a notably intense operational tour of duty in Kosovo. Even though bullets were not flying past my ears, the 6 months I spent there made a lasting impression on me. Even two weeks into my time based in Pristina, I knew there was a book waiting to be written about the events I experienced that Autumn and Winter.

I was able to see a side to Kosovan life that few in uniform experienced.

Fast forward to 2015 and I realised that I needed to put pen to paper. After reading through lots of notes made in the weeks immediately after my return to the UK in February 2009, I started writing, cross referencing events and conversations with my diaries and notebooks which extensively covered my tour. I had written frequently and in detail.

Sitting in a small house in northern Portugal; where I first started writing this book.

Bringing these notes and my strong memories together into a memoir has taken a number of years to complete. And now I am on the final straight. I have been working on the book for the last 7 months, on and off. I am now finishing the final couple of chapters on the coast. Every time I have invested time in this project I have had to be by the sea. There is something reassuring about the motion and predictability of the tides and the waves. They are a powerful combination when you are looking for inspiration. This final retreat is no different.

The Norfolk coast is my destination of choice to write the final chapters.

It’s not easy for me writing something about a specific time in the past. I have to immerse myself fully in the events from ten years ago. Every day when I get started, I take myself back to a familiar place, interacting with people who have become great friends, as well as reliving exchanges with people I would rather not see again. Essentially, I am living in Kosovo once more, remembering the meetings, the conversations and the journeys into the unknown.

This time it has been especially hard to get back into that place, but I have arrived after 4 days of prevarication and dodging the real purpose of being here; the need to finish my book. I am a master of finding reasons to get distracted: going for long walks; drinking coffee in town; helping old ladies cross the road; these are all necessary preliminary activities on my journey to the act of writing. It’s takes a while for the creativity to come to the surface. It can be frustrating, but once I am there, it feels the most natural thing in the world.

And I am now where I need to be.

Resolutions…

Well there is one thing that I can definitely confirm as a resolution; to make 2018 better than 2017. It will not be hard to achieve that.

2017 was the worst year in living memory, for many reasons. But that’s another blog post for another time…

So what do I want to achieve this year? Please note the lateness in January for this post… I am working on the theory that by waiting a couple of weeks before committing to a resolution, there may be less chance that it will fall by the wayside along with the empty ‘get fit’ promises. To be fair I am already fit, I am at a great weight and I am pushing 80-90 thousand steps every week. So that’s not the issue.

So what is the issue? Well, I have something of a change of lifestyle – enforced – to plan for, and I have an unexpected house purchase to consider.

And I have my book to finish.

Leaving aside the first two challenges; again, they are for another time. It’s the third one that I am really keen to complete, and to complete it with enough time for some sort of publishing solution to be put in place. Two years ago I started investigating the various options for publication. I now know why people spend months if not years trying to get their work published (and failing); as well as a well written and unique story, I need an agent, but not just any agent, I need the right agent.

A couple of years ago I attended a book launch related to Kosovo and the wider Balkans region. At Daunt Books in Marylebone, I met someone who suggested he could get my book published in Albania. I guess that’s better than nothing! In fact I would be happy to see it published in Albanian because the story is all about how NATO tried to stitch up the Kosovo Albanians during the most significant change to their security status in the county’s recent past (that’s the teaser)…

So my resolution is to complete the book, whatever it takes, and if I can find an agent – the right agent – to publish it before my self imposed deadline of January 2019, all the better.

Maybe I will return to Moledo, my favourite coastal village in northern Portugal, where I spent ten happy days writing my manuscript in 2015.

Holiday Thoughts: Barcelona


Like most people across our planet, I was again saddened by the senseless killing and maiming of so many people in what is a beautiful city. Like many, I have visited and enjoyed Barcelona. Like many I have wandered aimlessly around the streets without thinking I was in danger. I tweeted this picture yesterday; I am also aware of how futile a gesture it was but I had to express my support for a fine European city.

So do we need to change our behaviour in the light of terrorists attacking ‘soft’ targets? 

In the military we were always on the look out for people acting suspiciously, especially during the IRA’s reign of terror in Northern Ireland, Germany and mainland UK. It was called Sharkwatch and tended to be used when socialising. 

Is it time to introduce something similar into our lives?  Should we now routinely expect a member of tourist groups in the UK or abroad – whether family or friends – to be alert to things out of the ordinary? Can we expect people without any relevant training to even think about their safety when out and about in a place they should be able to relax in? Are we subconsciously doing it already? Probably not, but it’s worth conserving all the same. 

It’s a hangover from my military career, but I am constantly profiling people when I am in unfamiliar environments. It pays to be prepared. I guess we call it people watching. It’s what so many of us like to do. Instead we need to do it within the context of the current terror threat. There will be more attacks. We have to accept that we could be caught up in something, but the statistics don’t lie; the chances of being involved in a terrorist incident are very low. 

So caution is the watchword. Balanced with our right to relax and enjoy ourselves. Coupled with a faith in authorities that they have done everything they can to minimise the opportunities for terrorists to strike. There’s a lot to think about this summer.

Ok, back to the book…