Losing glasses brings Somalia war zone into focus
- 28 December 2013
- From the section Magazine
A different side to Somalia is discovered - one of mango plantations and bustling markets, as well as a country devastated by two decades of conflict - after losing a pair of spectacles.
This is the story about how I mislaid my spectacles on a battlefield in central Somalia.
But it's also about how I learnt something new to me - that many parts of Somalia are very beautiful.
There are green fertile plains and there are soaring mountains.
I got to see these parts of Somalia - and yes, I can see without my reading glasses - through the bullet-proof windows of an armoured personnel carrier.
My journey there was under the protection of African Union troops who are fighting a full-scale war against highly motivated, radical Islamists of the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabab army.
I call them an army because I think the usual description of them as "insurgents" or "guerrillas" is inadequate.
Al-Shabab - which means, roughly, "The Youth" - controls more territory than any other al-Qaeda-linked group anywhere in the world.
It sometimes acts like an army, using defensive World War One-style trenches, for example.
It has tactics, it has mortars - this is no ragtag movement.
I know because, in the two weeks I spent with them, the African Union soldiers were attacked every single day by al-Shabab - who use roadside bombs, snipers, or co-ordinated military advances.
One morning, for example, I saw the immediate aftermath of an attack on an African Union base.
I touched the flattened grass and carefully spaced out the firing positions the al-Shabab men had crouched down in just hours earlier.
I bent down to the ground to count the empty bullet cartridges that had spewed out of their rifles - they were shiny and brand new.
This is a war that involves over 17,000 African Union troops, including armoured battalions with enormous Soviet-era T55 tanks, marines off the coast and drones in the sky.
The soldiers, from countries like Uganda and Sierra Leone, are dug in behind earthwork ramparts in strings of fortified outposts.
The foreign soldiers are there because the government and army of Somalia are too weak, on their own, to face al-Shabab. That's the war.
But did you know that there are also orange groves in Somalia? That there are mango plantations, rivers, well-watered fields and bustling markets.
I didn't - not really, because I've never seen these things before - with, or without, my glasses.
Journalists are not usually lucky enough, as I was, to spend two whole weeks driving around Somalia.
But on this trip, I travelled for hundreds of miles through south and central Somalia and saw some of the real life in between the fighting. I saw farms, rivers and canals - I saw vast herds of camels and goats. There are forests, fruit trees and quarries.
This war is partly about Islamist ideology, but it is also about winning control of these very real assets and sometimes very beautiful, fertile countryside.
But back to my glasses. I mentioned that I'd lost them to an officer from the Ugandan army who was accompanying me - more to make conversation, really, than out of any hope of finding them.
But the officer started making calls to his colleagues on his mobile, tracing our route back down the road.
I must admit I thought all that was just for show. But a few days later, to my absolute astonishment, this officer said he had located my glasses... on the battlefield where I had leant down to count the al-Shabab bullets.
My glasses then made a circuitous journey home. They travelled first in an armoured personnel carrier heading for the Ugandan military headquarters in the Somali capital Mogadishu.
They were not broken even when this vehicle was hit by another roadside bomb.
Then they were taken in another armoured car from the Ugandan military base to the Somali president's office, where a friend of mine works. He happened to be due to travel to the UK.
There was then a quick hop from Mogadishu to Nairobi, a rather longer flight to London, and my glasses were finally returned to me. My friend handed them over, here, at BBC Broadcasting House. They were slightly bent, but nothing a little twisting couldn't resolve.
My journey with the African Union forces has put a number of things in to sharper focus.
The first is that this is a terrible, widespread war. But Somalia is not just a war zone parts of it are very, very beautiful.
And finally, if you ever lose your glasses on a battlefield, all I can say is never lose sight of hope.
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