AMID rockets’ bright glare,
shells bursting in air, we knew from our screens that Rageh Omaar, the
BBC’s Baghdad man was still there, unruffled by the fog and explosive
impact of war.
While I believe war reporting lost an authoritative voice when Kate
Adie, that booming Boadi-cea of the BBC’s battlefront reporting, was
dropped in favour of, she claimed, younger and sexier front-line
correspondents, I welcome a new, youthful-looking, impeccably-accented
and incisively-delivering reporter to the front-line, mass-information
That he is Somali-born did not surprise me, a sun-dried, fly-stung,
camel-bitten veteran of Somaliland’s deserts, because he seemed an older
version of Yusev, a Somali lad, aged about six summers, who was
gainfully employed as a punkah boy at British Army HQ, Hargeisa, when I
was there in 1945-46, and resembled a cherub blowing wind in an old map.
Punkahs are fans, sometimes made of leaves. The military version was a
large blanket fixed to a ceiling and swung by a cord attached to it and
Yusev’s big toe. Thus, he sat, dreamily, on a chair and, when inclined,
briskly agitated the oven-hot atmosphere while we administrators
performed vital tasks of filling forms for issues of moustache cups
(officers only), trouser-pressers (field service) and native
Yusev, an early-starting entre-preneur, was a bright lad, probably born
to bloom unseen in a desiccated, bitter, sunblasted wilderness, with
some fertile areas, which by a cruel twist of fate, contains some of the
acutest minds in Africa.
The tragic paradox of Somali-land was emphasised for me during one of my
imperial tasks - overseeing the unloading of dhows at the port of
Berbera. These were scenes of high action, suggestive of Sindbad the
sailor and Ali Baba and the 40 thieves of Baghdad; the sleek craft from
Zanzibar, Aden and Mombasa, pitching and rolling in the bay, their
fluttering lat-een sails, heraldic in the sun, and, on shore, stevedores
chorusing work songs of a presumably respectable nature, and my Somali
clerks counting stacked goods with lightning accuracy that left my mind
I also had dealings, through interpreters, with merchants and tribal
chiefs, and found minds among them so sharp they could have settled on a
razor and found spare room. All this mental acuity existed in a land of
sand and rocks for vast distances, snakes and scorpions, bitter water at
scarce waterholes, blood feuds, killings, ingenious intrigues and female
Then, the Army regarded the area as one vast, insane asylum. It was a
land of Somali-brandished daggers, spears and ex-Italian army rifles,
fierce eyes under mops of black, crinkly hair, crazed, recalcitrant
camels, endless and near-insane, tribal litigation, often over disputed,
half-dry water holes and the occasional British officer or ranker, in
lonely outposts, succumbing to sun and sand madness and ending it all in
drink or a well-aimed bullet.
Oddly enough, I liked Somali-land for its great desert silences, the
sense of being in a mighty continent and suddenly, irrationally,
enjoying the isolation from the pressures of Western civilisation. I
admired the unflinching independence of the Somalis, among the proudest,
friendliest, vainest, and, I have no doubt, most contentious races in
Alas, they still live in turbulence. Somalia, a 1960 union of British
and Italian Somaliland, was racked by clan-based civil war in the 1980s.
In 1991, the dictator, Siad Barre, fled the country and the former
British area declared its independence. In 1995, a US-led, United
Nations peace-keeping deployment, designed to alleviate famine, withdrew
after two years of suffering unfriendly and lethal fire.
Even with the so-called Transitional National Government, Somalis still
fight among themselves, especially warlords and factions who dispute
control of Mogadishu, Rageh’s birthplace and former prosperous Italian
colonial capital, which a 1930s writer described as "sane and orderly",
and is now described largely as a shanty-town.
If Somalis ever unshackle themselves from tribal and factional feuding
and unite as a nation, they could surprise the world by creating, with
their keen minds and high, nervous energy, an exemplary prosperous and -
miracles could happen - stable society.
Meanwhile, Rageh, on leave in his Johannesburg home, is well out of
Somalia’s murderous maelstrom. His Iraq work has fanned an impressive
new breeze in war reporting - an outstanding punkah-puller of the media.