Faces of UNICEF - Working in Mogadishu
The wonders of Discipline: championing child survival in Somalia
By Julia Spry-Leverton
Mogadishu, November 2004 - The small Beechcraft plane takes off from the airstrip outside Mogadishu in a swirl of red dust. Inside are UNICEF staff from Nairobi flying on to other locations in Somalia after a brief stopover. Ahmed Moallim Mohammed, a slight figure, waves farewell from the runway. He is staying put.
Moallim, 53, is head of the UNICEF office in Mogadishu, a city in central Somalia where the security risks are so great these days that visits by support staff are rare.
Moallim, known to his colleagues as ‘Discipline’, is in charge of a hard-working team of six Somali nationals. Expatriate members of UNICEF had to leave Mogadishu in 1994 when violence from an ongoing civil war made it too dangerous for them to remain. It is around this time when Discipline’s career with UNICEF began.
Driving into the once-beautiful, but now-shattered city, with its beachfront setting on the Indian Ocean, Discipline heads for the old villa which has served as UNICEF’s office since 1993. In the garden is a warehouse packed with vaccination and education supplies. For the past few years the compound has also been his home, for security reasons.
As Liaison Officer, he’s responsible for management and planning in Mogadishu, acts as a link with local authorities and oversees a diverse range of projects.
Discipline was trained as a male nurse, health educator and manager in Somalia, India and Yugoslavia respectively and has a professional’s insight into the workings of hospitals. He’s also put in time with the civil service, as a manager at the Ministry of Health in the 1980s. It was there that his nickname took hold. “I was secretary to the Ministry’s Disciplinary Committee and often sat in on the cases being decided,” he says. “As a result, people came to associate me with discipline!” He also became noted for his impartiality. “Later on I realized people trusted me to give them a fair hearing.”
His life, like most everyone’s in Somalia, turned upside down when the civil war reached its peak in 1991 and the Somali Government in Mogadishu collapsed. Discipline immediately offered his help to local organizations who were struggling to provide health care and other basic services to civilians. A severe drought compounded problems, creating desperate food shortages which had particularly nasty health consequences for Somali children, not in the best shape to begin with. Discipline went to work for Swede Relief, an organization supported by UNICEF which ran 40 feeding centres in the city – a vital lifeline for families on the verge of famine. In 1994, he joined UNICEF.
After Somalia’s independence in 1960, the country enjoyed a period of relative stability, but this was shattered by the coup d’état which brought General Mohamed Siad Barre to power in 1969. Civil war developed throughout the 1980s in a large part of Somalia. In December 1990, the focus shifted to Mogadishu, where Siad Barre’s regime had been weakened by economic disintegration, guerilla warfare in the north and central regions and inter-clan fighting in the south. The Government was overthrown in Mogadishu in February 1991 by the forces of General Mohamed Farrah Aidid, who then turned his attention to fighting a rival sub-clan for control of the city. This unleashed further violence, forcing hundreds of thousands of unarmed civilians to seek refuge in displaced peoples’ camps.
Afterwards, he was sent to the UNICEF office in Baidoa (South Central Somalia) which was later hurriedly evacuated after the city fell to the forces of the late Mohamed Farrah Aidid.
By the time a UN-negotiated ceasefire came into effect in mid-1992 and peacekeepers arrived to stem the chaos and help distribute humanitarian aid, Somalia was in the grip of a full-scale famine. An estimated 2 million people were at risk of death. However, even with the blue beret presence, security did not improve. Houses were routinely looted and destroyed and kidnappings increased, obliging UNICEF to close the Mogadishu office as the main operational hub for Somalia. That function was taken over by a support centre located in Nairobi, where the internationals who deal with Somalia are based.
The only way UNICEF and its partners could bring in emergency aid during the famine was by plane. In one four-month period of early 1992, for example, UNICEF airlifted over 1,000 metric tonnes of emergency supplies into Somalia. Flights operated by the United Nations Common Air Services (UNCAS) were, and continue to be, the only safe way to transport UN staff to towns and regions throughout Somalia, a country with no functioning government where inter-clan fighting is quick to flare up. The famine crisis had tailed off by early 1993 and UNICEF’s focus has since been on rehabilitation.
In the days before e-mail and mobile phones, keeping up communication to ensure continued supplies of vaccines and other stocks in Mogadishu was a huge challenge, and one that fell in Discipline’s lap. He brought skilled leadership to the job. “Any organization with loyal, dedicated and united staff can work in Mogadishu,” he says modestly on the subject.
In 1999, the Mogadishu office was restructured and the workforce drastically cut, from 26 to 3. But UNICEF still had to provide the same level of support to the few grass-roots partners who were able to run health care services for women and children. “This was one of the major challenges of my career,” says Discipline. “We had no alternative but to rise to the occasion.” There was a lot of mutual hand-holding, a great team spirit and many 24-hour working days. “After a time, it became clear that the community appreciated our efforts. And success brings satisfaction,” he says.
Discipline hasn’t been able to escape Mogadishu’s persistent unruliness unscathed. One morning in February 2002 as he was going to work, he was grabbed and pulled into a car. He was released after five days, stressed and exhausted, but without significant harm. “It was five days, but it felt like five years,” he says of the terrible ordeal, without providing further details. Today, recalling the part of the city where he was taken hostage, he is able – remarkably – to speak about it with optimism, referring to it as a place which has undergone change and is much less violent.
Despite the dangers and the drama, he remains loyal to and affectionate about his city. “Mogadishu is in a state of convalescence,” he says. “It is like someone recovering from an illness. Small things happening can be looked at positively, such as people now being more aware of the need to reach out to each other.” There is also much less tolerance for wrong-doers and antisocial elements. “While previously the perpetrators of such acts could shelter under the 'umbrella' of the clan, the trend is moving away from such protection,” he says.
But his confidence has limits. He still doesn’t dare to keep his family with him in the city. Lengthy separations from loved ones are just another of the hardships of his job in a context which is still anything but normal. His six-month-old baby, Faduma Ahmed Moallim, is his pride and joy. She is with his wife, Raqia Yusuf Salah, who lives with her parents in a Somali city some 400 kilometres away. Discipline gets to see his family only rarely, during official missions to the region or when he’s on leave and can afford the US$500 return airfare. Armed militia roadblocks rule out a journey by road, and anyway it takes at least two days to reach there by private car, or nearly a week by public transport. The UNCAS flight takes just an hour, but it consumes half of Discipline’s monthly salary.
His own parents have passed away, though eight of his nine siblings (seven brothers and two sisters) are alive. Four brothers and a sister live in Merka town on the coast and two of his siblings live in Mogadishu itself.
Discipline would love to see lasting peace and a unified government established in Somalia. But his biggest immediate desire is to spend more time with his daughter.
*Julia Spry-Leverton, the writer, was until mid-2004 Communication Officer, UNICEF Somalia. She is currently Communication Officer, UNICEF Pakistan. This article first appeared in August 2004 in a CD-Rom produced by UNICEF entitled: Faces of UNICEF.
The CD-Rom has stories based on the work and life of select UNICEF staff from different countries. It can be obtained by contacting Tani Ruiz based in the Geneva Regional Office of UNICEF, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Are you interested in supporting UNICEF's work in Somalia? If so, get in touch with the UNICEF National Committee nearest to you.
Despite the challenges of implementing activities in Somalia being complicated and the long-running conflict having destroyed infrastructure and made access to even the most basic services a luxury, UNICEF through staff like Discipline is working to help rebuild the local capacity to provide these services. Below is just a breakdown of what your money can do to get some items on the Immunization Shopping List to Somalia (prices include air transport to end-user):
US$0.20 provides 1 BCG syringe.
Thank you for your interest in UNICEF.