I’ve been contained again. But, no, this photograph isn’t of a prison. Far from it. Secure it is, yes – but it is an avenue of containers in the SKA compound within the Mogadishu International Airport. And I have just had my most comfortable ever stay in that once beautiful but now much bruised city.
I was there to facilitate a workshop for a UN agency implementing projects in Somalia. Since their staff are not allowed these days to go into the city, we had to do our work and be accommodated in the airport. I didn’t complain.
SKA’s slogan is ‘Doing difficult jobs in difficult places.’ With a headquarters in Dubai, it operates in seven countries, including ‘difficult’ ones such as Afghanistan, and Iraq, as well as Somalia.
SKA’s website tells as that it was the first foreign contractor to invest in Mogadishu’s airport following years of civil war and internal conflict. It was contracted by the then Transitional Federal Government to manage operations at the airport for a period of 10 years.
It was the first company to construct a secure life support facility for its own use at a time when the security environment was much more volatile and dangerous than it is right now. Since then it has also invested heavily in what it calls ‘enabling services’ (accommodation and conference facilities) for third-party visitors such as the US State Department, UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, various UN departments, aid and humanitarian agencies – and wandering consultants like me.
This was the second time in the last few months that I have been staying in a container. First, it was in Juba last November. I felt less safe there than in Mogadishu. In Mogadishu I am in the hands of agencies that have robust security systems, whether it is a matter of bullet-proof vehicles, armed escorts, or blast-proof walls; in Juba, though there were killings on the streets within and along the roads out, security systems hadn’t been worked out.
Once inside the SKA gate I felt safe – pampered, even. The ‘VIP’ container I was taken to was neat and smart. It had air conditioning (quite desirable even if not necessary with temperatures above 30 degrees) a shower, toilet and wash basin; a wardrobe, fridge, work space, DSTV and, of course, w-fi. So I was contained, a bit cramped, but contented.
Flora, the Ugandan receptionist, showed us round: showed us the canteen and the gym. I later recognised that these two places needed to be closely connected. There is even a small but well stocked supermarket, with such necessary things as toothbrushes, soap, AA batteries – and desirable things like chocolates, biscuits and cold drinks. She also pointed out the blast-proof bunkers – a reminder of where we were.
Soon it was time for dinner. We went along to the canteen. The food was amazing, really amazing. First, there was such a wide variety: meats and fish; potatoes, spaghetti, rice, chapattis; vegetables fried, boiled or fresh; fruits and sponge cakes; juices, coffee and tea. And the men there – there was only one woman that evening – I have never seen such a collection of thick necks and round bellies. I can see why the place needs a gym. But I reckon not many of the inmates were making productive use of it.
I guess if you are doing such difficult jobs in difficult places you need perks like good food to keep you going – or, as in this case, staying. My colleague and I were there for only two nights, and I began to wonder what it must be like to be cooped up in that compound for months on end. Because the only way, for an expat, you could go out of the compound and the airport would be in a vehicle with an armed escort.
Later, I asked Flora how long she had been working at SKA. She told us it had been five months.
‘And, in all that time, I have never been through the SKA gate,’ she said.
I asked her when she would get home leave.
‘I have only seven more months to wait,’ she said, with a soft chuckle.
When we ourselves left after the second night and after the inevitable and very edible breakfast, I wasn’t at all desperate to get away. SKA in Mogadishu is a very welcoming, efficient and comfortable place. I will choose to stay there again.
But I wasn’t so enamoured of the airport this time. When the two of us got through to the spot where the dogs sniff the bags, I noticed it was no longer in an open space. The dogs were in their pens. An airport policeman kept harassing us.
‘Give ten dollars,’ he was saying. ‘Ten dollars and there will be no problem.’
‘We have no problem,’ I said. ‘Just let the dogs out.’
The dogs did their sniffing and we quickly moved on.