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The Immersionism Issue

Hell On Earth

Simon Reeve is a real-deal immersionist. Back when the rest of the media was blowing our collective mind with hard-hitting coverage of the world wide web and blowjobs, Reeve was looking into why a bunch of Araby-types decided to park a bomb beneath
Κείμενο Eddy Moretti

This guy has probably been chewing qat in lieu of food for days, hence the grin. Photo from AP

Simon Reeve is a real-deal immersionist. Back when the rest of the media was blowing our collective mind with hard-hitting coverage of the world wide web and blowjobs, Reeve was looking into why a bunch of Araby-types decided to park a bomb beneath the World Trade Center, and—taking a giant leap here—if there was any chance they’d do something like that again. The book that came out of his work, The New Jackals, pretty much predicted 9/11 and most of the shit we’re in today, and sealed his rep as one of the world’s foremost authorities on terror at age twenty-five. We talked to him about his recent sojourn to possibly the most lawless and hellish place on earth.


Vice: So how did you end up in Somalia?
Simon Reeve: We went to Mogadishu at the end of last year for a series called Places That Don’t Exist because I wanted to make a television series about countries that aren’t really countries. There are nearly 200 members of the UN, countries that are recognized as being a proper state, but beyond that there are dozens of unrecognized countries, and they’re often the focus of war or civil conflict. So I set out to visit a group of these places, which took me to some of most obscure parts of the world. Obviously, after 9/11 there’re 10,000 writers and reporters and authors studying terrorism, so that’s a fairly well-covered beat. I wanted to cover other things, other areas of the world that people should be worrying about or taking interest in. The first place we set out for was Somaliland in the north of Africa, the north of which people usually think of as being Somalia. Somalia in the south has no government, no police force, no army, no social structure, and no real civil structure at all, and yet it’s recognized as an independent nation by the rest of the world. Somaliland in the north has an army, police force, and an elected president. It has traffic lights, a tourism minister, hotels, internet access, etc. But it’s not recognized as a nation or as a country by any other state on the planet.

That’s crazy.
People might remember Black Hawk Down, which depicted an incident when American troops were in Mogadishu trying to bring order to this completely fucked-up, completely conflict-ridden country. There was a bit of a battle that got out of hand and I think it was 18 American soldiers that were killed, and perhaps over 1,000 Somalis. As a result, the American troops pulled out of Somalia and the international community pulled out of the country, and the place has really been left to rot ever since. Mogadishu is probably the most dangerous city in the world. Very few Westerners go there. Obviously, we hear a lot about Iraq. But there are hundreds of thousands of foreign soldiers, private military contractors and aide workers there, and that’s why we hear about lots of deaths in Iraq. But in Mogadishu there are very few foreigners. When I was there, we were the only foreigners in the entire city—it’s a city of over a million people! To get in there you fly into one of several dusty airstrips outside Mogadishu that are all controlled by one warlord or another. Before you go in, you have to wire in money to Mogadishu so that the fixer you have on the ground, who is sort of your local protector and guide, can pay off the various warlords so they don’t shoot down your plane when you come in and allow you to travel across their land when you’re there. We flew in on a United Nations flight which basically dropped us off then took off quickly and flew out of there. Our guide was waiting for us with a dozen heavily armed gunmen who protected us while we were there, which was a fairly unnerving experience because they were out of their heads on drugs most of the time.


Jesus, what were they taking?
Well, one of the great problems in Somalia is that people chew this drug called “khat” or “qat,” depending on whom you’re listening to. You chew and you chew and you chew and you get a bit of a rush from it and it fights off hunger pains. But also, people just chew it for hours and hours and hours. So, part of the deal with having these gunmen is that, basically, you buy them drugs. They’re not using heroin or cocaine or anything—it’s a cheap drug, a poor man’s drug. But it does make it a bit difficult to trust your guards when their eyes are rolling slightly and they’re carrying a large, fully loaded machine gun. A couple of times I had to carry one guy’s AK-47 and another general purpose machine gun, like an M-60, which is fucking heavy. You also occasionally bump into other gunmen who are protecting local warlords and businessmen, and then it can get very tense because everybody cocks their guns and you walk past warily thinking, please don’t shoot, please don’t shoot.

Everybody there must be permanently in survival mode. Did you have any incidents while you were there or was it just like living in a constant sort of anxiety?
One time, we were driving in a quite dangerous part of Mogadishu and came up to what used to be a crossroads but was now a completely dilapidated dusty road. One of the main things they use for protection in Mogadishu is a technical, which is basically a pickup truck with a modified antiaircraft gun on the back of it, kind of the local equivalent of a tank. One was following us around for security. There was another group of armed gunmen coming from the left. Basically they were coming from one of the enemy warlords. So this only lasted five or six seconds, but honest to god it was terrifying. They swung their guns onto us, and this guy with us swung his antiaircraft gun on them. So then the other guy pulled back and got ready to fire. And I could quite clearly hear this while both sides were screaming abuse at each other. At that point I thought we were fucked. I thought that this little adventure in Mogadishu was about to end by both sides firing antiaircraft guns at each other’s bodies, but it only lasted a few seconds as both sides went past.

Christ. How do the people who can’t afford a truckload of gunmen manage to survive with all this going on around them? The quality of living must be in the negative hundreds.
People scratch by, really. On the ground, they live a fairly hand-to-mouth existence. There’s very little begging because there’s nobody to beg from. People live wherever they can. There’re people living in abandoned buildings. We went to the old zoo in Mogadishu and there’re people living in the old lion enclosure. Many parts of the city have been destroyed by several decades of fighting. At the moment, there’s not much fighting going on, largely because fighting a six-hour gun battle can cost a warlord $100,000 in ammunition. Chris Rock did this bit a while ago where he suggested selling each bullet for $1,000 would cut gun crime in the United States.

But has anyone outside Somalia noticed that the fighting’s cooled off? You were saying that there’s still no international effort to get them back to civilized.
Yeah, it’s basically been left to rot. There’re no traffic lights, there’s no garbage disposal, there’s nothing at all. They’re trying to set up a government at the moment, but they’re setting it up in Kenya, next door, because it’s actually too dangerous for them to go to Somalia. It’s a completely screwed-up, destroyed nation and the rest of the world is doing next to nothing to help. Total chicken-and-egg situation: It’s so dangerous because nobody will help them and nobody will help them because it’s so dangerous.

So, it’s pretty much just the warlords and their minions completely in charge of everything?
Actually, what’s happening now is that some Somali businessmen—they’re an enterprising lot—started up little private telecommunications companies. So although the landlines don’t work, there’s a cell phone network there that’s funded privately. The great hope for Mogadishu is a Coca-Cola bottling facility, which a group of businessmen have established. Right now they’ve got warlords putting money into it, so by getting warlords to put money into it, nobody has any incentive to keep it going. That was sort of a gleaming oasis in Mogadishu. There were people wearing white coats in this Coke facility and it was guarded by dozens of armed guards. Then outside you have the absolute chaos of the rest of Mogadishu. Somebody dies in the street there, there’s no health service to come and pick them up. There’s no rubbish collection. It’s one of the dirtiest places I’ve ever been. I’ve never seen so many plastic bags just destroying the landscape. As I said, there are a few hopeful signs, but the fact is that it has been abandoned by the rest of the world and there is a growing amount of support for groups that are connected to Al Qaeda and support Osama bin Laden.