For the last twenty years, UN security officer Rolf Helmrich has conducted operations in Somalia, one of the most dangerous countries in the world. In 2004, a rogue Somali militia group kidnapped him. When he was released, it became apparent that his kidnappers had developed Stockholm syndrome by proxy, fallen for Rolf, and even asked him to be their leader. Essentially, he’s a tough, tough guy and an old school gentleman. I talked to Rolf about the problems facing Somalia as well as his time as a hostage in the South Somali desert.
VICE: Hello Rolf. Can you briefly explain what it is you do?
Rolf: I am a consultant for the UN on security issues. I train their staff and go on operations, primarily in East Africa. I have operated all over Somalia. How did you get into this kind of work?
I was in the West German air force for 37 years. I joined in 1963. It was all Cold War related. Our job was to stop people from coming into our country and to stop our organisations being infiltrated by the other side. It was quite schizophrenic. If you are a carpenter, you make something and you are proud with the work and you can see it in front of you. I could never see the work I’d done - that was the whole point. I think I got into the military because I wanted to stop the kind of work the East Germans were doing. I wanted to fight against it.
Where do you live now and how did you end up in Africa?
I live in Kenya and have done for the last 16 years. I was a liaison officer in Somalia in 1993. The Civil War had begun. There were lots of casualties. There was a severe drought there and it caught the attention of the UN, who sent a peacemaking force to Somalia in order to aid humanitarian organisations and to create and maintain peace. And it didn’t work…
No, it didn’t. There has been no real government since then. There have been fourteen or fifteen attempts to form a government but no real success. Can you tell me about the Somali clan system? It sounds like a slice of medieval Scotland.
In Somalia, “blood revenge” is still adhered to. If someone in your clan is killed, that person must be avenged. If your clan member was a man, 100 camels will suffice for blood money. If it was a woman, 50 camels will do. If this is not paid, revenge is enacted. This is never-ending. A friend told me about a Somali guy who returned home after living in Sweden for 21 years. Two guys from another family saw him and said: “Hey, didn’t someone from his family kill one of us?” They found out that this was true and so they killed the man who had returned from Sweden. Not a great homecoming. Why are people killed in the first place?
Livestock, water, it could be anything. A life is nothing.
As an outsider, how do you deal with that?
I like Somalis and I talked to my Somali partners in the UNDP a great deal. It helped me get an insight into the structure of the clans. I never acted like I knew it all. Often people come in from the outside and they think they don’t need lessons. The Somalis don’t think of themselves as Africans. They see themselves as being from the Arabian Peninsula. They have a bit of a superiority complex! Which I guess a lot of us have.
Ha, yes. I did a lot of work with Pashtuns in Afghanistan and there was a similar mentality. There is a Pashtun story about a man who sees a donkey on his land, cuts off the ear of the animal and sends it back to its owner. The owner comes back and shoots him. Lulz. You were kidnapped in 2004. What happened?
I flew into Somalia from Nairobi. Kismayo airport was closed so I had to fly into Jammame, which is a small airstrip. I had left my Somali colleagues with our duty vehicle and we set off to travel back to Kismayo. It was Thursday, the 29th of January, 2004, and it was about 8.45AM. We stopped at a bridge before a village and when we crossed over and got to the next bridge we were met by a militia. This militia had a little checkpoint where they were extorting money from public service and business vehicles.
So they were extorting money from other vehicles and then you came along flying the UN flag… Did they try and get money from you or did they take you away immediately?
Initially they tried to get money from us but since I was trying to help the people in the area they changed their tactics. My five Somali colleagues had to leave the vehicle. They were told to find their way back to Kismayo, which they did. There were fifteen militiamen. They had AK-47s, two RPGs and grenades for the RPGs. They squeezed into the vehicle and drove me a long way out into the bush: dry, desert scrub. How long were you there?
I was out in the bush with my kidnappers for ten days. We moved around a lot at night. They were scared because they didn’t trust their ex-commanders. There was the real possibility that these guys would find us and that there would be fight. I was afraid because the way these guys fight involves emptying all your ammo. Sooner or later, everyone is dead meat. Why was there a conflict between the guys who had taken you and their ex-commanders?
They hadn’t been paid so they went off and did their own thing. The leadership was the Juba Valley Alliance, which is a clan militia run by warlords. What did you do during the days?
We just lay on the ground, doing nothing. I was very tense because they always had weapons. On an AK-47 the first position down from “Safe” is “Rapid Fire” and they were always on it. They would throw hand grenades to each other. I would follow the grenade left to right, left to right. The worst part was not having a bathroom. That got to me. I smelt so bad. One of the things you learn as a soldier is to try and escape but I’m a six foot four white guy, so where am I going to go? I’d have been so conspicuous. When we walked into the bush one guy was in front of me acting as a guide and everyone else was behind me with guns pointed at my back. They had all kinds of blisters because they were wearing flip-flops so I built a rapport with them by treating them. Did you blame them for kidnapping you?
No, I understood why they did it. I was just a target because I worked for the UN. A week before, Somalis working for a UN agency were also stopped and got asked for money. They agreed to give one of the militiamen money but then broke their promise and threatened him. Now, in doing that, they did two things wrong: they broke an agreement and they threatened someone. The agreement is important. Things are sealed with a handshake. It’s a seal, a stamp, like in the Middle Ages. You can’t break a handshake. I like that very much.
How did your kidnapping end?
Ahmed, my bodyguard, came to me and said: “Fiddy" - which means ‘listen man’, "get your shoes.” We walked 300 metres out into the dark and two gentlemen came out with a bodyguard. They were from the same sub-clan as my captors. A ransom of $18,000 had come from the business community of the sub-clan. The idea was to clean the name of the sub-clan. They had lost face because of my kidnapping so they had to make up for that. I was picked up and taken back in a 27-vehicle convoy. All for the liberated Rolf! I apologised to the commander for the bad smell coming from me. I spent an hour in the shower. You make kidnap sound bearable. What do you think the future holds for Somalia?
It’s very difficult. There are so many outside interests. Things would be relatively easy if we left it to Somalia. Ethiopia and Kenya have strong interests in Somalia, which is a problem. There are large Somali diasporas in both countries. The Intergovernmental Authority for Development is a problem, as is the African Union. Forces from Djibouti will come as well. Then there is the EU and the US. So many players. So, if we could leave Somalia alone it’d be good?
I think so, yeah, because they could sort it out. Between 2004 and 2006 the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) was doing OK. And then, Christmas 2006, Ethiopian tanks came in and wiped it out and Al Shabaab was created. Sheik Sharif Ahmed was the chairman of the ICU. Now he is welcomed as President. So what’s going on? This was an example of the interests of Somalia’s neighbours. They want to protect themselves and that is hurting Somalia.