In mid-October 2011, Kenyan troops went into Somalia to battle the insurgent group al-Shabaab. It marked the first time the country had ventured into war since independence in 1963.
Two weeks later, the Kenyan army invited journalists to join its forces on the Somali battlefront. John Ngirachu, a writer with Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper was one of the few reporters, cameramen and technicians who were embedded with the Kenya Defense Forces. For 20 days, Ngirachu and colleagues slept in the bush, survived bouts of malaria, and tried to break new frontiers as the first Kenyan journalists to report from a war zone.
Recently he talked with UPIU contributor Abdi Latif Dahir about his experiences in Somalia, from the reception journalists received to possible plans for his team to return to that war-torn country.
Q: In your regular job, you cover parliament for the Daily Nation. But all of a sudden you were embedded with the army and reporting from a country you have never covered. Plus, there was the threat of Al-Shabab. With that in mind, how would you describe embedded journalism?
A: It is a painful necessity in the sense that it is difficult for this company [Nation Media Group] to send journalists to Somalia. It is not a place that you can just walk to and start talking to the villagers. They might be al-Shabaab, and al-Shabaab would be very glad if they were able to get hold of a Kenyan journalist.
I am calling it a painful necessity because you need to go there. For a long time, since that operation started, we didn’t have photographs, we didn’t have real stories [from] people who were on the ground.
Now, to go with the military, it means you are [limited by] their conditions. There are photos you can’t take; there are soldiers … whom you can’t identify closely because they can become targets. It is difficult in that sense. It is also difficult because before the operation, the military never had contact with journalists, so they are afraid of you, and getting information can be a problem.
Q: What was going through your mind as you crossed into Somalia?
A: With the border you can actually see there is a cut line, there is a road. When you cross over the border from Ishakani in Kenya, the first town you go to is Ras Kamboni. It is like a mythical place. [T]here are fears: you might cross over and you run into al-Shabaab and they [might] shoot at you. It wasn’t like a big moment, but it was quite something getting into Somalia and being able to say, “OK, we’ve gone to the place where we were sent and here we are.”
Q: At the heart of every story are the people. How was the reception? How did the Somali people react to you?
A: We had the disadvantage of going there while dressed as army guys. In fact, [we wore] a green helmet, our black bullet-proof vests, and … boots for that assignment. So, the only difference between us and the army was that we were in civilian clothes and they were in uniform.
But people were receptive – they would talk. Naturally, they really wanted to speak about the problems they were experiencing. For instance, Ras Kamboni is a fishing town – so for now, they can’t fish and cross over to Kenya to sell their fish.
When you ask about more sensitive issues like al-Shabab, they get uncomfortable. [For example,] we had heard that there were some women who were married by force by al-Shabaab and who left the village. It is a very interesting story. You know [people saying] ‘My sister was taken by force.’ We were told even some people’s wives were taken by force.
We thought it was going to be a fairly easy story. But when we asked them they shut up. They couldn’t talk about it.
Q: So, there was some adventure during your trip: malaria, bad food, and more. How would you describe the experience now?
A: When you are in such a situation, you miss the very small comforts, like a comfortable seat, cold soda, clean, good water, because as much as you take the water that has been brought to the camp, you see it is in a jerry can. It has the smell of clay, or it might have been put in a tank that used to have fuel, and it might have a faint taste of paraffin or jet fuel.
It gets very hot. As you wear a bulletproof vest … you are sweating all the time. You even sweat as you bathe. But it was worthwhile – you get a chance to live a different kind of life.
Q: How did you prepare psychologically for reporting from a war zone?
A: The whole preparation involves psychological preparation. And I found that you have to tell people that you are going to war. So, I told my father, my girlfriend, and I told my father to tell my mother after I had left, because she would panic immediately.
We got boots, sleeping bags, raincoats, torches, spare batteries, and then we got the dog tags. We got the bulletproof vests the Sunday before we left on Monday. Getting them makes you think it is real. You are wearing it because somebody may decide to shoot you. That brings the reality of it to mind. But I found myself thinking about people who would worry about me when I am gone.
Later on, I wondered, why didn’t you think about it or why didn’t you hesitate? Probably because I am young, no family, no issues, and nobody to consider if I need to go.
Q: Is there a plan to send back more journalists now that Kenya has joined the African Union’s peacekeeping mission in Somalia?
A: Joseph Odindo (the executive editor) was asking me when we are going back. There is a plan to go back and we do want to go back, whether it is with AMISOM or whoever. But we want to go back when there is movement. As [the army] moves, there are going to be stories about the fighting, and [possibly] surrendering of Al-Shabab.
Q: How would you describe the Kenyan military’s relationship with the journalists on the ground?
A: At first they seemed cautious – you don’t want to go speaking to journalists carelessly. But eventually, they got used to us, they stopped fearing us, and we stopped fearing them. By the end, we were on very good terms. We established a good relationship with them, although there are still boundaries.