The blast wave thundered through the compound, ripping the expletive on my lips in two and cramming half of it back down my throat. The radio-room supervisor, Hassan Osman, and I stumbled to the balcony. In that cathedral-quiet moment between the detonation of the car bomb and the staccato barrage of gunfire, we knew they were coming. Shabab militants were storming the compound, squeezing off bursts from the Kalashnikovs at their hips, leaping the gate’s smoking wreckage. It was June 19, 2013.
“Dewaine. Dewaine.” Hassan’s voice was steady, his hand on my shoulder. “Do the public announcement.”
Over the P.A., I instructed the several dozen United Nations staff members to duck and cover and then tried to figure out what to do next. With every rifle crack, my world flashed in a monochrome of stark, tactical decisions, like life and death reduced to their lowest common denominators. Even in the moment, the irony of stumbling into my first firefight more than a decade after leaving the Marine Corps was not lost on me. Since leaving the military, I’d grown used to my buddies shaking their virtual heads, via social media, at the fundamental insanity of inserting yourself into war without having the good sense to engage in combat.
Mogadishu was a study in violent coexistence, a brutal ecosystem where new conflicts sprouted up without ever quelling the old. The Somali capital’s recent history included warlords, the Islamic Courts Union, the Ethiopian military, the Shabab and a shaky Western-backed government. This attack on the United Nations Common Compound — 10,000 square meters split between offices and living quarters, just off Mogadishu’s airport road — felt like the city’s fiercest predator had finally decided to take our measure.
After the initial blast, our Somali guards immediately returned fire, dropping the first two Shabab gunmen who came through the breach. Between clipped radio transmissions from the African Union Mission and the Somali government, four more militants unhesitatingly charged over the bodies of their companions. The guards’ gunfire funneled the attackers onto the accommodation side of the compound.
Under cover of suppressive fire from the towers, several of the guards and I leapfrogged the buildings on the accommodation side to herd staff members to the safe rooms on the opposite end of the compound. Pulling back the bolt on the office Kalashnikov to reveal brass bolstered my courage before our mad dash through the compound, but it was the valor and tenacity of our Somali allies that actually saved lives.
Mogadishu left a permanent scratch on my heart, but talking about the attack remains difficult. I’ve never wanted to risk implying that I’d done more than I did, or to say what I really feared: that I hadn’t done enough. The Shabab murdered 15 civilians, aid workers and contractors at the compound that day, including four of our Somali guards.
In Mogadishu, I led a United Nations Department of Safety and Security office consisting of three other international field security coordination officers — a Russian, a Ugandan and a Bulgarian — and about 20 local advisers, drivers and radio operators. Save for an unauthorized Chinese-made Kalashnikov, purchased by one of my predecessors and handed down to every senior field security coordination officer since, we were armed with nothing more than our wits.
For armed security, we depended on a Somali-owned private security company and the host government, with whom we carried out United Nations program delivery — agriculture and sanitation projects, polio monitoring, shelter programs — in and around the city. Armed security arrangements with private companies tend to unnerve humanitarians, who rightly worry about violating the principles of their profession. But my four postings with the United Nations taught me that in areas of conflict you could have a clean humanitarian conscience or deliver aid, but rarely both. Despite the inherent tension between United Nations agencies and the armed entities they relied on, our security system in Mogadishu worked. My team got aid personnel to some of the toughest locations in and around the capital.
I fell right in with my Somali security counterparts. I chewed bitter khat, a leaf with effects similar to amphetamine, with these guys, screeched through Mogadishu’s 17 districts behind their escort vehicles, and kicked up red dust while waiting for them during prayer stops on the roads to towns so recently vacated by the Shabab that you might still find the militants’ dirty dishes in the sink. Colonized but never broken, the Somalis were a wiry, arrogant and daring people for whom friendship ran deep. For all of Somalia’s trouble, I met fewer dispirited men in Mogadishu than I did in Manhattan.
After the attack, the personnel based at the compound, including me and the other foreign staff members on my team, relocated to the United Nations’ main compound in Somalia on the sprawling grounds of Mogadishu international airport. Protected by Ugandan and Burundian troops, displaced internationals could now join the mission staff, hacks, military officers and contractors who converged at the United Nations Mine Action Service’s “Little Kruger Bar” — foreigners with faces crimsoned by alcohol and the sun, many of whom could spend the weeks in country without ever leaving the airport or speaking to a Somali.
The new mission in Somalia was officially established only two weeks before the attack and had barely started moving into the compound on the grounds of the Mogadishu airport. The United Nations’ only unified radio room in Mogadishu — which maintained contact with its humanitarian and development convoys throughout the area — remained at our now-abandoned compound. I knew I couldn’t ask Hassan and his fellow radio operators to return to work at the hollowed-out buildings of an organization that the Shabab claimed were thwarting “Allah’s Law on earth & must therefore be dislodged.” But when I conducted my morning radio check from within the airport grounds the next day, it was Hassan’s voice that responded.
“Sierra 1, this is Mike Sierra Base, you’re five by five.”
In “War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern Times,” the journalist Linda Polman says that “the job of humanitarian aid worker is No. 5 on the Top 10 list of dangerous occupations, after lumberjack, pilot, fisherman and structural iron- or steelworker. It’s the only job on the list where most of the fatalities are caused by intentional violence.” From Chechnya to Dadaab refugee camp to Mogadishu to Gaza, I consistently found that most of this risk is borne by local staff — the polio-vaccination monitors, the convoy drivers, the project officers, the guards and the radio operators — who make up the backbone of international aid organizations.
Yes, the average international aid worker in Somalia is there to do good, but also (whether admittedly or not) for the buzz of life in a conflict zone. We decided to leave our own countries to be in Mog, were paid good money to be there and had our careers enhanced as a result. The risk for someone like Hassan — paid a fraction of our salaries in the town where all his family lived and the entire community knew he worked for the United Nations — differed on a galactic scale. Born and raised in Mogadishu, Hassan drew from the same wellsprings of hope and despair as the militants who rushed into certain death at the compound. But there are no Gettysburgs or Omaha Beaches for people like him — no heroic charge with his comrades by his side — nor even a decisive Alamo-style defeat. Nevertheless, men like Hassan resolve to endure.
As weeks turned into months, Hassan never mentioned that he reported to work every day in the place the foreign staff had evacuated. Or how the United Nations field operations that couldn’t discontinue without people dying would cease if not for his crew’s tracking our convoys and keeping our communications running. They knew the risk of working in the highly exposed compound of an organization that the Shabab referred to as “a merchant of death & a satanic force of evil.” Hassan and his crew exhibited grace under the most dangerous of circumstances and never felt the need to bring it up. I guess danger ceases to be an interesting topic after you’ve committed to facing it.
Occasionally, something — unexpected fireworks or the pressure wave from subwoofers at a concert — thrusts me back into that day, five years gone. When it happens, I crowd out the image of Shabab fighters storming our compound with those of Hassan and the other Somalis I worked with in Mogadishu, women and men who exemplified Plato’s definition of courage, “endurance of the soul.”
Courage is more than the charge.
Dewaine Farria is a former Marine and present M.F.A. candidate at the Vermont College of Fine Arts who served as a United Nations field security officer in East Jerusalem, Somalia, Kenya and the Russian North Caucasus. He received the United Nations Department of Safety and Security’s Bravery Award for his actions during the attack in Mogadishu.