We may not mean it literally when we say “I will catch a bullet for you”, but the story is totally different when it is coming from a woman in camouflage trotting an AK47 assault weapon and wearing the glare of a Hollywood movie director.
Women have ventured into brave professions over the years, but the ones that took up military service as a career are something else. The sight of a woman in comouflage may be more commonplace today, but it still draws attention here at home. Now, think of those deployed in the recuperating Somali capital of Mogadishu and beyond.
In Somalia, our daredevils do not only serve under safe UPDF units but are also deployed in the war zones and serve in combat units “to catch the bullet for world peace”. During our recent visit to Mogadishu and Baidoa, 240 kilometers from the capital, we caught up with these female combatants who face heinous acts of terror from the Somali insurgents, al-Shabaab, every day.
Each with their own experience, a different story to tell, and I was lucky enough to hear some of these accounts.
Pte Cornelia Atim, aviation security officer: I survived a suicide bomber
This 27-year-old works at Mogadishu International Airport as an aviation security officer. Her role is to check female passengers. Before her deployment at the airport she guarded the residence of the Somali Prime Minister, a high value target for Al-Shabaab.
Although the attacks targeting senior government officials have reduced after al-Shabaab were driven out of Mogadishu, the insurgents continue to detonate bombs. Many Ugandan soldiers have fallen on the frontline, mainly from bombings. Pte Atim recounts a similar incident that almost took her life too when a suicide bomber, clad in government soldiers’ uniform, exploded about 20 meters away from the security checkpoint she was guarding.
“Oh my God! Life is precious. I had chills running through my body. We protect other people’s lives, but we must protect ours first. As a trained soldier though, I had to take position and wait to see if there were more enemies coming,” she says.
The target was the prime minister and the mission was that the suicide bomber was to detonate inside the residence. Four Somali government soldiers were injured but Atim escaped unhurt. The Somali government soldiers detected foul play however and shot at him before he could make it to the residence.
Her usual work rotation at the airport where she was transferred to involves her ensuring that none of the female passengers carries anything dangerous aboard the aircrafts. “I wake up at 3.30am, prepare and report by 5.30am. I walk to the airport, which is near where I live. I have to ensure that passengers who board the plane are secure, I’m secure and Somalia is secure,” she says.
“Before we were deployed here, we went given intense training by aviation experts in checking luggage and people. This training helps us to identify suspicious gadgets and human beings.”
Joining and surviving in the force
Her looks can easily pass for a high school student, but she joined the army in 2010 after dropping out of Makerere University, where she had been pursuing a degree in Mass Communication. “I didn’t have enough money, so, I decided to join the army. I have plans to go back and complete my course when I go back home,” she says, adding, “I’m proud to be serving my country. When I was still a child, I wanted to either be a soldier or a journalist,” she says.
Her major challenge at work is the language barrier and the uncooperative passengers who refuse to be checked. “But we have to convince them until they understand that they have to be checked,” she says.
Serving as a female, Christian soldier in an Islamic country like Somalia is also not easy sometimes. It is, for instance, mandatory for all women to wear a scarf under their berets, regardless of their faith. There are also no prayer facilities provided for the soldiers so they pray from their rooms. But Atim and her colleagues are trained to respect the Islamic culture.
Besides, the army was her other dream and is her only promise to return to school.
Maj. Jane Mukasa, the most senior Ugandan female officer in Mogadishu
She is the most senior Ugandan female officer in Mogadishu and heads all female combatants in the mission. She is charged with keeping the female officers in order. “I instill discipline and courage whenever it’s needed,” she says of her ultimate job description.