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.
She is based at headquarters but travels to various mission units, some as far as 240 kilometres from Mogadishu to supervise the female combatants, especially when there are concerns to be addressed. “These ladies operate under men and may have problems and nowhere to report to or have them resolved. So, I was brought here to help female soldiers with such issues. They present their problems and I see how I can help them,” she says.
Maj. Mukasa does not want to talk about these problems and is evasive when the question of whether there have been cases of sexual violence is pitched.
Maymouna Kahindo & Jane Mukasa, driver/mechanic, and Major: I’m a mere driver but I once had to block the enemy with my car
She is a mechanic but also the driver of commanding officer of women affairs in the Ugandan Contingent, Major Jane Mukasa. When she first arrived in Mogadishu seven months ago, she was a driver of low loaders (trucks that carry vehicles) at Mogadishu National Stadium, one of the places used by the al-Shabaab as a tactical base before they were flushed out by the Ugandan peacekeepers. Her job was to transport damaged vehicles on the loader to the garages. As the attacks intensified though, her role changed, thrusting her closer to the frontline. She now had to block the insurgents out of the stadium with the low loaders at the main entrance.
“We were using it as “a gate” to block the entrance because the enemy sometimes drives explosive-laden cars and explode them from our defensive positions. But if a low loader is parked in the middle of the entrance, they can’t enter,” she says. After six months at the stadium, Private Kahindo was transferred to the headquarters of the Ugandan forces as a driver where she works at the Amisom garage. She wakes up at 5am, washes her boss’ car, and drives her to office.
“After that I go to the garage to service our vehicles. In the evening, I pick her from office and I can rest after that,” she says. Her heavy physique and abrasive walking explains why she has ably done such tough jobs.
Before her deployment in Somalia, Kahunde knew nothing about mechanics but she could drive. Today, she has from experience mastered the ins and outs of vehicles’ wiring systems and brake pedals, for which she earns some extra money on top of her salary as a driver, which is her official duty.
Kahindo, a mother of two daughters, now plans to start a garage when she returns home. The military engagements have given her the confidence that there is nothing that a man can do that she cannot. “It’s about morale. I do everything a man can do,” she says, her heavy physic and abrasive walking cementing this fact.
Private Kahindo, 32, joined the army in 1999, trained in Semuliki and is attached to women affairs in Bombo. Born and raised in Kasese, she was inspired to join the army by the military uniform, which she first saw on a female soldier who used to visit their home.
“My grandfather’s lodge was near the Senior Officers’ mess and there was a certain lady who was always impeccable in uniform. I was young but I made the decision to join the force then. I lived up to my dream after Primary Seven, when I joined the army,” she says.
Serving in Somalia she says has improved her income and she plans to use the money to provide for her children, who she left in the care of her husband and sister in Kasese. “Even if my husband were to leave me now, I’d still be able to take care of my children. I’m gaining experience and skills for my garage when I get back home,” she says.
Kahindo calls every night to enquire about her family, but still confesses to missing them so much sometimes that she feels like immediately boarding a plane back home. “But then again, I have to work for them,” she says, resignedly.
Private Rebecca Nakiwunga, the tank driver: The men take off when my tank approaches
She is the first female tank driver in the UPDF and participated in the attack on Afgooye town, which was the stronghold of al-Shabaab.
“When al-Shabaab heard that a female tank was leading the column of the tanks to attack Afgooye, they all fled,” she says, jokingly.
Well, Nakiwunga may joke about it, but that she is a woman whose two hands drive a war wagon that has helped UPDF push Somali insurgents out of their key strategic locations is no mean task.