Landing under mortar and small arms fire at Mogadishu airport

Monday August 15 2016

Amisom forces patrol the International Sea Port

Amisom forces patrol the International Sea Port in Mogadishu in 2007. Courtesy photos 

By Risdel Kasasira

Mogadishu.

The sound of high explosive going off on or around the runway would probably have been echoing from below; through the aircraft’s tiny windows puffs of black smoke could possibly be seen billowing up from the airport. Also, the unmistakable heavy and rapid thump of mounted machine guns was likely rumbling through the air …

It is March 6, 2007, and this was Mogadishu International Airport, or at least what is left of it after years of fighting for it between rival clans. When the al-Shabaab terrorist group’s fighters saw the plane coming in to land, they did something that would churn many a stomach; they started shelling the runway with mortar rounds and raking the skies with small arms fire.

The pilot held firm and landed the huge plane, bringing it to a jarring stop after a hair-raising taxiing under sustained fire. Weapons cocked and held at the ready, exits were flung open and the very first men of UGABAG1 started pouring out of the craft.

Their only protection on the ground was the covering fire from four infantry fighting vehicles (Mambas) which the UPDF had covertly moved to Somalia ahead of zero hour.

Lucky escape
That none of the arriving troops was injured or killed on the first landing will always remain a very welcome miracle. Some put it down to the fact that the al-Shabaab’s aim may have been put off by the heavy machine gunfire the four Mambas were directing at their positions. Others just think lady luck was smiling on the Ugandans that day.

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It was a variation of this sort of welcome for each of the other flights which made the two anda half hour flight from Entebbe to Mogadishu delivering the first mission force.

Soldiers watch on as one of the Amisom vehicles
Soldiers watch on as one of the Amisom vehicles snakes through their camp.

Upon landing with his troops, Brig Peter Elwelu, who was the contingent commander, was shown a location covered in sand dunes where it was proposed that he would set up his base. These sand dunes are about one kilometre away from the airport. They are also very close to the sea.

Immediately, the soldier in him came alert. Brig Elwelu was not impressed with the location from a tactical point of view. In fact, he was a little shaken. The site was clearly rife with all sorts of weaknesses; the base would be hopelessly exposed and trapped if a flanking enemy force decided to move in on them.

“I didn’t sleep the whole night. I realised we would be wiped out because it was a narrow place in the middle of the sand dunes. In case of an attack, there was no way we would get out,” he says during the long conversations he held with Daily Monitor for this series.

The restless night eventually ended and daylight finally broke for what should have been a very relieved commanding officer. Brig Elwelu and his corp of officers quickly set about scouting for a more defendable location at which the main base could be set up.

“I jumped into the vehicle with one of my operations commanders and started looking around until we saw a bush. It was real bush. I said this would be the right place to be. I immediately moved my troops to this new home,” he said.

Over the years, this site has been developed and is now proudly known as the Halane Base Camp, headquarters of Amisom, UN personnel and all humanitarian agencies. This camp would be the envy of any warfaring troop. There are many Algaroba growing in the area. These thorny, drought-resistant trees, planted by the Americans during the early 1990s for use as concealment, still serve that very useful purpose to this day.

Halane is also just about one kilometre from the airport. This proximity would prove itself to be a very good thing in the days, weeks, months and years of this operation.

In just the same week after UGABAG1 landed in Mogadishu, Ethiopian forces that had been protecting the shaky Transitional Federal Government decided it was time to withdraw from the key government installations they were guarding. UGABAG1 thus almost immediately found itself having to draw on the skills imparted unto them during the training in Singo Military Training School.

Sentry and other security postures were thrown up. The Ugandans deployed at the airport; State House; on the seaport and at the Presidential Palace; around Parliament building and at the notorious Kilometre Four, a strategic X-junction on the roads which connect all the above important locations.

Amisom advance troops on the lookout for
Amisom advance troops on the lookout for al-Shabaab militants.

Terrorist ambushes and attacks using the al-Shabaab’s most insidious weapon, the Improvised Explosive Device (IED), were unfailingly common at Kilometre Four. It was an enticing target for the terrorists, and not only for its strategic value. Cut off the junction and you would surely paralyse movement between the airport, State House, the seaport and Parliament and the Presidential Palace.

One of the roads leading off Kilometre Four headed towards a location where UGABAG1 had set up its marine element. So, any interruption at ‘K4’ had implications for the marines’ ability to join the fight as reinforcement.

Kilometre Four was also very attractive because it was surrounded by some of the tall buildings in the pockmarked city. From high above ground, enemy snipers tucked away inside those buildings could see oncoming traffic from afar and commence shooting. The tactical superiority enjoyed at this height was immense.

There would be many stiff firefights before UGABAG1 finally flashed al-Shabaab from anywhere near Kilometre Four.

Lt Sam Mworozi, who was then a private, since promoted and sitting nine ranks higher, says the Ethiopians had not taken to the use of the algaroba trees. They preferred to stay inside the buildings. He reveals that the Ugandan contingent, whose soldiers have a long history of bush warfare, did not follow the example of their predecessors because they felt more secure in the bush.

“In the middle of that bush, there was a dilapidated storeyed building that had been shelled. It had no doors or windows. It became our headquarter offices. That’s where we also put our stores, Operations Room and logistics offices,” he says.

The rooftop of this building also provided a rather welcome vantage view of the airport. After mounting high calibre sniper weapons on top of the building, the protection force found that it had significantly enhanced its capabilities to provide ‘over-watch’ for incoming aircraft against any enemy units which might think about launching a daring attack.

It was of such strategic value that months down the road, the ‘bush building’ would be turned into the offices of the overall Amisom Force Commander.

But in September 2009, it was bombed in a suicide attack. The deputy Amisom force commander, Maj Gen Juvanal Niyoyunguriza, a Burundian, was killed. His boss then, UGABAG’s Maj Gen Nathan Mugisha, currently the Ugandan Ambassador in Somalia, was injured in the explosion.

In that deadly attack, the Ugandan contingent spokesperson at that time, Lt Col Abdul Rugamayo, was also injured. Suicide attacks were a common and worrying feature of life in Mogadishu, but during the first two weeks of Uganda’s deployment, another quieter, though no less vicious, enemy lay in wait.

The troops had with them very limited rations of only tinned beef, tinned beans, biscuits and water to feed on. They spent those two weeks without tasting a hot meal because the ship carrying food and the main mission logistics was still sailing across the Indian Ocean.

Rations quickly dwindled. The only hope for the troops was the arrival of the ship because it was just too risky for aeroplanes to supply the troops on the ground. The airport was under constant attack.

Al-Shabaab fighters were either always stationed around the airport or were under orders to swarm the place and shoot at any plane landing or taking off from the airport.

It became worse after two Belorussian aeroplanes hired by the Algerian government to transport UGABAG arms were shot at and brought down. All crew members died in what was a very sad day for the contingent.

Life became harder when all drinkable water finally got finished and yet Mogadishu is one of the hottest cities in the world. Temperatures are known to soar up to a blistering 47 degrees celsius.

“We got very thirsty. We tried ocean water but it is salty. Soldiers would drink any water they came across. We didn’t know we were drinking sewage,” a soldier, who doesn’t want to be named, says.

Although it was not known at the time, they were soon all drinking this dirty water dangerously unaware that it was, in fact, untreated sewage flowing from broken pipes. Very shortly thereafter, the forces had an outbreak of cholera in the military base. At least 60 soldiers fell sick but luckily no one died. The medical team did a very good job in treating the sick.

“It’s true, they fell sick. That was another bad experience. We also later realised that many people in Somalia were suffering from cholera,” Brig Elwelu says.

Part of the area where Amisom troops used to
Part of the area where Amisom troops used to camp

Although not a time to be happily remembered by the soldiers, the cholera outbreak would serve another fortuitous and particularly useful purpose for mission.

Cholera outbreak
As cholera ravaged the military encampment, one day a young Somali man walked up to the fence of the base camp carrying a sick child. He didn’t know what his child was suffering from because there were no working hospitals in Mogadishu.

Soldiers on guard tentatively let him into the base’s medical facility where the sick child was diagnosed with cholera.

“The sick kid was treated and recovered. After recovering, the father went back; he spread the news. He was telling people that we were curing all the diseases. I tell you, people started coming from Kisimayo (about 600kms from Mogadishu) to get treatment,” Brig Elwelu says.

Unbeknownst to the expedition at the time, the battle for hearts and minds between Amisom and the al-Shabaab had been set off by this young man’s visit. That fight would find that it was triggered by the dirty water episode and cholera outbreak.

Kind act leads us to the enemy
The result of the happy father’s messages later informed the use of free medical services by Amisom as a way of drawing the civilian population close. It would become a vital civil-military relations activity that helped the Ugandans to win the hearts and minds of Somalis.

Quickly realising that free medical services to the people were endearing Amisom -a mission which had long been regarded as an occupational force by the residents, al-Shabaab soon caught on. They dreamed up a rather scary response in retaliation, spreading very negative propaganda that patients attending Amisom clinics were also being injected with the HIV/Aids virus.

But because local Somalis were in dire need of medical care, they didn’t waiver. Even those close to al-Shabaab had no option but to visit this Amisom health facility. This could probably be counted as the first decisive victory over the terrorists.

The strategic function of this worthy victory over hearts and minds had long-term implications for the coming battles for Mogadishu.

It is recorded that in a later incident, an al-Shabaab man brought his ill mother for treatment. This fighter is alive to this day and as such, cannot be named for security reasons.

Though it was unknown at the time he walked into the clinic, the fellow happened to be among those who either attended planning meeting conducted by the leadership of terrorists before they attacked UPDF positions or was always aware of where and when they were convened.

But with his mother selflessly treated by his ‘enemies’ and cured, the fighter must have felt a wave of goodwill sweep through his heart. He changed his thinking about Amisom. He was suddenly certain that Amisom meant good for his country, not the bad which his leaders had indoctrinated him and the others about the foreign troops.

“He came [back] to our gate and showed us the building where meetings to attack our positions at Kilometre Four would take place. He told us to keep giving him airtime to call us whenever meetings would be taking place,” says an intelligence officer who was deployed in Mogadishu at that time.

One day when a meeting planning such an attack was underway, the intelligence officer received a call. He informed Somali government police.
“We told them (police) to go and surround the house. They got 30 al -Shabaab fighters with all their guns. This was just because of what we did for his mother. That’s how we saved Kilometre Four. Nobody ever came back to attack Kilometre Four in a long time,” he says.

Fighting intensifies

A soldier mans a machinegun at one of the
A soldier mans a machinegun at one of the bases.

It is, however, very telling of the intricacies and dangers Amisom had to manoeuvre past in the dangerous war theatre of Somalia that something unsettling happened before K4 [Kilometre Four] fell completely silent.

After the planned attack was thwarted, two last ditch attempts were made on troops stationed nearby. It was not the known enemy without this time, but by elements inside the government army who were working with al-Shabaab.

They attacked K4 and wanted to advance and also attack the Base Camp. But a soldier at an observation post on top of a dilapidated building that was housing the head office saw a vehicle moving towards the camp.

The vehicle stopped near where a gunner was positioned with a Heavy Machine Gun. After communicating with his bosses about the threat, he was given orders to shoot at the vehicle. When he shot at the vehicle, the attackers took off and left the vehicle behind. It was a ‘Technical’ (pick-up truck with guns mounted on top).

The same group returned and again attacked Kilometre Four in a fierce battle the following day. At least 20 attackers were killed. But to UGABAG’s shock, at about 2am, a senior Somali police officer, whom we cannot name because of security reasons, was seen collecting the dead.

Brig Elwelu was disturbed by this development which he remembers with some regret. “I called him in the morning thinking he would be happy because we killed al-Shabaab. But he was annoyed. He said; ‘you have killed my people’. That’s when we realised there were some elements in government working with al-Shabaab,” the brigadier says.

Enemy within
Further investigations into the unhappy affair revealed that the dead attackers were members of the government forces.

Future inquiries by the Ugandans were also able to link information leakage from joint meetings held between UGABAG and the Somali government army to the enemy.

Such treachery would become commonplace as the days and nights turned into months, then years for Amisom. The lowest point being when our unscrupulous Amisom officers and troops began to sell fuel and other logistics to the enemy for personal gain – many have since been arrests and court-martialled.

But before these troubles broke out, the supply ship was eagerly awaited in about as equal measure as the incendiary welcome the terrorists were plotting for its arrival…

Tomorrow...
Read about the shooting down of a weapons transport aircraft.

rkasasira@nationmedia.com

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