Friday, August 19, 2016

Saving Children and Marines in Mogadishu

A Happy Day at Restore Hope Orphanage 1993. 

A scarlet, key-laden lanyard hung around Khadija Mohamud's neck. The gold lettering was unmistakable: United States Marine Corps. My question obvious; her answer emotional. Khadija's story quickly unfolded. "Two Marines were forgotten, left behind. I had to do what I had to do," Khadija said recounting her unhesitatingly selfless call to action in saving two U.S. Marines in war torn Mogadishu. I knew then that Khadija's story must be shared with others, many others.

Khadija and I met at Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, VA in what she described as "such an unexpected circumstance." We were both among several chaperones guiding a "getting to know you" interfaith youth gathering. She for the Muslim youth of Dar Al-Hijrah, and I for thirty Granby, CT high school youth on a week long trip to Washington, DC, which focused on gaining perspective on Race, Religion, and Privilege.


Khadija and me at Dar Al-Hijrah, August 4, 2016

The trip, which is a whole other story, sponsored by First Congregational Church of Granby, purposefully took the Granby youth out of town to engage with Washington-area youth in collaborative activities ranging from a Black Lives Matter workshop to LBGTQ discussions to Aging-in-Place service projects with in-need elderly to the Holocaust Museum to a White House tour to a Muslim prayer service at the Capitol, and to the thoughtfully-planned meet, greet, and play with more than 50 youth from DAH Youth, and 20 more from ADAMS Center and The Young Leaders Institute. Intense, provocative, and enlightening, the week was a huge success.

Saving Children

The year 1991. The city Mogadishu. 

After 13 years in the United States pursuing her education and career as an accountant, and becoming a citizen, Khadija (known to some by her nickname "Lul", which means "Pearl") had returned home to Somalia for a short visit to check on the well being of her family. The short visit to help secure the safety of family and friends turned into an eight year life-changing mission in Mogadishu to save children whose lives were torn apart by the horrific combat raging throughout the city. 

Fighting had injured hundreds of children; many had lost their parents. Mothers desperately needed help for their children, their husbands killed in the fighting. Access to food and medicine was increasingly difficult, clinics were closing, and others were treacherous to reach.

Somali Child in Mogadishu

With her friends, Khadija responded to the crisis by organizing their grassroots Somali Relief and Development Organization, "a group of volunteer professional women who wanted to do something for the children of Mogadishu." An abandoned building was found, and a mother and childcare center established. Instantly, it was "providing medical care and food for 150 injured or malnourished children and mothers." But in November 1991, as the civil war exploded throughout the area, with rockets raining down, gunfire piercing the air, and looting rampant, "overnight 10 times more children came to our center." As medical supplies and food ran out death became routine. The images seen around the world were horrific.

Khadija, desperately seeking more help, returned to America to solicit aid in the U.S. and Canada. The Somali-Canadian community responded immediately arranging the first ton of medicines and first aid supplies to be shipped safely through international relief agencies and the United Nations. Khadija soon returned to Mogadishu. Her unflagging efforts led to an additional assignment. She was appointed as Feed the Children Program Officer in Mogadishu.

Khadija was saving children. Soon she would be saving two U.S. Marines. 

Saving Marines

The year 1993. The city Mogadishu. 

Khadija now was serving as Feed the Children International Country Director for Somalia, as well as managing the Restore Hope Orphanage in Mogadishu North "with well over 2,000 orphans, abandoned and needy children, ages 2 to 12."

Khadija's Feed the Children ID

In early October the Battle of Mogadishu was fought. It was the battle in which two U.S. UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters were shot down, a tragedy documented in the book Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War. The fighting resulted in thousands of Somali casualties, along with several U.S. soldiers dead and many more wounded. Later in October, even though the city remained extremely dangerous, a UN visit to the Restore Hope Orphanage proceeded as scheduled.

The following narrative is Khadija's recounting of saving two Marines as told to me: 
It was October 24, 1993. In celebration of United Nations Day, U.S. Navy Admiral Jonathan Howe, the Special Representative for Somalia to UN Secretary General Butros-Ghali was scheduled to visit the orphanage along with other dignitaries and high-ranking military officials from various countries. 
Security was tight due to the orphanage's location near the so called Green Line, a dangerous no man's land dividing Mogadishu, the capital city of Somalia into North and South between warring factions. 
That day, a large area around the orphanage compound was secured by the U.S. Marines and there were several armored military vehicles strategically positioned inside, outside and around the orphanage's compound.
A Somali Youth Approaching a Mogadishu Security Checkpoint
Inside the orphanage, a great deal of time before the arrival of Admiral Howe and his entourage, a unit of the U.S. Marines took position in several corners inside the building, first floor, second floor, entrances to second floor, on the roof, front and back entrances of the orphanage compound. There was a large contingent of media personnel from around the world. 
The visit lasted about 45 minutes. Guests toured the Center, interacting, playing, singing, and taking pictures with the children and staff. Then everyone departed. 
It was through our program that we, along with Feed the Children, provided everything for the children: food, medicine, clothing, education, recreational activities to keep them off the streets during the day where their would be role models were killing and looting. 
However, at the end of each day before nightfall, we released the children to their extended families.  We worked diligently to locate the children's closest kin and place them with relatives so that they would not be institutionalized, but grow up in a family environment. On top of that the security situation would not have permitted us to keep the children at the orphanage compound after dark. Clashes, shootings, mortar shelling and looting were the norm. It would have been strategically impossible to evacuate over 2,000 children. The consequences would have been devastating if fighting broke out. 
The sun was setting, it was getting dark. I was getting ready to close. I sent my guards to secure all gates and doors of the compound when I came to find out that two U.S. Marines were forgotten, left behind. 
My first thought was: "No, it is not possible."
I walked down to where they were positioned, I saw two very young soldiers, one black and one white, holding tight onto their weapons, seemingly alarmed. They were very young, I guess maybe between 19 and 21 years of age. 
I thought: "Oh my God! What now?" 
I went up to them and told them that everyone of their group had left, but in reassuring them I said to them: "Don't worry, I am American like you. These are my guards, and I promise no one will harm you. Come with me and I will take you to safety to the Italian Military base which is the closest." 
I felt they became a bit relaxed but they told me that they must follow rules and must stay where they were last known to be. 
Night was approaching. It was unsafe for me, too, to be trotting around. Mogadishu was in the hands of armed militia who took the city hostage. Throughout the night you would hear gunfire and random rockets being fired. There were security checkpoints set up by local police, however, in the darkness if anyone halted you to stop, you were doomed if you stopped, and you were doomed if you did not stop, because there were also some checkpoints set up by thugs for the purpose of looting and rape. In the darkness, with no electricity, you could not distinguish the good guys from the bad ones. So you do not stop, never. You take your chance of avoiding bullets raining down on you as you flee. 
The U.S. Military base was in Mogadishu South, we were in Mogadishu North. But I had to do what I had to do. 
I got my driver ready with my pick up truck, loaded the back with armed men, some of my security guards, and left for the Italian Military base, which was nearest to the orphanage. 
Needless to say that to approach any military base, day or night, was very dangerous. Fortunately my vehicle was easily identifiable with Feed the Children's flag and logo on the doors, plus they knew me. The gate opened and I drove in. I asked to see the General who was in charge of the base, presented to him the situation. Right away he summoned one of his captains, who with some soldiers, quickly got into an armored vehicle and followed me to the orphanage. 
Before we left the Italian Military base, the General communicated by radio, I believe first with the U.S. Military base in Mogadishu South, and then following instructions he radioed the head of the Nigerian Military Contingent, which was based at the old port of Mogadishu also not far from where we were. We headed there.
The Italian General tried to see if it was at all possible that the two Marines could be air lifted by helicopter back to their U.S. base in Mogadishu South. Usually airlifts were done by flying over the sea to avoid ground area. By flying over the Green Line there was the danger that militia would shoot rockets to bring the aircraft down. 
The head of the Nigerian Military expressed concern as there was a ban for airlifts at night, but said that they would stay in communication by radio with the U.S. Military base, and in the meantime the Nigerian base would host the two Marines for the night and take them to the U.S. base in the morning. And so it went.  
After I had secured them in the Nigerian's safe hands, it was my turn to try to get home safely. While all this is happening, I was expecting my son, my first born.  
I am grateful to God that He has given me the opportunity to do good. My faith teaches me that ".... If anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of all mankind" (Quran, Chapter 5, Verse 32). I guess I got double of that. 
I would also add that the U.S. Marines adopted the orphanage, which was named after the UN Operations in Somalia: Operation Restore Hope. When we first occupied the building, which was an old Catholic private boarding school, and my elementary school as a child, the walls were riddled with bullet holes and marked with war related graffiti. The roof and the structural support were in pieces. U.S. Marines and Sailors began helping. They even shared their MREs (Meal, Ready-to-Eat) with the children, if we ran out of food. To honor their involvement, we painted the center with the colors of the U.S. Marines: GOLD and SCARLET. I hold them dear in a special spot in my heart. Semper Fidelis! 
It's been 23 years since that day and I always ask myself: "Where are those two Marines now? They must be in their late forties, fathers or even grandfathers. Would they remember me?" Who knows, but I wish I could know.

Epilogue

The situation deteriorated throughout Somalia in late 1993 and into 1994. Most U.S. troops were withdrawn in 1994, and completely by 1995.  Khadija recalled how the country fell back into chaos and renewed fighting between factions. As a way to arm themselves the local militias looted food convoys and exchanged food for weapons. Mogadishu's main seaport and airport fell into the hands of thugs and criminals. Ships could not dock at the port because rocket fire scared them away. "I stayed behind even after all foreign presence was gone, [even] while relief agencies left due to security reasons," she said. Foreigners were targeted for kidnapping for ransom.

Eventually, as food ran out and what security there was declined further, Feed the Children closed all programs in Somalia by the late 1990s. Khadija was relocated to the Feed the Children office in Nairobi, Kenya. "I continued to support some of the children in Mogadishu on my own, but however little, my assistance was not reaching them," she lamented.

For a couple of years Khadija worked as a Program Coordinator for another agency, and later as a Fundraiser/Project Proposal Writer for a Nairobi Catholic mission, the Diocese of Rumbek.

In 2003, Khadija returned to the United States, settling in Fairfax, Virginia. She resumed her career as an accountant, and, as she said, "a full-time mom to her children, Edoardo and Sarah," now 22 and 20, respectively.

"As far as for me," Khadija sighed, "I feel my mission was not complete."

Khadija did what she had to do in Mogadishu.

Khadija will continue to do what she has to do.

Khadija is a stonecatcher.




Don Shaw, Jr.
Writer and Editor
RedTruckStonecatcher.com

Source documents, photos and images from Khadija Mohamud; Don Shaw Jr.; CIA World Factbook; Defense Technical Center; and Amazon.com


No comments:

Post a Comment