It’s too bad more of us don’t suffer from nostalgia. The anguish in Somalia over the last two decades has become so awfully commonplace it’s virtually invisible to the rest of the world. In a war-torn country infested with Al Shabaab, clan warlords and an imperceptible central government, it’s difficult to remember the castles, citadels, stone cities and celebrated culture that once permeated this paradise lost.
AMISOM soldiers in conversation in front of the obliterated Al Aruba Hotel near the Mogadishu Seaport : Image by Kate Holt.
As a peacekeeping operation, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), effective through the approval of the United Nations, was created by the African Union's Peace and Security Council in 2007. Consisting of 9000 peacekeepers in Mogadishu currently, it comprises of military, political, police and humanitarian workers. In an attempt to stabilize the upheaval, they mandate secure access for the provision of humanitarian assistance. AMISOM endeavours to create conditions conducive to reconstruction and sustainable development in Somalia.
Together with the Transitional Federal Government forces (TFG), AMISOM also works to free key points in the city from the Al-Shabaab terror campaign. Through mentoring and monitoring the Somali Police Force (SPF) to meet international standards, they allow the emerging administration breathing room to secure critical infrastructure essential to constructive change.
Photographed by AMISOM combat soldiers themselves, the ‘Brothers in Arms’ exhibition at the Nairobi National Museum consists of twenty eight photographs selected from a series of shots taken in Mogadishu over the last twelve months. The images are complemented by an impressionable film on the daily realities faced in Mogadishu. Both the photography and film are part of a travelling exhibition that will pass through Uganda to Burundi. The exhibition at the Nairobi National Museum runs from October 7th until October 16th, 2011.
The majority of photographs at ‘Brothers in Arms’ were taken by Kate Holt, a photojournalist born in Zimbabwe, who earlier this year, provided photographic training to the Ugandan and Burundian AMISOM soldiers. Stephen Mugambi, Emmanuel Mucunguzi, Jean Claude Mbayisenga and Baker Tumusime all photographed images examining the conflict in the region. They were able to capture intimate details of the lives of both civilians and soldiers on the frontline.
Kate Holt, began her career in journalism with the BBC in London and subsequently went on to study photojournalism at the London College of Printing. She’s worked as an investigative reporter with Independent Newspaper. Holt is now based in Kenya but photographs the effects of war in the DRC, Sudan, Zimbabwe, South Africa and other crisis zones worldwide. She recently worked for the Daily Mail and Financial Times, photographing US and UK military operations in Afghanistan.
The photographs from Mogadishu are the result of four trips to Somalia where Holt was living with AMISOM troops. "The support of AMISOM soldiers to the civilian population of Mogadishu, as the humanitarian situation has deteriorated, made a huge impression on me,” she explains. “I was contracted to document the work of AMISOM in its fight against Al-Shabaab but was struck more by the humanitarian side of their work. This collection of photographs is the result of nearly 12 months work and I hope does justice to the soldiers I had the privilege of working with."
It’s said that AMISOM troops live where they fight and fight where they live. The soldiers endure gruelling conditions in their genuine struggle to assist the innocent and Holt hopes to have portrayed their hard work in some of her photographs.
In throwing an exhibition for social awareness, especially regarding a subject matter so controversial and so overcooked, the African Union-United Nations Information Support Team (AU/UN-IST) has to be very particular about the information propagated. Along with the associated outgoing media, the images and text have to be powerful enough to conquer desensitization but mild enough so that no one goes home weak-stomached.
In acknowledging that there’s selectivity regarding what’s publicly displayed and, in having watched futile attempts at reconciliation since 1992 (when the Siad Barre regime was ousted in Somalia), it’s just human for visitors to wonder what’s really happening behind the scenes. Naturally, there’s more than meets the eye.
As the lives of up to 750,000 Somalis are threatened by the ongoing humanitarian crisis, one of the more striking photographs reveals a sprawl of orange plastic shelters, used as temporary accommodation for displaced people, usually those fleeing from extensive drought or violence in other parts of Somalia. It’s from the Badbado Camp and the photograph is a uniquely angled image of the squatters in the distance beneath and through an up-close image of an AMISOM machine-gun. It’s not startlingly inventive but it’s a good composition; high resolution, good colour and of course, thought provoking.
A sprawl of orange plastic shelters from the Badbado Camp : Image by Kate Holt
The image accomplishes the task of familiarizing you with the AMISOM agenda and it certainly compels you to question the realities of Mogadishu. Can there really be a fight for freedom? Will Somalia one day be free? If you’re the type to contemplate further and you might ask which is more natural, aggression or civility. Which is more normal, war or peace?
Delving deeper in to the issue, you might consider whether Somalia is an outlet for our latent desires. You may even start wondering whether an indoctrinated faction is trying to force courteousness on to the masses. "Is this an unnatural struggle for survival," you say. You mock the state for its ruthlessness or make fun of futile attempts made in the fight for peace. All this might change at the sight of certain other photographs.
The images with hints of the old city and concerned mothers waiting with their sick children change your frame of reference. Moving from photographs of soldiers in combat mode to innocent women and children in a shattered city, you’re transported from a state of infuriation to compassion and then as a consequence, may be even back to frustration. At the point you process an image of beautiful children shackled by the calamity, your line of questioning will most likely change. What can we do to get justice, to restore the state of Somalia?
Witnessing a photograph of AMISOM soldiers in conversation in front of the obliterated Al Aruba Hotel near the Mogadishu Seaport, you can’t help but notice how grand the hotel might have been before the its brutal destruction.In other photographs, you catch glimpses of mosques or temples and the exquisite Somali-Islamic architecture that mimics wonderful Mediterranean alleyways and white-stone houses.
As you start imagine the old Somalia in all its beauty, you appreciate that it takes a beautiful people to create an architectural landscape so compelling. Observing the distraught facial expressions of those caught in the catastrophe, you’re reminded again of the benevolent citizens that compose most of Somalia. You see that the kind and respectable of society have been at the mercy of smaller, more powerful factions. You realize that, at the hands of belligerent, corrupt rebels, a great city and civilization can indeed fall.
Despite the difficulty creating change in a country so maltreated, it’s fair to say that AMISOM is a well-intended undertaking that’s sincerely making a difference in the lives of many Somalis. Though most of the devastation may persist as a result of the magnitude of the crisis, and though some strategies can’t help but be part of a trial-error process, we’ve learned that through the more straightforward efforts such as providing clean water, foodstuffs and free medical treatment, the quality of life for many a civilian can be significantly restored while they wait for more long term plans to be executed.
In a tour of ‘Brothers in Arms’, you witness the result of greed, hostility and negligence in Mogadishu. You behold the struggle of piecing back what others have callously torn apart. From one photograph to another, the images taunt and tease you, playing games with your conscience. As you switch back and forth between having hope for a country that desperately needs it and being deeply disturbed by the merciless realities of war, you can’t help but contemplate one time old notion: There is no fight for freedom.