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FROM ANOTHER COUNTRY BY M.M. Afrah
FROM ANOTHER COUNTRY BY M.M. Afrah
EXCLUSIVE TO BANADIR.COM
An extract from a new book by M.M. Afrah to be published in Canada in the winter of 2002.

PART NINE

As the last road barricade disappeared behind them, there was an eerie silence inside the Land Cruiser and the boys on the hood of the vehicle ended their Somali love songs. To break the silence Keynaan said: "I see you speak Italian."

The driver opened up for the first time and said: "Yes. I was clerk in the Italian Trusteeship Administration (AFIS) until independence in 1960. After that I had opened my own public letter writing office."

"I am tempted to ask you why you are still with these bunch of cut throats?"

"It is not bad if you consider the alternatives."

"I have been observing that you have a strong stomach for anarchy and bloodshed."

"Under the circumstance, this is the only place I feel at home. It is kill or be killed by a teenager with a gun.

" There was a strained, uncomfortable pause.

"Have you ever considered getting out?"

The driver reverted into obscenities, and of course in his colonial Italian. The words came out like bullets.

"Me getting out of Somalia because of a bunch of cut throat generals and crooks masquerading as politicians? NEVER! This is my country and I am going to stay put till doomsday," he shouted over his lungs. He said that the country is under house arrest with guns looming over the peoples' heads.

"Someone is always taking a pot shot at you for no apparent reason other than belonging to the wrong tribe and being at the wrong place at the wrong time," he said with bitterness, pointing at the fresh bullet hole on the windscreen. He had all the appearance of a mourner walking toward the grave.

"We are living from hand to mouth with the hand not reaching the mouth half the time," he said angrily.

Keynaan watched the barrels of the machineguns behind him bounce against the roof of the vehicle. A pothole could set them off. But the boys are oblivious of this danger.

"How are we doing now?" Keynaan asked, anxious to change the subject.

"We have at least half an hour head start on the Qat drivers."

In little more than three hours of rough driving they arrived at the desolate airstrip with its sun-scorched moonscape, interlaced with dwarf cactus trees and occasional shrubs. The driver had miscalculated his timing because several Land Cruisers and Willy's World War Two jeeps mounted with the deadly 106mm field guns were already lined up along the perimeter of the airstrip. Keynaan was uncomfortable, but the driver explained they were waiting for cargoes of Qat and cigarettes from neighbouring Kenya. Others waited to be hired by an Italian TV crew as drivers and guards.

"How did you know an Italian TV crew was coming?"

"My spy in Nairobi told me by radio."

Did his spy also inform him that it was sabotage by rival Qat and cigarette merchants to delay the flight of a Cessna with a cargo of Qat and cigarettes? Keynaan did not ask him.

The twin-engine Tupolev arrived at exactly 6.35 a.m. when the morning sun brought with it the heat and humidity of the day. The weary plane, which stood on the dirt runway looked lonely and forlorn, and very far away from Mother Russia. Keynaan was puzzled because, according to Broken Tooth, he was expecting a Cessna. But the driver explained that the Cessna was delayed in Nairobi's Wilson Airport because of engine trouble. He said that the Tupolev was more reliable than the Cessna, omitting to mention a sabotage by rival merchants at Nairobi's Wilson Airport.

The Russian crew immediately began disgorging the cargoes and an Italian TV team of six from RAI, the Italian State Television. With their heavy equipment, they seemed to be tense and ill at ease. Apparently they were not prepared for the unusual spectacle confronting them in this remote airstrip.

Suddenly, the whole area turned into a hive of activity and the children are content to mingle with the noisy crowd. Even Marian had shaded her anxiety. It seemed to Keynaan that there was a competition to see who could make the most noise. The cacophony was immense. It sounded as if all the furies in the world have been unleashed at once.

It took Keynaan a minute to distinguish the separate elements in the storm of sounds. The yells of the Italian TV crew as they shouldered their heavy equipment through the unruly crowd; the high pitch of small boys selling cigarettes, the shrieks of women selling cups of hot tea, the insistent babble of the "Technical" drivers arguing over a price, the squall of a frightened baby and the profanities of the Qat importers.

Keynaan spied the leader of the Italian TV crew as he negotiated with one of the gunmen/drivers. He is the only person at the airstrip who was wearing a coat, leather-patched at the elbows, and silk tie, and a cold cigar in a corner of his foamy mouth. He looked like Al Capone. All he needed was the gray fedora and a machinegun. No doubt he is having trouble adjusting to the heat and the excessive noise.

Utterly dispirited, other members of the Italian team debated whether to call it a day and return to Italy, empty-handed or hold out until their boss completes a deal with the vicious-looking driver/gunman.

"I said American dollars!" the driver-cum-gunman said slowly, showing Qat-stained front teeth.

"There's nothing wrong with Italian liras. They've been accepted in Kenya and elsewhere, and so will you," Al Capone whispered.

A number of gunmen are cocking their assault rifles and glancing uncertainly from the driver to Al Capone.

"Be a good man and accept the Italian liras," Al Capone put in heavily accented English.

The driver (in frantic Somali): "NO ITALIAN LIRAS! We have put up with enough counterfeit Italian liras. I draw the line here. NO MORE ITALIAN LIRAS," he shouted. He recalled with bitterness the Italian movie director who paid him counterfeit Italian bills that were so bad you couldn't have used them as play money or in a game of Monopoly.

"Enough is enough. NO MORE ITALIAN LIRAS," he roared, spitting on the dusty ground between Al Capone's Gucci shoes.

He observed their driver trying to outbid the younger driver with his colonial Italian. But Al Capone ignored him.

At the center of the hullabaloo was a middle-aged man wearing a safari suit. He towered over the mass of noisy humanity, saying nothing. Suddenly he produced from his breast pocket an electronic device and started to feed it with the crispy Italian bank notes, and all the gunmen suddenly shut up. It was remarkable effect that silence.

They all looked at the counterfeit detector with fascination. They were struck dumb as the man clapped his hands and exclaimed in a jubilant tone: "They are genuine Italian liras!" he said, showing unusually large gap in his mouth. It was Ganey! (Broken Tooth), the notorious wheeler-dealer in everything, from money laundering, drug trafficking, forgery of passports to smuggling people across the border. Keynaan was surprised to see him again after their hush, hush deal less than forty-eight hours ago. The man is every where and is practically on everything. But now he resembled a bank executive, one exception being that he wore a HI-Power Browning automatic pistol under his custom-made safari suit.

Then he spotted Keynaan over the heads of the crowd.

"Welcome to the Gateway from Hell," he shouted and immediately returned to his business.

Keynaan murmured "Thanks."

According to the local grapevine, Broken Tooth's makeshift bank is so secretive that even his own brother, who is a silent partner, and his hired militia who guard it do not have access to it. Because he hoards his hard currency and valuables in one of several identical underground concrete bunkers built by the Russians during their treaty of friendship and cooperation with General Barre's regime, and it is extremely hard to pinpoint which one holds the loot. Even the warlords simply choose not to under estimate him. They believed his activities would not directly affect the maintenance of their power base.

"Broken Tooth knows how to make a big entrance where hard currency is concerned," a man standing next to Keynaan commented without preamble.

"The danger posed by Broken Tooth plying his trade is less harmful than the gunmen who stop motorists to exhort money at a bogus road barricades or the foreign arms traffickers," Keynaan said, watching the man for a reaction.

"Nabad Gelyo," (Peace be upon you) he simply said, and turned away without looking back, and joined the crowd.

Minutes later, Al Capone clutched Broken Tooth's hand. "Grazie, Signore, molto gentile," (Thank you, Sir, very kind of you). This brought a burst of clapping and cheers.

Smiling, the driver/gunman said very hoarsely, almost choking, but waving his hands gaily: "Its OK, it is a deal."

Presently, counterfeiting-detection frenzy gripped all the militia around the airstrip. And presto! Foreign bank notes started to pop out of pockets to be tested by the man with the detector, at a price. It was a lucrative business!

Keynaan turned away from Broken Tooth and his customers and walked towards the plane. A member of the Russian crew was encouraging the Qat and cigarette importers to hurry up in sign language. Marian and her children positioned themselves near the door of the aircraft.

The airfield is little more than a strip of level ground, carefully leveled with rollers, surrounded by rusty barbed wire and the occasional iron sheets and disused steel containers full of bullet holes from previous battles. There are no control towers or hangars. The Mogadishu International Airport was closed after the Americans and the United Nations pulled out in a huff.

By some cruel stroke of irony a crudely painted slogan on one of the rusty freight containers opposite the dirt runway boasted solicitously: "Death is Acceptable, Foreign Oppression is Not." A member of the Italian TV crew was trying to decipher the words with the help of Italian/English pocket dictionary. Evidently the word "Oppression" defeated him. He is wearing Bavarian leder hose, feathered hat and surplus US Army combat boots. He looks ready to yodel any time.

Another Russian, probably the pilot, beckoned Keynaan and told him that the family should board the aircraft as soon as the last carton of cigarettes was unloaded. He spoke in Brooklyn accent. The man must have been a KGB operative in New York during the Cold War, Keynaan thought.

Ten minutes later the Russian returned, smoking foul smelling cigarette."I wanna you guys to be ready in fifteen minutes," he said in his fake Brooklyn accent.

Keynaan nodded and raised both thumbs up.

"What did he say?" Marian panicked.

"He said we must be ready in fifteen minutes. You okay?"

She nodded, forcing herself to smile. But the children were beaming, a kind of collective euphoria.

To be continued.
By M.M.Afrah 2001 All rights are reserved


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