A closer look at the itinerary reveals that I am traveling to Somalia. Oh. Wow. I see. Like…Black Hawk Down Somalia? Bill Clinton’s Waterloo? The land where conflict resolution is settled through interpretation of civil law, Sharia law, and/or family memory? The third poorest country in the world? Somaliland, where 89 percent of the population is illiterate. The place where Al-Shabaab, a faction of al-Qaeda, has thrown its thorny anchor, is stirring up shit in a place that needs only help, not stirring. Oh boy.
I get it now. Somalia is a place I will only tell my family and friends that I have seen upon my return. Safely. If. Sorry Mom, no postcards this trip.
I have been in a few prisons in my lifetime. I have been in an Amish prison, an Illinois State Penitentiary, several county prisons in Texas, and a Quaker-designed prison in Pennsylvania that was punitive in the way you had to bow your head to go through doorways and where one had to crick one’s neck to see the light that might creep through the windows, which I am certain was the architect’s design to remind us of God’s infinite mercy.
None of these prisons paved the way for my experience at the prison in Central Mogadishu, Somalia. As I arrive, I am taken aback by the bountiful and blustery Indian Ocean that frames the prison’s grounds in a way that could make a quaint postcard if you didn’t know what was behind the walls. I am told this prison was designed at the turn of the century by a Turkish architect in the style of the late Ottoman Empire. If the walls weren’t so high, the prisoners might welcome the cool breeze and the winds that whip up off the Indian Ocean. Standing outside and surveying the crumbling walls of the prison, I acutely contemplate the spiel I had shared with our small team to convince them to travel to Somalia to make this documentary.
Whenever I enter into a situation where I feel I have no control, I will often request a walkthrough. I ask the general of the prison to give me a tour of his facility, without the rest of the crew. The additional time on my own, buys me time to strategize how I will interview the general and where to film the Turkish doctors who are with us, as they diagnose and administer the prisoners.
The crew is relieved by my Indiana Jones decision as they get comfortable in the general’s office, enjoying his stale cookies and tepid tea and wimpy air conditioning. The general is surprised at my request for a walkthrough. I think he just wants to get on with it. But he gives me the tour nonetheless, with his entourage of soldiers all wearing uniforms that have the feel of hand me downs from various bygone civil uprisings, with their mismatched guns at their side, creating an unintentional comic effect. Let’s be frank. I ask for the walkthrough to make sure I have a solid exit strategy in case the proverbial shit hits the fan. I have seen too many films and read too many Russian novels to mistrust my instincts. I also need the opportunity to cipher through the overwhelming tactile realities of all these souls behind bars.
As we make our way through the maze of the prison, I don’t know if I should leave bread crumbs or scratch messages to myself on the walls so I can find my way back to the rest of the team. The passageways are long, dusty, dirty and full of acute angles and textures and history. The storytelling part of my brain goes haywire. My breath is short and unsteady as I take in the patina of the prison.
The conditions in this prison would be frightening from any perspective: western, eastern, maternal. A malodorous cloud of testosterone, burning meat, sweat, bananas, fecal matter, pepper, soiled clothing and the general’s cheap cologne cling to us through the tour. I listen to the general’s “blah blah blah,” but inside I scream, “How can that many people be in one cell? Those flies are driving me crazy and they are not even buzzing in front of me. What on earth did the prisoners do to get put within these walls? Do their mother’s and wives know where they are?”
We arrive at the canteen. I see four young cooks, and they see me. They bore through me. I don’t flinch. I look right at them. Transference is happening amongst the five of us. I put the camera to my eye and click. I’m not ashamed of capturing the moment, and when I lower my camera they haven’t moved a muscle. I can’t stop looking at them. My heart races. My mind floods with narrative fragments I can’t string together. They are just boys. My teenage son could be standing next to them. I am dumbstruck. The general calls my name, and my encounter with the young men ends. I follow the general down a corridor to another part of the prison. But my heart and mind are still in the canteen. Who are these young men, and why are they here?
I eventually meet up with the rest of the team. The doctors see and diagnose and medicate a hundred or so prisoners. The day goes as planned. I videotape the encounter so our producers back home in the States will have the elements to tell a story that will be part of a larger story in a framework that will somehow make a difference in our understanding, or lack of understanding, of a world we really know nothing about. As I wrap up, the general gives me permission to use images of all the prisoners. I ask him how he can do that. He says, “These men will never leave. They are all part of Al-Shabaab. This is where they belong. In here. Not out there. It’s better this way. ”
When I cook dinner. When I chop vegetables. When I cross my arms in that certain way. When I see my son look at me inquisitively after I have tried to communicate with him. When I think of the general’s words. When I feel in my soul four pairs of young, male Somalian eyes boring through me, I understand deeply that our world is in trouble and sleepless nights are still ahead.
Originally Published by Stoneboat 2012. http://stoneboatwi.com/current-issue.html