As part of my 2018 charity project I am running in 3 of the world’s most dangerous countries. I have chosen Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia, as these are all countries that I have served and worked in over the last 15 years. Also countries where safety and security is always at the forefront of your mind when out on the ground in these 3 war torn states.
Somalia was first on the agenda (Iraq & Afghanistan will come later in 2018, dates TBC) and I thought there was no better place to start than in the place often referred to as a failed state by the international community. War, famine, piracy and terrorism have prompted legions of Somali’s to flee this notorious bad land in search for a better and safer future. To that end it was no surprise that on my recent visit to Mogadishu I was quite quickly told I would not be allowed under any circumstances to run anywhere outside of a secure compound in this conflict hot spot. I saw more guns and bullets in my 48 hours in “The Mog” than I saw anywhere else in the last 5 years on my travels! Although I could of chosen to run in a secure compound base which would be littered with many other expats including friends of mine working for the UN, UK MoD and various NGO’s, I thought this would be “cheating” and this was not what I set out to achieve with Running Dangerously. I wanted to embed myself in the local culture, meet local people and tell the rest of the world some of the personal stories of the people in these lands.
That said despite the dangers and ongoing challenges that Somali’s face in Mogadishu as always in these war torn states, I met some of the kindest, caring and most genuine people that despite all they have been through still manage to smile with hope and courage and talk of a positive future for the people of Somalia. I hope and pray that for them all that the one day the largest coast line in Africa will be a measure of peace and beauty for these great people, sadly I don’t think this will be anytime too soon.
After speaking to my expedition partners at Untambed Borders, James Wilcox the Founder highlighted that I should consider running in Somaliland in the north of Somalia. Somaliland is a self declared state and internationally recognised as an autonomous region of Somalia. It was a place where I didn’t know too much about, even though I had been to its neighbours of Puntland and Djibouti several times! As all westerners typically do in this digital era we now live in, I did a few google searches and found a few reasons to be concerned. The first thing that stood out was that it would seem I would need an armed escort everywhere I went in the country, I would need to hire one from the Special Protection Unit (SPU) and feed and water him daily. I also was drawn by several people to a British couple that had been murdered in cold blood at a school in Somaliland a few years back and many expats had fled the region as a result. It did occur to me, we have seen many terrorist attacks, murders and violent crimes on all too frequent basis in my homeland of the United Kingdom, so I certainly wasn’t going to be put off by a “black swan” event 10 years ago!
The biggest questions I had though were, would would I be safe staying here alone? Would I be able to run through the streets in this place and engage with the local community? I was by all accounts very much entering the unknown! To my surprise the answers were a very sharp YES and YES from James at Untamed Borders, this was great news and from this point onwards it was very much “game on”, we had a plan! I did a quick final check with the British FCO who as expected also advised me against all but essential travel to the region! Well for me, helping children to a better future and learning more about this self declared state was certainly “essential” travel, so I jumped on the next plane to Hargeisa, the regions capital.
I was delighted to be told the first official 10k road race was being run in a weeks time which meant although I had a week to go, I could really explore this self declared state within wider Somalia and get to know the people, the culture and understand more about the challenges this region faced! I was also informed by the Darlington Foundation (my chosen charity for this leg) that it would be the first mixed gender race in the country, I knew I had to be apart of this momentous and historical occasion! I headed down to the ministry of sport in the city centre and registered myself for Friday’s 10k!
Like most of the international community I had been very naive towards the people and the plight of Somaliland and my thoughts were, this is just another part of the complicated and very dangerous mayhem that is Somalia! One thing I have learnt in life having travelled for most of it as both a soldier and a security consultant is if you want the real truth about somewhere you have to get off your backside and be prepared to go and see it first hand and embed yourself in its daily life, the good - the the ugly!
Well, although some of you may be disappointed to hear this given my project is called Running Dangerously, I found Somaliland one of the most welcoming and hospitable countries on the planet that I have ever visited. You will note I have called it a country and not a region within Somalia (which is what the rest of the world recognise it as). Somaliland has its own government, its own currency (Somaliland shillings) and now even its own official 10k and Marathon race series. The warmth and hospitality I was shown by the people of this great nation was second to none and I witnessed first hand the advances and developments that is not seen in many countries in Africa and the Middle East.
As a predominantly Muslim country, one of the things that really struck me was the engagement I was privy to with the female population and how well they appeared to be treated by their male counter parts in public (it was not something I had witnessed before on my travels in the MENA region). I was very surprised (and honoured) to be invited to play basketball at the local cultural centre with a team of local women, who were pretty awesome too I must add, tragically my team got beat! Females of all ages would smile, say hello and ask me how I was on a daily basis and nothing was ever too much trouble (directions, recommendations and so on). Somaliland struck me as a peaceful place that is very much leading by example from the moment I landed and many other sovereign states surrounding it should view Somaliland as a success story to learn from of what a stable, secure and safe nation should function like despite the many challenges that it’s still faces.
Somaliland may not have an Empire State Building, an Eiffel Tower or even a KFC (it does have a KFG though of the same nature...!) but I would trade all them in to visit here again, it has much more character than most places I have visited previously globally. Although it is not overloaded with tourist hotspots which may disappoint some, one of the trips you must take is a visit to Laas Geel, this place is pretty awesome although be prepared for an extremely bumpy ride to get there. Basically, its a collection of Neolithic rock paintings in a network of caves and walls, each one with its own story to tell, which a guide will explain in English (if required). Incredibly this place was only discovered 15 years ago, even though it is some 6000 years old or so.
When the rest of the world wakes up and gives Somaliland the recognition it deserves, this place will one day be a global tourist hot spot without a doubt and I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before it’s selling key rings, rock souvenirs and Starbucks coffee, so get their whilst you can, you will not be disappointed! Also worth a visit is the daily Camel market, although you probably won’t want to buy one (although you can for $800-$1000 USD) it is definitely an impressive sight to see and the friendly locals will share their stories with you quite happily.
As part of my trip I also took a visit to see a local orphanage who I am supporting by sponsoring a local child’s education with my fundraising efforts. Although Somaliland is peaceful and extremely friendly and safe it is still a developing country that has suffered the same challenges as many other regions in Africa such as poverty and famine although rates in Somaliland are improving each year significantly.
I would actively encourage anyone to visit this undiscovered beauty, it is very much off “the beaten track” and the people will leave you wanting to come back quickly. I stayed in the Damal Hotel in Hargeisa which was clean, had internet access (not very fast but workable) and the staff were always very helpful when needed. Security is tight throughout the city and you will see gun men (official authorities) everywhere you go but you do not at any stage feel threatened or unsafe, infact quite the opposite. I sincerely hope for the people of Somaliland that one day they will stand alone as an independent state on the world stage as the people thoroughly deserve it, but the reality is that they will probably keep doing what they do for many years to come and that in itself is highly commendable and deserves recognition, which is why I have taken the time to write this blog as I sit on the plane back home smiling to myself about the great memories I made and the people I met over the last week on the Horn of Africa most undiscovered “country”.
I would like to give a special thank you to my local contacts Shabelleh & Khalid and also James from Untambed Borders for helping me with translation, local logistics, security arrangements and making sure my trip went smoothly without any issues at all. I’m looking forward to the next part of my trip which is sure to be more challenging, much hotter and will present a significantly increased security risk, but that’s all part of the adventure right?! See you soon Iraq and thank you again Somaliland for making me so welcome in your great nation, see you all again next year...
I would like to thank the “Hostile Environment Liability Protection” (HELP) programme for their support on the first leg of Running Dangerously along with the Inmarsat, Control Risks, Rick Webb Fitness, Andover Sports Therapy, New Challenge New Beginning, Frontier Risks, Untambed Borders and all the individuals who continue to make contributions to my just giving page which will remain open till the end of 2018.