Stan Atkinson: I covered Somalia twice during my years with KCRA. My first trip in 1981 was to record the efforts of a San Francisco-based medical team.
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Stan's first trip in 1981 was to record the efforts of a San Francisco-based medical team.|
They were working in the God-forsaken Somali Desert, helping tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the communists in Ethiopia. A decade later, Somalia slipped into chaos following the violent over-throw of a corrupt leader.
Once President Siad Barre was gone, rival clan leaders stepped up their efforts to rule and nobody was safe anywhere. By the time I went back in 1993, firepower was the law of the land.
The UN had installed peacekeepers - including Americans - to try to stop the pilfering of food and medical supplies. Looting which led to the deaths of the most vulnerable Somalis.
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Stan says Somalia was like Mad Max. He didn't go anywhere without an armed escort.|
In Mogadishu, the capital, there was no law. No government. It was Mad Max. You didn't go anywhere without an armed escort. We hired our own crew of "gunnies," our own armed posse.
Taking off for lunch one day in one of our trucks, snipers killed one of our gunnies and stole the truck. His death caused an escalation in the war between the clans. And their battleground was just outside the hotel where all the western journalists were staying.
Setting up a satellite live shot, we weren't suffering bad posture. We were simply trying to avoid ricocheting bullets. Doing a reporter's "stand-up," even on the roof of the hotel, was more of a "kneel-down" than a "stand-up". Better that, than catching a stray bullet.
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While setting up a satellite live shot, Stan found himself trying to avoid ricocheting bullets.|
You suited up appropriately everyday preparing for the worst. You really couldn't trust most people, not even your own gunnies. Because in Somalia, everybody and anybody could be bought.
But again, as in 1981, the story that affected us most was the refugees. We recorded the stark images of people dying, of starvation and disease. The ravages of a war as venal as any I've seen.
Tribal lords using their power for greed. Food was money, and they took it away from even the tiniest of Somalis. It was incredibly sad to see these people - tall, stately, and elegant - decimated by such thievery and hatred. A million and a half Somalis were threatened by famine.
American troops stopped the bandits and medical teams saved half a country from death. As we left Mogadishu, the firefight outside our hotel was a pint-sized war. We had to take a crazy, circuitous route to get out of town and to the airport. Finally, we made it to a UN helicopter.
I can't recall ever being so happy to leave a place.