By Anne Backhaus and Johannes Korge
The German soldier is squatting in the Ugandan savanna as 30 pairs of eyes follow the felt-tipped pen in his hand. He is writing the most important commands onto a metal slate, once in English and once in Somali: “Attention” and “Fire.”
His muscles twitch under the skin of his tattooed arms, and mosquitoes buzz around his shaved head. It’s hot in the savannah, but dark thunderclouds are gathering on the horizon. “Let’s go then,” mumbles Ralph Westermann, a master sergeant in the Bundeswehr, Germany’s armed forces.
On this day, he will push the 30 men, all recruits from Somalia, on a patrol through the bush. He will drill it into them that they can’t just spray random fire with their AK-47s. He’ll tell them that it’s often better to switch the lever to semiautomatic, aim and fire. The next 30 recruits will arrive tomorrow. This has been Westermann’s job for the last three months.
Westermann, a 42-year-old who likes to box and lift weights, is one of 19 Bundeswehr soldiers working in the wilderness of western Uganda. Their mission is to give the Somali army a backbone. To that end, the European Union has sent them to Bihanga in the southwestern corner of Uganda, together with 65 fellow soldiers from 12 other European countries. If the mission were stationed in Somalia, the recruits would be shot to death more quickly than they could be trained. It would also be too dangerous for the trainers. So the camp is in Uganda.
The program is called the European Union Training Mission – Somalia (EUTM-Somalia). The EU soldiers are training 551 Somali recruits who landed in Uganda in July. This is the mission’s fourth training course. “In the first three months, practically all of them are still civilians,” says Westermann. They’ll fly back to Somalia, and back to war, at the end of the year. If Westermann trains them well, they stand a chance of surviving and could possibly even help resolve a problem that has plagued the world for more than 20 years.
Militias have been fighting each other on the Horn of Africa since 1991, when then Somali dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was forced to flee the country. The violence and chaos in the country isn’t just the doing of the pirates who repeatedly hijack ships, but also of the Islamist terrorist group al-Shabab, which cooperates with al-Qaida.
The government in Mogadishu is the only hope for lasting peace. Some 10,000 soldiers, most of them from Uganda, protect Somali politicians and have driven al-Shabab out of the capital. About two weeks ago, Kenyan troops expelled the Islamists from the port city of Kismayo.
But Kenyans and Ugandans are foreigners, and even if they win, they won’t be able to maintain control over the country in the long term. The government’s army is a desolate bunch, theoretically consisting of 10,000 soldiers who are miserably trained and poorly equipped. They’re better at dying than at fighting. Europeans like Westermann are in Uganda to change that.
A Camp Full of Barriers
Getting to Bihanga involves a grueling, seven-hour drive west from Kampala, Uganda’s capital, on a highway that turns into a rural road and then a dirt road, until the only way to go forward is with all-terrain vehicles. The route leads through villages of mud huts, surrounded by burning garbage dumps and semi-wild herds of goats. Eventually there is a metal sign, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, that reads: “Bihanga Training School.”
More than 1,000 people live in Bihanga. The camp was built by British colonial rulers and later taken over by the Ugandan army. When the Europeans arrived two years ago, they got rid of the old tents and built long barracks with tin roofs that meet Western standards.
While the European soldiers stay in these barracks, Ugandan soldiers live with their families in nearby huts, which are separated from the EU camp by a fence. Chickens and goats run freely through the huts. The Ugandan soldiers’ job is to provide security for the camp and accommodations for the Somalis.
Eight female Somali recruits are housed beyond another fence, where they are kept apart from their male counterparts. They will probably cause a stir in their Muslim homeland, but Somalia needs them to search women at checkpoints to make sure that they’re not wearing explosive belts.
On this morning, the sun is beating down relentlessly, but Master Sergeant Westermann is wearing combat boots and fatigues. There are plenty of dangers in the six-square-kilometer (2.3-square-mile) training area. The tall grass hides snakes and poisonous spiders; the mosquitoes can transmit malaria. There is an obituary tacked to the wall in the mess hall for an Italian nurse who died of fever last year. And then there are the constant heat and the tropical storms, especially now that the rainy season has started.
None of this bothers Westermann. While most soldiers from EU countries refuse to come back for a second posting, Westermann volunteered to do so, saying he wanted to see how the camp had turned out. “At least we have sound housing now,” he says. “We were living in tents in 2010, which wasn’t very pleasant during the rainy season.”
He can deal with the heat and the natural dangers, but the jumble of languages in the camp is a problem, especially since English isn’t exactly his strength. It’s a challenge to explain what he expects of his Somali recruits to the Kenyan interpreter and the Ugandan soldiers.
Every day, Westermann experiences how much of what he says is lost as a result of the language barriers between German, English, Swahili and Somali. Not all of what he says is understood, even when he repeats commands six or seven times. He has already learned a few bits of Somali. He knows how to say “hurry, hurry,” a phrase he uses often. And what about “thank you?” He doesn’t know that one, he says, but it doesn’t matter. “We don’t use it here a lot,” says Westermann, as he disappears into the bush.
His recruits have just moved on when all hell breaks loose just a stone’s throw away. The boom of a hand grenade echoes off the surrounding hills. Somali recruit Mohammed Sadiq storms into a house, his assault rifle at the ready. He sees a cardboard figure in the doorway and shoots at it three times. Then he and two fellow recruits search the rooms. After about half a minute, one of the men shouts into his radio: “Building secured.” The birds are singing again before long.
The 22-year-old Sadiq wants to fight for Somalia, his friends and his family. All he knows is war. “My country is so dangerous that I need all the training I can get,” he says. For now, there are blank cartridges in the magazine of his assault rifle. But, in three months, Sadiq hopes to be shooting with live ammunition. He won’t be in the camp anymore, but fighting at one of Somalia’s many fronts with his fellow infantry soldiers. Since one of those fronts could be in an urban area, he also receives daily training in house-to-house combat. In military jargon, it’s called FIBUA, or “fighting in built-up areas.”
To be able to train the recruits under realistic conditions, the trainers have had two streets built that could just as easily be in Mogadishu or Kismayo. Portuguese soldiers named one of the streets Avenida da Liberdade, or “Avenue of Freedom,” after Lisbon’s main boulevard.
There are no roofs on many of the buildings, which allows the trainers to look down into the buildings from above to determine who would be dead and who would have won a given exercise. Captain Ricardo Jorge Silva, a Portuguese officer, isn’t satisfied with Sadiq’s group. “That was too slow!” he yells. “Think about the sequence we discussed. Secure the area, then move to the next room right away. No breaks. Do the whole thing again.” The Kenyan interpreter translates what he sa, the unit returns to the starting position and the next practice grenade explodes.
Things are quieter for the other Germans in the camp, the radio operators. While Westermann, as one of the three training sergeants, crawls through the undergrowth, Michael Wellmann is teaching his recruits the radio alphabet. Abdullahi Abditon is standing next to him at the blackboard. The 20-year-old Somali is being trained to eventually train other radio operators back in Somalia. Six of his fellow recruits are now bent over tables learning codes and keywords. “How do you recognize friend and foe during radio transmission?” the trainer asks.
“The group is so small because we’ve only assembled the best students in the class,” says Wellmann. “The first five or six weeks are tough. In some cases, we have to start with learning how to tell time. You begin to see progress after that.”
Night falls quickly in the tropics, and at about 7 p.m. it suddenly turns dark outside. The mess has a pingpong and foosball tables, and pictures of jetties in Hamburg hang on the walls. Laptop screens glow in the individual rooms. “It’s important that the Internet works at all times, otherwise the mood can quickly change for the worse in the camp. After all, it’s the most important connection to home,” says Major Sascha Repoki.
Repoki, a logistics expert, is the highest-ranking German officer in the camp. He says that every water battle, every box of breakfast cereal and every pencil has to be delivered. There isn’t even water for showers in the camp, and a tank truck rumbles past the checkpoint at the entrance to deliver it every morning. “If a chair breaks, we have to order another one from Kampala,” Repoki says.