Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Mary Harper's "Everything You Have Told Me Is True"

Mary Harper, the BBC Africa Editor, has reported on Africa and from its conflict zones for a quarter-century. The author of Getting Somalia Wrong? Faith, War and Hope in a Shattered State, she has served as an expert witness and advised the European Commission on the Horn of Africa, and contributes to The Times, Guardian, and Economist.

Harper applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Everything You Have Told Me Is True: The Many Faces of Al Shabaab, and reported the following:
From page 99:
… government to live and visit their hotels, then transform themselves into legitimate targets. We have warned civilians to stay away from such hotels. So it is entirely the fault of the cleaners and other hotel employees if they get killed. They know that we consider as an enemy every person who visits or works at such hotels. We repeat this again and again. If you don’t want to get killed, stay away from such places. Cleaners, guards, cooks and chefs. If they go there, it is their fault for getting killed. Basically, they go there just to die.’

It was time to end the call.

‘Please take care, Mary, especially while driving. Bye bye. Have a lovely weekend.’

The following day I received a WhatsApp message from a friend who works as a journalist in the Somali capital. It said ‘Horrible blasts in Mogadishu yesterday’ and was accompanied by a video. True to my friend’s message, the scenes in the video were of unadulterated horror. Mangled remains of vehicles lay in piles on the street, next to the giant sandbags that formed the perimeter wall of the Sahafi. Bodies, some intact, others in pieces, were scattered around them on the ground, lying in large pools of dark blood. Members of the Somali security services wandered around, seemingly oblivious to the carnage around them. They walked in easy, loping style; there was no sense of urgency or panic. A few of them issued directions, but nobody seemed to be paying much attention. Some of the bodies strewn on the ground started to move. They pulled themselves up slowly with bewildered, dazed expressions on their faces, as if waking from a dream. Some sat up in their own blood; others rolled to one side and stayed there in the dust. Nobody went to help them.

In order to hit high-value targets like the owners of the Sahafi and General Dhagabadan, Al Shabaab needs informants inside the hotels to tell them who is visiting at any particular time. Sometimes the attackers are hotel employees. In one case, a…
I got lucky.

When I turned to page 99, it captured much of the essence of what I had tried to do with the book. To get inside the minds of members of the East African Islamist group, Al Shabaab, which has spread so much terror throughout the region for over a decade; to explain something about the uncomfortable relationship I have with the movement; and to describe the horrors it and other armed groups and individuals have perpetrated in Somalia and the wider region.

The page starts with an excerpt of a conversation I had with an Al Shabaab militant who phoned to inform me about an attack the group had carried out on a hotel in the Somali capital Mogadishu, killing several people including some I knew personally. My book contains many such conversations, the aim to reveal how members of the group think and how they try to justify their actions. It also contains testimonies from people who have suffered under Al Shabaab, who have lost friends and family members, and who have fought or otherwise worked for the group, either voluntarily or because they were forced to do so.

Page 99 also shows how Al Shabaab appears to care for me as a person, despite carrying out so many attacks on innocent civilians and despite my representing so many elements the group despises, such as being a non-Muslim and a Westerner. This time, the militant showed concern about the most mundane of things – the fact that I was driving my car while speaking to him on the phone.

More than half of the page is taken up with a description of the carnage created by the Al Shabaab attack, a central theme of the book which aims to take the reader to the heart of the issue through vivid reportage and lively dialogue. The end of the page offers some analysis of how Al Shabaab operates. This was another major aim of the book, but to always do so by bringing it to a very human, accessible level.

One thing page 99 fails to do is show how some other interest groups, local and foreign, exploit the existence of Al Shabaab for their own profit. But, all in all, it gives a pretty good flavour of the book, its style and its substance.
Visit Mary Harper's website.

--Marshal Zeringue