So close, yet so far in Kismayo

Though al-Shabab has been forced out of the port city, it remains nearly impossible to get around.

Sometimes as a reporter, you can feel out on a limb, isolated both physically and in the way you understand a story.

And so it is here in Kismayo – the hot, dry port city in southern Somalia, where the afternoon breezes whip up gritty red dust that gets into your teeth.

We’re told that Kismayo is a beautiful city.

I’ll have to take their word for it, because it looks as though we are not going to see it.

Kismayo has been an elusive story, ever since the Kenyan military successfully pushed al-Shabab out, just over a month ago.

The town is the heart of the south – the economic hub that connects southern Somalia with neighbours Kenya and Ethiopia.

It has a devilishly complex mix of clans with a history of conflict.

An increasingly rancorous argument over who should control the port threatens to shatter the fragile peace that settled in here after al-Shabab left.

On top of it, there is the charcoal – a multi-million dollar stockpile that I wrote about previously that has become the focus of a row between the Kismayo business community, neighbouring states and Mogadishu.

All those problems have made the town an icon of the wider crisis facing Somalia, which is why it is so fascinating for journalists covering the country.

But from the outset, access has been almost impossible.

The Kenyan military, fighting in African Union helmets, have been in control of “Sector 2” – the southern portion of the country – for much of the past year. You can’t get in or out of Kismayo without their say-so.

Land, sea and air routes are all theirs. That makes independent travel impossible.

Believe me – we have considered everything from chartering our own aircraft to getting on a local fishing trawler to get in, and not one is likely to get us past the edge of town.

So, official visits are the only option, and we have had no less than five false starts.

For reasons that have never fully been explained, every time we have been invited on one, it has been cancelled.
In the absence of any clear answers, it has been increasingly hard to escape the conclusion that someone is trying to hide things.

So when the opportunity finally came to join a special presidential task force on a visit to Kismayo, it seemed that at last our luck had changed.

Surely, a high-level delegation sent from the president himself to investigate charcoal, would be able to move through all the parts of town that we were interested in – the charcoal stockpiles, the port, the business community… What could go wrong?

Plenty, it turns out.

Just before the task force was due to board the aircraft along with a group of journalists, we here told the flight had been cancelled due to “security concerns” that were never fully explained.

Two days later, we finally flew in, but on arrival, the sector commander anounced that Ahmed Madobe – the commander of the Ras Kamboni militia that has been working with the Kenyans to oust al-Shabab – had declined to see anyone with the group.

While the Kenyans control access to town, Madobe controls its centre, so without his say-so, movement is impossible.

And worse, he warned he couldn’t guarantee security if anyone left the airport compound.

To the delegates, that sounded like a thinly veiled threat, and the Kenyans seemed to be more prepared to do Madobe’s bidding than the president’s.

So, what is really going on in Kismayo? We still don’t know.

The charcoal task force was put on a plane straight back to Mogadishu, well short of the three days they had planned to spend in the town.

And the journalists are still stuck.

There is no plane to take us out, and Madobe won’t let us go in.

We are so close, and yet so far…

Peter Greste is now safely back in Mogadishu.

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