One journalist’s time in Somalia didn’t quite prepare him for camping with Somali teens. But years later, that camping trip turned out to help a camper in a film role.
I traveled to Somalia in the summer of 1993 to cover the famine that was ravaging the country following the overthrow of President Siad Barre. One of the first things a reporter friend and I did was hook up with the Canadian air force, which was flying food aid and other emergency relief supplies into the country’s interior. After landing, my colleague and I followed the food aid to where it was being distributed to people in need.
Six months after covering the famine, I returned back to Somalia to cover the United Nations peacekeeping mission, led by the U.S. military. The presence of international troops initially helped with opening up food aid corridors. It didn’t take long, however, before the United States and the other multinational forces got embroiled in the civil war. By March 1995 the international presence in Somalia was doing more harm than good, so the United Nations pulled out all of its forces.
I hired local militias or “technicals,” as they were more commonly known, to act as my personal guards every time I traveled to Somalia. Back then, a militia-for-hire cost anywhere from $100 to $500 a day, depending on the news organization. Television crews with big budgets paid the premium, while independent journalists, like myself, would always try and negotiate the cheapest price. Problems would inevitably arise when my guards got word that other journalists were paying twice as much for protection as I was.
The term “technical” was coined in Somalia during the early 1990s to describe civilian vehicles converted for military purposes. To improve their fighting abilities, militias working for various warlords mounted anti-aircraft guns and other heavy weapons on the backs of Toyota Land Cruisers and other four-wheel drive vehicles. Two decades later, the Land Cruiser continues to be the vehicle of choice for “technicals” operating in conflict zones such as Iraq, Chad, Afghanistan, Libya, Mali and most recently, Syria.
I can’t say covering Somalia was easy. Looking back over my career, Somalia proved to be one of the most difficult assignments and probably the closest I’ve ever been to being killed. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 56 journalists have died in Somalia since 1992, making it one of the most dangerous places to work.
I left Somalia shortly after the U.N. peacekeepers arrived and never returned.
I thought my relationship with the country was pretty much over until my wife was offered a job transfer to Minneapolis, Minn.
After moving to the U.S. in 2009, one of the first things I did was look for volunteer opportunities to occupy my time. I also felt that volunteering would be a good way to reconnect with a country I had not lived in for over a quarter of a century.
A year after we arrived, I hooked up with Big City Mountaineers, a nonprofit organization that takes underprivileged urban youth into the wilderness. From the Upper Midwest, the group takes teenagers on eight-day canoe trips into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of northern Minnesota. My first outing to the canoeing area was with a group of Latino teens from Chicago. The following summer I accompanied a group of Somali- and Ethiopian-born immigrant youth from the Brian Coyle Center in Minneapolis, a community center dedicated to helping integrate new arrivals and refugees.
Every group had its challenges, but all were mild when compared to the Somali teenagers. For starters — and through no fault of their own — nobody had prepared them properly for the trip and the responsibilities that came with being in the wilderness for an extended period of time. After eight days that saw everything from fighting to disobeying orders, I was relieved when we all made it out in one piece.
The most difficult of the teenagers was Barkhat Abdirahman. Even though he was the brightest kid on the trip, he was also the most unpredictable. Once when we were paddling, Barkhat, who was sitting in the middle of my canoe, got into an altercation with another teen at the bow of the boat. In order to defuse the tension and save the canoe from capsizing, I pulled over to a small island. Barkhat immediately jumped out of the canoe and refused to get back inside. By then our guide and the rest of the group were out of sight and all I could do was wait until they returned before settling the problem diplomatically.
On another occasion, Barkhat got into a fistfight with one of his peers that could have turned ugly if it wasn’t for our quick-thinking guide who stepped in and separated the two boys.
Our guide, a former hockey player, later confided to me that in all his years of taking teenagers into the wilderness, this was the hardest trip he ever led. If it were just in the context of Big City Mountaineers trips, I could easily understand. However, before working as a guide for the organization, he had spent four years in Alaska taking hardened teenage criminals — including some convicted of murder — on 50-day expeditions into the Alaskan wilderness.
In November 2011, five months after returning from the Boundary Waters, there was a casting call posted at the Brian Coyle Center for Somali youth to act in a Tom Hanks film.
Hundreds of Somali Americans auditioned, including Barkhat. After numerous callbacks and script readings, Barkhat, or “Little B,” as he was later nicknamed to differentiate him from Barkhat Abdi, the Oscar nominee, got the part of Bilal, the youngest of the pirates, in the film “Captain Phillips.”
After seeing the film, I was curious to speak with Barkhat and congratulate him on a job well done. It had been a few years since I had last seen him on the Big City Mountaineers trip, and I was almost certain that the next time his name came up in conversation it would be because he had gotten into trouble.
One of the first things Barkhat told me when we met was how grateful he was to have experienced the Boundary Waters. He said that the time he spent in the canoe helped him in the movie, especially in the scene when the four pirates were crammed inside the tiny rescue boat with Hanks for days on end.
Barkhat, along with his co-stars Barkhat Abdi, Faysal Ahmed and Mahat Ali, gave such authentic portrayals of Somali pirates that I had a hard time differentiating their characters from the “technicals” that I had interacted with two decades earlier.