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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Held at gunpoint in Somalia

Cape Town journalists Chris Everson and Anton van der Merwe, who were arrested by security police in Somaliland as suspected mercenaries and detained for 10 days, arrived back yesterday saying they had simply “been in the wrong place at the wrong time”.

The experienced film crew, who covered violence in the Cape Flats in the 1980s and conflict in the Gulf, Afghanistan and Pakistan, say with hindsight they should have found out more about their filming assignment in Puntland, a semi-autonomous region in northern Somalia.

“We weren’t briefed on the assignment really except that it was about training of security guards. We got to Entebbe and were told ‘jump on this charter’, which had a Russian crew. We didn’t even know what was on board the plane. It was a big learning curve”, sound man Van der Merwe said from his Tokai home yesterday.

The two often work for the American television network CBS’s 60 Minutes. But this assignment was commissioned by a friend and former CBS producer, Shawn Efran, who has his own film company.

They flew Kenyan Airways to Entebbe on December 8 and were due to leave on the Russian Antonov charter the same day, but were told to wait until December 10 for cargo to arrive on an SAA flight.

Everson said: “The only others on board were the six Russian crew, who couldn’t speak English. We didn’t know the flight plan, only that it was a nine-hour flight via Addis Ababa. After about three hours we landed in Hargeisa in Somaliland to refuel.

“The back of the plane was down and we were waiting. Some guys in uniform arrived and they searched our stuff, then the cargo. In the boxes were T-shirts and boots and instruments for looking under cars, innocuous stuff, not military. I didn’t know what was in the boxes; they came off the SAA plane. Then suddenly they said we were under arrest,” Everson said.

The security police took them to a hotel, confiscated their cellphones, laptops and satellite phone, and instructed the hotel staff not to allow them to make or receive any calls.

“They said the T-shirts and boots were military stuff,” Everson said.

The South Africans and Russians protested that hey they knew nothing about the cargo, but to no avail.

“We had no way of letting anyone know what had happened, but then Anton remembered he had a cheap throw-away cellphone he had bought in Kurdistan. There was a little store next to the hotel and we bought a sim card and airtime, so we were able to phone our families, which was golden,” Everson said.

“There was a New Zealand guy in the hotel and I scribbled a letter and said please believe me when I say what I am and I’ve got a CBS card and ID, and e-mail this to my wife.”

They were restricted to the hotel, and if they went too near the gate, soldiers with AK-47s ordered them back.

“Sadly, we’d left two bottles of whiskey on the plane, because that place is dry.”

Days later, Matt Bryden, co-ordinator of the UN Security Council’s Monitoring Group on Somalia, arrived to question them, at the request of the Somaliland authorities. Bryden said there was a UN embargo on transporting military goods into Somalia and the clothing on the aircraft was considered military goods.

“He said: ‘You’re under arrest and you’ve been charged. If I don’t agree with your story, I will report back to them precisely that. If I say you are what you say you are, I will say that, and the problem will be solved.’ After an hour-and-a-half he said he was satisfied with our story. ‘I can see you are in the wrong place at the wrong time and I will communicate that to the Somali authorities. You should be out of here soon’. Then he left.

“We heard nothing until the next night; the CID guys came back and took us to an appaling place that was dark, dirty, smelly, with a bare bulb on a cord and said: ‘This is where you are staying.’

“We were at a pretty low point as clearly things had taken a turn for the worse.”

But after a short while, they were marched out of the building to the Safari Hotel where they were left for eight days.

“We made friends with the waiters, fine guys, and they brought us the best pawpaws and mangoes.”

Meanwhile Bryden had travelled to South Africa and was in contact with the South African and Somali authorities and both men’s families.

“He was keeping us all sane. He’s the most amazing man,” he said.

Ten days after their arrest, they were told they could leave.

Asked about reports that they were to film counter-piracy operations run by Saracen International, headed by Lafra Luitingh of the defunct South African mercenary company, Executive Outcomes, Everson said: “We have no connection with them at all. We were doing a legitimate story about security training in Puntland. I’m quite sure that the people being trained were in some way connected with the piracy threat, but we don’t know who was training them.”



By Melanie Gosling
Cape Times

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