Reportage Somalia: EUTM-S and the Somali Army - "... we were African Italians and we were proud of it!"

(To Giusy Federici)

“We had planned an exercise for today. She will do it too, even if she has just arrived. So he immediately realizes how life is here ”, General Matteo Spreafico, commander of the EUTM Somalia Mission, tells me after the usual presentations. We are in the compound that houses the Italians and the other Europeans of the mission, in turn inside the Mogadishu airport, the immense "security bubble" compared to the outside, where people shoot every day for a minimum of litigation, the Somalis between them and someone against the checkpoints for protection, not to mention the attacks in Al Shabaab, including explosive vehicles and suicides.

Around 2 in the afternoon, I am sitting outside my accommodation: at that time the sun beats down and I enjoy some shade thanks to the special anti-mortar cover, added a year ago, after the shots arrived here too ... In the distance I hear shots, unmistakable, it is clearly a Kalashnikov. I say to myself: "Here, the exercise is starting ... fantastic, they also simulate the attack with the Ak!". In fact, after 10 minutes the alarm is given and the exercise begins with the safety procedures I learned during the specific briefing. We all find ourselves in the bunker, military and civilians, as established, each with their own role and assigned place. A major attack is simulated. 

"Giusy, have you heard that there have been blows?", Asks Major Marco Specchia, the PI (Public Information Officer, ed) of the mission, just finished the whole thing. "Sure" - I reply - "you were very good, it was very credible". 

“Look, they were real shots, at this moment we have little news, but it is said that they fired at one of the check points at the entrance to the airport. We are checking". I do not believe it. It will take two days to convince me that those shots were not included in the tutorial ... Welcome to Mogadishu!

European Union Training Mission Somalia, EUTM-S, is the European Union training mission in Somalia. Italy gives the greatest contribution in men, women and employees (116 compared to 16 in Spain, which is second for attendance) and since 2014 has obtained the lead. The commander of EUTM-S is the general Matteo Spreafico (see interview).

In the mission area, the International Campus, the soldiers of eight countries besides Italy live together: Spain, Serbia, Finland, Great Britain, Sweden, Portugal, Romania, Hungary, civilians from other missions of the European Union, the staff of the Italian Embassy and of other nations. We are inside the Mogadishu International Airport (MIA), whose control is entrusted to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Here we try to give that minimum of comfort to those who are around every day to risk their lives, we try to take care of the structures that, overlooking the sea, need continuous maintenance because the saltiness and the fine sand not only corrode the walls, but also the weapons and vehicles.

Each nation has brought a piece of motherland: for example, we have Casa Italia, managed by the Italian National Support Element under the command of Colonel Pino Rossi, the Finns a small sauna, etc. And there is the church, inside a tent in the Lince parking lot, a white parachute in the background of the altar, on the sides the archangel Saint Michael and a memorial stone commemorating the soldiers who fell in Somalia. Don Stefano Tollu, the Air Force military chaplain, takes care of it.

Our soldiers do this: they risk their lives to help the Somalis in their transition from a state of chaos, after decades of civil war, to normal. They help them to rebuild their future as their past, to give them back a nation, to rebuild the army but also their identity. And, let's make it clear, we as Italy and as the European Union, we're here because the Somalis want it. That, even, we would like to be more present, because despite what you think in Italy, the Somalis do not see us as former colonizers, but as people we have given without asking so much. The older ones, who speak Italian because they attended the schools with the teachers of our mother country, tell us without much compliment: after the end of the protectorate, in the years' 60, you had to stay. They even feel a little betrayed. The younger ones know less, many speak Turkish instead of Italian, because here Turkey (like the Arab Emirates) is investing heavily in infrastructure, has built a huge military base and its embassy is in the center Mogadishu, a few steps from where it was ours that instead falls apart as much of the Italian colonial heritage. English is known everywhere and many US and British business realities are investing locally. Italy in this sector is not there, probably always for that politically correct for which investing by Italian entrepreneurs in Somalia would mean neo-colonialism. Perhaps studying the history of Somalia, or rather having it told by the Somalis themselves and asking them what they would like from our country, would not be bad.

At this moment Somalia is an insecure place. Mogadishu is no exception. In one of the exits for the city, I was on the Lince with the boys of the Security Support Element, of the 7 ° alpine regiment of Belluno. They are the famous ones Guardian Angels, they transport people to various places, they secure the instructors of the GDTC and the mentors at Villa Gashandigha, the Somali counterpart of our defense staff. They are always the ones who provide security inside the IC in case of an alarm. The Close Protection Team, with the rangers of the 4 ° alpine paratroopers regiment of Verona, is instead responsible for the security of the commander. Extraordinary kids, everyone.

During the trip, the communication arrived via radio that in the road we had to travel there had just been an explosion and an alternative route was recommended. Anything that seems anomalous is alarming, whether people are looking in another direction as they pass or too little traffic in our direction of travel.

This is Mogadishu. And this is the life that our soldiers do, always in constant tension because the ambush is around the corner. Seamless. But Somalia wants to return to normal, you see it from small things like an ATM, to requests to replenish an army able to grant sovereignty again. And he asked it, first of all to the Italians who put their skills in, in addition to the heart and all this is recognized in the international arena, even in the local media silence.


The EUTM-S mission is basically of a training type. I had the opportunity to visit the GDTC: General Dhagabadan Training Center, the EUTM-S training location: here instructors of various nationalities (with me in the morning there were Italians, Finns and Spaniards) train the soldiers who will then join the Somali army . Over the years 5.774 soldiers have been trained, 130 those in training.

At the entrance everyone is checked by Guardian Angels, also the students.

The Somali army operates part of the GTDC-1. “When someone wants to enlist, they come here”, commented General Mohamed Mohamud Saney, who commands the structure and who speaks our language. The GDTC-2 training center is instead under the responsibility of EUTM-S and trains simple soldiers, some non-commissioned officers and future trainers.

The training of the morning, after the theoretical part, was on tactical combat medicine, from transporting the wounded in a safe area while shooting around you, to the management of massive hemorrhage with a rudimentary tourniquet, "because in emergency you do not always have adequate devices, often you have to act with what you have available ", observes one of the Italian trainers.

Recruitment in Somalia is voluntary.

It starts from the abc, from the classification, up to the use of weapons. He is Italian, an officer of the carabinieri, the "mentor" of EUTM-S who is collaborating with Somali military leaders to draft a new code of military behavior, that basic ethics for which one recognizes a soldier.

Mohamed Hussein Iman, 28 years and 5 sons and Aden Mohamed Diriye, 30 years and 6 sons, are the two soldiers who wanted to explain the reason for their choice. Both of Mogadishu, are two guys aware that to pacify Somalia we must get involved and choose which side to be.

"My father is a ascar, so it seemed natural to enlist me ", Mohamed's comment. For us Italians the term ascar it is evocative of a time that was, while in reality the word simply means "soldier". In fact, "I have heard about the ascari and of Italy, but I do not know much", says the boy. No one, however, in the family of Aden, is military, but "I enlisted because I understood that the nation needs an army, which serves for the stabilization of the country and for peace," he notes. What is perceived is the desire for normality on the part of these boys, who are very young and already have a family, but have decided to engage in the first person. And they are happy to participate in the stabilization path of Somalia and to do so through the Army.

Talking about the stabilization of Somalia, at this moment, also means defeating or at least reducing banditry in the form of terror of Al Shabaab, which, in certain fringes of the population, the poorest and the one most co-opted by the extremist (non-Somali!) Koranic schools since the beginning of the civil war, it has found happy ground in replacing a government that no longer existed except nominally. Today, with a reconstituted government, which no matter how fragile it is, if nothing else, an interlocutor with whom to interface also at an international level, there is hope even if the road is all uphill.

"My brother was killed in a fight with Al Shabaab," says Aden, and then you understand that besides the desire for peace there is a further, strong motivation to wear the uniform and take up a weapon. As soon as they enter the army, they know that at any moment they might die for the nation. And this happens often. There is not a day that there is no explosion in Mogadishu and a policeman, a soldier, a civilian are killed on the ground.

The boys first took a course run by the Arab Emirates in another training center. But they find the training with the EUTM-S instructors "much better, much more organized and professional". They realize that they are the only ones who can stabilize the country: from within.

Once the Somali, before the civil war, was one of the best armies in the world, where women had their own role, important and operational. In the 1974 here there was the first female pilot, but before that there was female recruitment, in a period in which even in Italy it was not discussed, or almost, whether women could enter the armed forces or not. For them, however, it is normal to reconcile the stars with the family and on a voluntary basis like men. For example, Ruun Diriye Qutur, non-commissioned officer and Qadro Jaamac Mohamed, graduate troop. The motivations are the same as men: "I love Somalia, I joined up to contribute to the stability and security of my country," they say. Ruun is the daughter of a soldier, Qadro no. They are respected like men, the salary is the same as the homework. They are soldiers, but also wives and mothers: Ruun has seven children, Qadro three, but he is younger and will have others. It is not easy. "It is a challenge, we know, but we are convinced that we must do everything possible for the nation. It is difficult to serve the army and the nation and carry on the family, but if you want you can do it, "they say.

If for them it is a challenge, for us it is a lesson, if only for patriotism.

Villa Gashandiga

Villa Gashandiga is the headquarters of the Minister of Defense and the General Staff of the Army and Defense in Somalia. It is important to go through here to understand how we work, Italians, Europeans and Somalis. In addition to the part of training, where EUTM-S trains the soldiers up to the company level, including combat, as well as the training of future trainers, there is all the part of advisory which comes up to the Chief of Staff of the Army and Defense and, sometimes, even to the Minister of Defense himself, because the European Union is keen to interface with all parties.

Here advice is given to reestablish the Somali armed forces, planning and conducting at a strategic level. Various buildings, which contain various aspects of Defense, including personnel and transport. The building C is one of those structures built by the European Union, inaugurated in December 2017 "They are teaching rooms built with European funds. Some have computers, there is training. They were designed for the Ministry of Defense but are also used by the Somali armed forces for various activities, both for the military and for civilians. In February 2018, for example, a mini staff course was organized here for some officers: a couple of weeks to teach them the basic techniques of staffing, planning and conduct"- explains Colonel Stefano Santoro while he points me to Colonel Osman -"The person in charge of relations with the outside, one of our points of reference when there is to solve some problem. With the European funds, among other things, we have also arranged the main entrance. There would still be a lot of work to be done, for example an emergency exit, which is missing here. We are asking the European Union to finance our project, as we are to rebuild the wall to increase the passive safety of Villa Gashandiga, a specific request by the Somalis. We welcome their requests and try to transform them, albeit with great difficulty, into projects in order to have the funds".

In another building there is a "control room" where Italians explain the information systems for a minimum of monitoring in the territory and that has also become a job opportunity. "We do not intervene with our approach to the issues, but we identify with what their mentality is. We meet. And so we get results", Says the Italian officer who takes care of this part.

At Villa Gashandiga all the military, of every rank, speak Italian. We had a chat with two officers of the Defense General Staff ...

"In Italy I went on my own, there I have two sisters and a brother, I stayed 8 years. I studied your language here, at school, where I had a good teacher”Says one of the two officers. "We do what we can, there is always help that Italians and Europeans offer, it would take more, but it's a good start. Sometimes I think we are not asking in the right way, that we do not specify what we want in Europe, that we ask the wrong question".

What would be the right question?

"The right question should be that Europeans need to help us grow mentally rather than economically. As that famous saying goes, it is better to teach to fish than to give fish. Perhaps today the European Union is halfway giving both fish and fishing rod. We must be honest: I think it is better for my country that Italy - two nations traditionally linked, we can say that we are brothers - is more present. But if we don't ask the right questions, Italy won't be able to give us what we want. Sometimes Italy, since we were a colony, therefore we were Italians, could present Somalia in our place in an international context. And I don't think the European Union is opposed, since Italy is part of the same EU. Your country can advise us on how to act, it can give us directions, within the EU".

The problem, in Italy, is just that: Somalia is a former colony and it is feared that it would be seen in a neoconialist key, the issue at the political level is delicate.

"Sometimes it is we Somalis who do not make ourselves understood. But I can say with certainty that Italians and Italy are well regarded in Somalia, which is why it can give more. The embassy, ​​the Italian consulate in Mogadishu is a beautiful, uninhabited building (in the city center, ed). We must take risks, come and integrate with the people. It is said that people don't go there for security reasons, but security won't improve if the embassy stays inside the airport. If the embassy and consulate moved there, perhaps for the first few months, even for just a few hours a day, it would be a good thing. After all, there are the military, who can defend. Everywhere in the world, your soldiers have defended Italy with honor, I cannot think they cannot do so here in Mogadishu. If the Italians took that step forward, the other Europeans would probably follow them too".

Today only the Turks have an embassy in the center of Mogadishu, a beautiful location near the port.

"In my opinion - continues the major - today the Turks are playing a role that should belong to Italy, which should have arrived first, because there are so many Italians who died for Somalia, even 60 years ago. And that their death must not be in vain. I'm not saying it will be a walk in the park, but there should at least be the idea".

Somalia is rich in internal resources, as well as on the coast, it has an extremely fertile land, pastoralism is an important economic item so much that the country has been exporting meat throughout Africa. Not to mention the riches of the soil.

"Above all, human wealth. The Somali, when he decides to roll up his sleeves, is a hard worker ...”, Observes EUTM-S colonel Stefano Santoro.

"What Colonel Santoro says is true. But Italy can give us the incentive. Since we can do it, it will be a push to move forward. And even the new generations are easy to drive. Those who know what Somalia 50 was like years ago, we can be the guide. There is still a need for a leader, but the community can become a leader of itself. The Somali, in itself, young or not, can have an open mind. The right mentality is the most important thing ...".

"I too studied in Italian schools, in the 60 years", Observes the other officer, the general. "Now I started practicing again because my Italian EUTM-S friends often come to visit us". 

"You want to know about the relations between Italy and Somalia, right? ... We, as you know, were an Italian colony. And we, after the fall of the state, we thought that Italy would intervene, helping us not to lose our government. Italy has failed ...".

I ask if the Somalis feel a bit betrayed ...

"Yup…", He replies with respectful embarrassment. "… Because the other states that gravitated to Africa have not completely lost relations with their former colonies. Those my age think so. Perhaps less young people today, because they don't know that the Italians were our direct partners, all the professors came here to teach. I don't know if the Italians realize their mistake".

The general is a historical memory of the Somali armed forces, where today the young people who enlist seem to have an awareness of the importance of defending their country. "Italian soldiers who give us a hand like Stefano (Colonel Santoro, nda ...), they understand and know that the Somalis had the best army in Africa by size and strength, which fell along with the state. We had entire battalions of all women. After all, the Somali woman is the pillar that holds everything together, she is a strong woman who wants to do more than us men. And we are happy to have women who think so, we are proud of it. The Somali woman knows what she wants. The oldest in the armed forces today holds the role of colonel (From Thursday 16 August a woman is head of the Somali police, ed.). In this, Somalia is ahead of you Italians ...".

Now, to rebuild, it will take a long time. "In my opinion, we have to build new barracks, those that were taken by civilians to live there. Without barracks we can not reunite or rebuild the armed forces: now the soldier takes his turn, with his rifle and then goes home. What military is it ?! We have asked Italy and the European Union for new barracks as they continue to train troops and instructors. It's important. Rebuilding a new army and how to do it does not depend on others, it is the Somali State that has to think about it. Without military there is no sovereignty, no independence exists, no state exists. The government wants to rebuild the army, but we need help, especially from Italy". 

"If I can intrude", Observes the major,"today the Italians we have here are under the 'umbrella' of the European Union. The European Union is fine, but we would also like the Italian presence as it once was, with us, more and alone, with a direct link as well as with Europe. You tell me that in Italy the problem is political and delicate because we were your colony? I don't consider myself a colony, I consider myself Italian. We were Italians. This word, 'colonia', is not credible: we were African Italians and we were proud of it! Why can't we go back to being one?". A similar question, which is posed by most Somalis, can only be answered by Italian politics.

Xooga Military Hospital

Xooga Military Hospital of Mogadishu is perhaps the only activity of mentoring, for the part of military health, of all the operational theaters where we are present. It is also, for over 20 years, the only example of a military medical facility in Somalia. Operational 24 hours a day, every day, it is also open to civilians, for the latter thanks to CIMIC funds, an activity of the Italian Ministry of Defense for civil / military cooperation in support of the local population. The EUTM-S mission, on the other hand, did a menting / advisoring job with the Somali armed forces for the creation of a medical body and related structures that were already theirs.

In this case the Xooga Hospital, which also in the past was an important point of reference for the entire district. With the war, the part of military health in Somalia was completely eliminated. Now, through EUTM-S, we try to reactivate it and the Xooga hospital is the focal part. Most of the doctors are military, such as the Somali Army Major Mahad Abdulahi Nor, surgeon and commanding officer of Somali military health, as well as supervisor at Xooga along with the hospital director, Khadija Einte, who is a civilian. There are also students from Somali universities who come here to do their internship. In the beginning, instead of masonry there were tents and containers. It is since 2014 that they have begun to clean up the area here (in the surroundings, the structures are riddled with shots) and the renovation works as well as the supply of equipment and medicines began. The tents, today, are inside and separate the various rooms, from those that welcome the patients, many injured in the limbs and even mothers with children.

"Some doctors have been sent abroad to attend specialization courses. When they return, our intention is to open the various departments such as Orthopedics, Surgery, etc", Explains Major Mahad Abdulahi Nor.

"Sometimes we receive things that are not needed. What we need now is drugs like aspirin, antibiotics to treat the wounded, ointments. It is still a general hospital, at this stage it is better to have generic medicines. And I say thank you, thank you, thanks to Italy. Without the Italians we would have had nothing", The greeting of the director Khadija Einte.

(photo of the author)