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What’s in a name?

By Dewaine Farria 

“They’ll end it tonight.”

I was in Mogadishu when the siege at the Westgate shopping mall dragged into its third day. I was having the same conversation with a friend in Nairobi that the rest of the world was having  – we were speculating about when the Kenyan security forces would end it.

“I bet those troops are looting that mall,” my friend commented, surprising me.         

“What? No way…” I said. The possibility hadn’t even occurred to me. “Those are their best troops,” I told her indignantly. “This,” I sputtered, “This is their moment.” I was offended on behalf of the Kenyan security services. Who were we to question the dedication of the men risking their lives to face a determined, well-armed group not only willing to die for their cause, but expecting to be rewarded in heaven for doing so? 

“You’re such an American,” my friend sighed. I work for an international organization, so I’m told this pretty often, usually by the same people who, when pleased with my behavior, will inform me that I’m “not an American at all.”

She was right on the first count – some members of the Kenyan security services used the carnage at Westgate as an opportunity to loot the upscale shopping mall. I’m not so sure about the second count though. In the wake of such events, is it a uniquely American phenomenon to desperately want to believe in the dedication and professionalism of the institutions charged with your safety?

Long before their army’s incursion into southern Somalia in 2011, Kenyans were aware of the presence of militant elements in their country. What they probably didn’t know was just how poorly the institutions charged with their safety would carry out their orders. The Kenyan Security Services failed on a tactical level. For the Kenyan people, it was a fist full of salt smeared on a fresh wound.     

***

My initial reaction to my friend’s distrust of the Kenyan Security Services had a lot to do with the attack on the UN Common Compound (UNCC) in Mogadishu a few months ago. When taking donors or diplomats on tours of the UNCC, one of them would usually take a long glance at our motley group of guards – with their khat-stained teeth and uniforms hanging off their rail thin bodies – and ask, “Do you trust these guys?”   

“With my life,” I’d respond immediately. 

In the UN, Minimum Operating Security Standards (MOSS) is shorthand for things like: ‘stand-off distance,’ shatter resistant film, and armored vehicles. While these things are important, the best protection is to surround yourself with tough, loyal, local allies. I (and the other international UN security personnel based in Mogadishu) worked closely with our guard force, both on mission throughout the city and at the UNCC. We’d seen their reactions, gauged their professionalism, and respected them deeply. 

I was at the UNCC when it came under attack on June 19, 2013. I’ve been hesitant to write about it because I don’t think of the day of the attack as my story to tell. 

“After the SVBIED detonated at the front gate, I knew they would be coming,” one of our guards told me later. Instead of running to the rear of the compound after the explosion, he nestled his cheek against his rifle on top of a Hesco bastion and took aim at the gaping hole in the gate.  Then he waited. He killed two Al-Shabaab militants, took two bullets in the leg and would only allow himself to be evacuated after running out of ammunition. 

No, what happened at the UNCC on June 19, 2013 isn’t my story.  It’s the story of a ragtag group of Somali guards holding off a determined enemy for almost an hour to save my and the other foreigners’ lives. What happened that day was our guards’ story. And it’s a good one. They earned their reputation that day. Right or wrong, those men’s story left me sensitive to condescending comments from foreigners regarding the ‘quality’ of African security personnel.    

***

“No matter how much someone tries to convince you otherwise, he probably has exactly the reputation that he has earned.” 

The blip of solidarity in the American public consciousness immediately following 9/11 was very much wrapped up in the universal admiration of the heroism of the first-responders. No matter what you thought of the motives of the hijackers or the wars and laws that followed, it was (and still is) sacrilege to disparage the women and men who responded to the World Trade Center on that day. This carried over for the troops who fought in the wars that followed. Everyone, from politicians to actors, knows to tiptoe around the troops. 

But we don’t have to look too far back in our popular cultural – I’m thinking of films like “Serpico” and “Platoon” – to be reminded just how poorly institutions like the NYPD and the U.S. Army used to be viewed.  This general strong faith in our security institutions is a recent phenomenon. It is part overcompensation for the scorn Vietnam veterans received when they returned home, part a vague sense of guilt for the unequal sharing of our wars’ burdens, and part response to 9/11.

I’ve worked with the security services in Ukraine, Kenya, Russia and Somalia; I’m pretty far from a wide-eyed optimist when it comes to assessing these types of organizations. Yes, institutional reputations matter and they’re earned – but they’re not set in stone. The thing that surprises my acquaintances most about my job is when I tell them about the quality of the men I’ve worked with in these places. Many of the men were drawn to their country’s security services through a desperate desire to believe in platitudes like honor, service, and commitment.  The same high-minded reasons which prompt most of the Americans who join the FBI, Marine Corps or Highway Patrol. Feel free to roll your eyes here, but there is something great and wonderful about young men who desperately want to believe in these things. And it’s reassuring to know that that type of belief doesn’t know any borders. 

Right now there’s a Kenyan officer or servicemen manning a post at a Forward Operating Base in Lower Juba, Somalia or at the rifle range in Embakasi, Kenya who’s promising himself that he’ll be part of a force that Kenya can be proud of. 

Feel free to roll your eyes here. But I for one wish him the best of luck.   

*****

*****

Dewaine Farria is a Field Security Coordination Officer in the United Nations Department of Safety and Security. He blogs at www.facebook.com/Moments.Shades.Angles and http://fsconotebook.blogspot.com/.

[Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

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