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Factional Militia Attack Health Workers in Somalia - 2002-03-14

This week, a VOA-TV reporter got more than he bargained for when he went to cover a polio campaign in the Somali capital. Brian Padden arrived in Mogadishu on Monday to cover the drive by UNESCO and the World Health Organization to inoculate the city's children.

He was accompanied by the campaign's coordinator for Southern Somalia, Mohammed Hussein. Acting as security for the convoy of health workers was a truckload of sixteen-year-old boys carrying machine guns. They took Mr. Padden, Mr. Hussein, and the vaccinators through Mogadishu's various neighborhoods where the campaigns were being carried out. The VOA-TV reporter says for the most part, a "festive atmosphere" prevailed. But that changed when the convoy got to the Chingani neighborhood in the old part of the city near the ocean front.

"I was pushed into the building by one of the vaccinators and told to hide there," said Mr. Padden. "As I got into the building, I heard gunfire very close and I ran for cover in one of the rooms. When it settled down, Mohammed Hussein was knocking on the door telling me to come out, this is wrong place to be...when there’s gunfire you should not hide in a building, you should run like a Somali."

Mr. Padden says that means taking to the alleys of the Mogadishu: "What I was told by Mohammed is that they would not want to kill you, they would be more intent on kidnapping me for ransom money. People are out of work and they want money. The strategy for not being in the house is that if I ran into the house I’m trapped there and if they came and entered the house there is no where to go and I’m stuck."

Mr. Padden says there's another advantage to the back alleyways: they're too narrow for the big trucks with the anti-aircraft guns mounted on the back to proceed through. He says people will also take you into their homes for protection, and it's even possible to find a cab to take into a safer part of town.

"We started running through the small alleyways to get of the area, and we heard more gunfire. We came out at another point, and our car caught up to us as the gunfire subsequently ended. We got into our car and proceeded to leave the neighborhood when we were fired upon. The security detail in front of us was hit twice. It blew out a couple of tires – but luckily, no one was hurt."

Later, Mr. Padden learned the polio vaccination team may not have been the target of the militia: "I’m told the polio teams go in advance and negotiate with clans and rival militias in the city and get an agreement that polio teams will be out and working and they would be left unmolested by the militiamen and the different factions that are running around shooting at each other every day. This was an agreement in place and I was told by Mohammed Hussein later that the gunfire was not directed at us. There were either Italians and French reporters in the area covering something without permission from the local militia and that is who the gunfire was intended for. We got in the way. Then when they fired at us our kids [of our convoy] started firing back and the violence escalated."

This week's violence against health workers was not limited to the attack on Mr. Brian Padden and his colleagues. He says he was told by the WHO that a vaccinator was killed Wednesday in Mogadishu. No further details are known at this time.

After Monday's incident, Mr. Padden followed the anti-polio inoculation effort to the southern city of Baidoa. The VOA-TV reporter, who left Somalia later in the week, said the campaign in Baidoa went smoothly. There -- as in other areas throughout Somalia -- thousands of volunteers with green T-shirts, hats and bull-horns went from house to house to vaccinate, conduct surveys, and educate parents about their role in the effort to inoculate their children against polio.

Health officials believe the drive is working. In 2000, 46 Somalis died of polio. One year later -- after the start of the campaign -- only four were detected with the disease.

The W-H-O and UNESCO believe polio can be wiped out if they can inoculate all the world's children against the disease. It's a strategy that's already worked against smallpox. The last case of that disease to be detected -- and eradicated -- in the global campaign was in Somalia.