Saturday, August 28, 2010
In a city where so much time and energy is spent on killing, few people have saved more lives this year than Hassan Mohamoud Mohamed, a driver who traded his taxi for an ambulance in war-torn Mogadishu. When the muffled blast of a mortar round echoes in the distance or the thunder of artillery fire erupts, Hassan gulps his cup of tea and stares at his mobile phone. He knows a call is minutes away. "The days I would wait for western tourists at Mogadishu airport are long gone," said the 51-year-old, propped against his beat-up Toyota minivan. Three years of fighting between Islamist insurgents and pro-government forces have turned central Mogadishu into a death trap where civilians are wounded or killed almost daily. "Now I pick up my clients from pools of blood in shattered homes," he said. "Needless to say, they don't pay the fare." His pay is three dollars a day, barely enough to feed him and his family.
"It's not an ordinary job but I'm like everyone else in this city when I fear for my life every day," he said. "But there is nothing else to take in Mogadishu, so I figured this place needs people who help just for the sake of helping." Typical was one recent morning in the Hamarweyn district. Hassan's phone rang; he quickly answered. "Oh, my God! Where and how many victims?" He flapped his hand at the loud crowd in the nearby tea shop as he struggled to make out the crackly directions given by the caller. Within seconds, Hassan and his yellow-and-white-striped ambulance hurtled through Mogadishu's ruined streets, siren blaring. "Most of the time, I have a really tough time getting to the scene of the incident without getting killed myself," he said, tugging the wheel to steer the speeding van past a rut. He's only half joking. The two previous drivers of his ambulance were killed doing their job.
Militia manning rogue checkpoints, artillery fire, trenches and cement boulders are just some of the obstacles he has to contend with. "The roads are rough, sometimes they're blocked, so you need to know all the shortcuts. You have to keep in mind that you are not driving healthy passengers. Their survival depends on how clever you are," he said. For Hassan, who has no medical training, the hard part begins when he reaches the wounded and has to identify who has a chance of surviving and needs his services the most.
"This is voluntary ambulance service," he said. "Can you imagine driving this vehicle and having to choose the most urgent cases without any medical assistance? "Sometimes people die in my van on the way to hospital and nobody will know the reason. They get their first treatment only when I reach the hospital." After Mogadishu sank into chaos following the 1991 ouster of president Mohamed Siad Barre, pushcarts and wheelbarrows became the main medical emergency transport.
In 2008, volunteers set up the ambulance service with the help of Mogadishu-based telecommunications company Nation Link.
There are six other drivers like Hassan in Mogadishu, ready to bring the wounded to the city's three hospitals.
Ali Muse Sheikh Mohamoud, the head of Mogadishu ambulance services, said his drivers brought more than 700 wounded to Medina Hospital in July alone and appealed for more help.
"We want to have medical staff on board the ambulances in order to give more attention to the victims before they reach hospital," he said.
"But all this is done on a voluntary basis, there is not much more we can do. Yet fighting has become the norm, there are clashes every day." There are no reliable casualty figures for the fighting in Mogadishu but thousands die each year, caught in the crossfire of the never-ending battle for control of the capital.
Hassan moved his wife and eight children out of their home as the fighting got more intense in northern Mogadishu a few months ago; the last thing he wants is to be called to rush a relative to hospital. Dealing with strangers is tough enough.
"For months now, this ambulance has been my home," he said. "Waiting for bad news is my life."