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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Crouching cement soldiers of Wajir

By Abdinasir Amin

As the flight takes off from Wajir airstrip, a keen observer will be struck by a number of incongruous things for a landscape so bare, bereft of foliage or anything life-giving, save the sparkling, rambling Arab-style white buildings and the occasional palm tree piercing through the shining monotony below.

Three clearings strike you from your bird’s eye-view. The first, which you’ve just taken off from, is the Wajir Airstrip, home to the Kenya Army, an airfield that has been in operation for decades. The airstrip can land large military cargo planes and is a favourite of relief organisations targeting parts of Somalia and North Eastern Province itself during the interminable droughts that benight these areas.

The second clearing that strikes you is Qorohey (the sunny place). Its name alone conjures up images of the scorching sun and, if you are conversant with Somali imagery, you will be tempted to reach immediately for a glass of water to quench your imaginary thirst. In colonial days, the place was a mass watering point for camels from the hinterland.

It has several deep-water wells with cement around them and markings signifying the different clans laying claim to them. Next to each well is a cement trough where water is endlessly poured by young camel herders, their bare backs glistening as they sing haunting melodies for their camels.

There are also stark and squat pyramid blocks that resemble crouching soldiers when viewed from above.

Cement soldiers

As a child, I was always intrigued by these ‘crouching cement soldiers’ with guns ready. It turns out that Wajir was at the centre of World War Two. The town was considered the de facto centre of the Northern Frontier Districts (NFD) and its take-over by the Italians would have yielded huge propaganda scoops for the latter. It was also the last stronghold for any ground incursion into NFD from Addis-Ababa, Ethiopia, through neighbouring Moyale and on to Kismayu, Somalia.

By 1940, the Wajir Fort had been built and was designed to withstand heavy ground and air attacks for a month. It was surrounded by two sets of defensive perimeters made out of Dannert wire — the outside one surrounding the entire town, and the inner one surrounding the fort.

These cement blocks still dot the town and were the second subject of my fascination growing up. They are about two-by-two metres square, about a metre and a half high, and metre and half deep from the ground level downwards. At the sides of these structures are little vents for ventilation and small entrances for an adult to barely squeeze through. These structures housed fixed anti-tank guns. Today, they are filled with garbage.

Defences

Other wartime defences include mines (about 100) in the inner perimeter and a mobile unit going out to spy on enemy troop movements. A dawn-to-dusk curfew was in force and wandering tribesmen were kept out of Qorohey in case enemy troops and spies hid amongst them pretending to be nomads looking for water for their animals.

The Wajir Aerodrome (as it was then known) was constructed as part of the air defences. The airpower consisted of one Reece plane and a fighter plane, which were deployed in both defensive and reconnaissance missions. On a typical day, the European on duty at the aerodrome, binoculars and a whistle at the ready, would blow his whistle on the approach of any aircraft. If the aircraft turned out to be a friendly one, he’d give the all clear signal (two long blasts, a five seconds pause, followed by two long blasts). If the aircraft turned out to be an enemy one, he’d sound the Klaxon horn signalling the fighter planes to move and counter attack. If no airpower was available and the enemy aircraft were within range, they’d be fired at with anti-aircraft guns placed in strategic locations.

Source: Standard

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