Dorm Living For Staff Of New British Embassy In Somalia
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The Obama administration says that it will soon appoint a U.S. ambassador to reopen the mission in Somalia. Now the U.S. embassy closed its doors in 1991 when the Somali government collapsed and warlords took over the country. The danger sharpened two years later when Somali fighters shot down two U.S. helicopters, killing 18 U.S. soldiers in an incident that came to be known as Black Hawk Down.
Recently, though, the situation has improved, and Great Britain returned its own ambassador to Somalia just last year. His name is Neil Wigan, and he told Rachael Martin why he's hopeful.
AMBASSADOR NEIL WIGAN: We felt that Somalia has really - has the potential to really turn a corner, to put 25 years of conflict behind it. There's a government which we feel much more comfortable dealing with and a real sense amongst Somalis that they've had enough of civil war, that they want to unite and bring peace to the country. And there was a real international consensus that this was an effort worth supporting. And we felt that one of the ways of symbolizing that would be to reopen a full normal embassy in Mogadishu dealing with the Somali government as we do with any other state around the world.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
How normal is it, though? I mean, this is a country that has been beset by violence for generations. What is it like there right now?
WIGAN: It's very exciting to be somewhere which, as you say, has become a byword for civil war. But actually, day-to-day, it's surprisingly normal. So I see ministers on a daily basis. We get out and about in Mogadishu. We're holding, this week, a Queen's birthday party, which is our equivalent of your Fourth of July party. And we're beginning to do things like hold photo exhibitions at the embassy, invite people around for dinner. So it's pretty busy on the social front.
MARTIN: I'd like to talk about Al-Shabaab. This is the al-Qaida affiliate that has long been based in Somalia. Can you describe just what their influence is right now? How strong is their presence inside Somalia?
WIGAN: So Al-Shabaab continues to control chunks of countryside in Somalia. But it's been driven out of all of the major population centers. So it doesn't really control cities anymore. What it does have is the ability to mount terrorist attacks, guerrilla attacks, on African peacekeeping troops in Somalia and on normal Somalis and of course, Somali officials. But the determination of normal Somalis, in particular the government, to keep on about their daily life and to confront the menace is hugely impressive.
MARTIN: I understand you and your staff live in what is basically a small, reinforced shipping container inside the airport in the capital city of Mogadishu. Sounds kind of uncomfortable.
WIGAN: It's more comfortable than they make it sound. So we have what are kind of like student dorm rooms, for want of a better word. So it's not luxurious, but I think pretty much anyone who's been to university would recognize the set up. And it's surprisingly fun. In fact, some American friends taught us a game called corn hole, which we play. We have a bar. We have a canteen. And we have a gym. We go for runs on the beach in the evening. So we actually lead a pretty good life.
MARTIN: Neil Wigan is the British ambassador to Somalia. Thanks so much for talking with us, ambassador.
WIGAN: Thank you very much, indeed.