Armed guards

Our guard Abdi.

When adjusting to life in Somaliland, one thing that definitely takes some getting used to is the constant presence of armed guards.

The Somaliland government requires all foreigners to take so-called Special Protection Units (SPUs) when travelling outside the capital and/or to otherwise get permission from the local police station. If you head east out of Hargeisa, you will pass through a number of security checkpoints, and if you are a foreigner without an armed guard, there is a good chance you will be turned back.

This is pretty annoying because it somewhat kills the spontaneity and impulsiveness of travelling that I love so much. The armed guard also adds to travel costs ($15 per day, plus the guard’s transport and food), creating an incentive toward travel in larger groups and against independent solo travel. (Fortunately, it is not the case foreigners have to have one armed guard each –rather, our house shares one guard among several foreigners.)

Apparently this government-imposed requirement has been in place since 2003, when sadly two British teachers and an Italian aid worker were allegedly murdered by terrorists linked to Al Qaeda.  Because the use of armed guards is now a law, all NGOs and other organisations are compelled to provide guards for their foreign workers.

How seriously this is taken seems to vary from employer to employer – the UN workers, for example, always appear to be accompanied by a motorcade and a profusion of guards when leaving their heavily-fortified compound.  After the UN offices were targeted in a car bombing in 2008, their motto is probably “better safe than sorry.” Some NGO workers have curfews and never travel anywhere without guards.

As for myself and my co-workers, within the city limits, we move around freely without a guard during the daytime.  However, at night, our guard (who lives in the house with us) will usually accompany us if we go out. And, if we leave the city, we have to arrange for a guard to come with us.

So, you might be wondering, is it safe here?  I personally feel 100% safe and not in the least bit uncomfortable or threatened. I suspect there are many ordinary places where ordinary people go on holiday – New York City, Brazil, New Orleans, Mexico – that are much more dangerous. The atmosphere here is very calm and peaceful and, while the necessity of the armed guards is an often-debated topic among Hargeisa’s small expatriate community, things here do feel safe enough that the guards often seem superfluous.

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