Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Nostalgic memories of Burundian officers trained in Somalia

By Guled Mohamed

Bujumbura, February 14 - In April 1974, a military plane landed in Mogadishu's main airport flying in 15 junior Burundian officers arriving for a two year pilot and aero technician’s course offered by the once powerful Somali air force.

Speaking for the first time in thirty five years since their memorable training in the sea side city, the now retired Burundian officers showed remorse in the current turmoil in Somalia and in particular the capital Mogadishu where they were trained as pilots by Somali air force personnel.

The 15 officers were transformed into 12 pilots and 3 aero mechanics after a two year long training that ended in June 1976 at a time when Somalia was a mighty African military superpower in the height of General Mohamed Siyad Bare’s scientific socialist Somalia.

Retired Colonel Emmanuel Bankimbaga and Charles Ntakije are among the 10 surviving officers from the original 15 Burundian officers trained by the now dysfunctional Somali air force. The two were trained as pilots together with 10 others making them the first biggest number of pilots to be trained for Burundi by any nation. Before their training the small country had only 3 pilots trained in France and Egypt.

The 15 officers distinctively served their country Burundi in various capacities to the ranks of colonels and held senior public positions as technocrats and chief of staffs. There is even a former Interior Minister amongst them.

The Burundian officers we were trained at a military installation called Afsiyoni near Mogadishu airport from April 1974 to June 1976. The airport they landed at 35 years ago is now secured by the African Union peacekeepers that includes close to 4000 Burundian peacekeepers who are in Somalia as part of AMISOM which is helping the once great nation attain peace following two decades of war that has left the country in ruins.

"The training was excellent and it was conducted by Somali officers who worked with us with a lot of professionalism until we became pilots. I wish to congratulate the Somali government on this 51st commemoration day of its air force and wish that what they lost during the war and conflict they are going to recover and build another stronger and better air force," retired Colonel Emmanuel Bankimbaga said in Bujumbura recently a day before the 51st Somali Air Force day was commemorated on 15 February.

Asked what he remembers of Mogadishu, Emmanuel painted a very lively city whose residents were very hospitable. He says they used to go for evening coffee at the Café National restaurant in downtown Mogadishu before hitting the various nightspots Mogadishu offered many of which were located along the beautiful shore of the Indian Ocean.

"The most memorable things I still remember about Mogadishu were the coffee shops, discothèques and restaurants. I had so many friends and the people were really nice. What really caught me was how nationalistic the Somalis were. They were no clan differences and everyone was a Somali," he said with a smile.

His compatriot retired Colonel Charles Ntakije who once served as Burundi's Interior minister still remembers when in 1975 he read a speech in Somali language that he wrote on behalf of the Burundi team to mark Somali air force day.

He says Mogadishu was a paradise and that they spent many lovely evenings with civilian and military friends. His best friend was a Somali artist called Matan who owned a studio and who used to claim to be Jesus whenever he was drunk.

"On Friday’s, our Somali friends used to call us and say in Somali: Caawa waa Jimce, Jazeera club ma aadeynaa? Meaning, it’s Friday night, are we going to Jazeera club? Mogadishu was the place to be then. We spoke Somali and I could even write. In fact I wrote my speech in Somali which I presented in February 1975 to mark Somali Air Force day. Life was really good then in Mogadishu," Ntakije said with a grin.

The officers said they met President Siad Barre on numerous occasions at his residence in Afisiyoni air force headquarters where they were being trained. During there time in Somalia they managed to visit Kismayu, Baidoa and Galkaayo which they oftenly flew into as part of their training to fly military planes.

"We used to play basketball with the Somali air force team. President Siad Barre used to come and watch the games. He would freely mingle with the players and we spoke to him about our country as well as the training. He told me once if you have any problem please came straight to me. Of course we had no complaints because we were treated really well," Emmanuel added.

Emmanuel got an opportunity to welcome Barre and his entourage in Bujumbura when the former Somali leader visited Burundi for a French-African cooperation meeting in the early 80's. Emmanuel was nominated President's Barre head of security.

"When President Siyad Barre came to Bujumbura in 1984 I was nominated to head his security detail and his guide. He stayed at this same Souse de Nile hotel you are now staying which was then called The Meridian hotel. After the meetings I used to sit and drink coffee with him. He did not see me an as his bodyguard but as friend. It was good for me to host him back in my country," Emmanuel said.

After there first year in Somalia the government flew home the Burundian contingent on a military plane for the 1974 Christmas break and again brought them back to Mogadishu for their last year of training. Colonel Ntakije says he has but good memories of Somalia and was really saddened to see the country collapse in 1991.

"We are now retired and each one of us is pursuing his own private businesses. If Somalia needs our experience we will be very happy to offer any technical assistance. We are able for example to help restructure the army because that is what we can easily do for Somalia because without security the country cannot properly function. It is so sad to hear the city has been destroyed. I believe the Somalis will one day rise and restore their dignity, “ Ntakije said.

Just to prove to you the duo spend some good time in Somalia they can easily recite the famous socialist oriented song meant to praise President Siyad Barre. As a Somali born in Kenya I had no clue of the song until I heard it from the Burundians.

“Guul wadow Siyaad aabihi garashada geygayagow hantiwadagu waa habka barwaaqada noo horseeday…meaning Victorious Siyad our knowledgeable father our land socialism is the system that brought us prosperity,” The former Burundian Officers separately recited the song to the end for the first time in 35 years much to my own amazement at their sharp memory.

After his interview, Charles shouted to me before driving away “Soomaaliya hanoolato,” to mean Somalia, live longer which is a very common slogan Somalis say whenever get patriotic!