Last Saturday, Somalia’s capital Mogadishu — no stranger to terrorist incidents — suffered the worst attack in its history. A truck bomb apparently aimed at nearby ministries exploded early, next to a fuel tanker, and the resulting blast obliterated the surrounding area.
More than 300 people were killed in the attack, for which no one has yet claimed responsibility. Hundreds more were injured. Residents of the city, numbed and in shock, say the scale of the tragedy is impossible to comprehend.
“I was 200 metres from where the explosion happened,” said Mohamed Farah, the cofounder of Aamin Ambulance, a local nongovernmental organisation with the only fleet of free-to-use ambulances in the city. “It was very painful. It was not a moment that you can explain or describe.”
Farah and his team immediately mobilised the 10 ambulances and 20 paramedics at their disposal.
But the death toll would have been even higher were it not for the actions of a few brave men and women — the “unsung heroes” of Mogadishu’s response — who ran towards the danger to rescue the injured. They braved not only the possibility of another attack — Islamist militant group al-Shabab has been known to use a secondary bomb to target first responders — but also skittish government soldiers trying to secure the area.
“Immediately, we gave orders to our fleet of ambulances and emergency team to go to the scene and do whatever they can do. That is how we started to transport the wounded,” Farah told the Mail & Guardian. He described a scene of utter chaos, where paramedics were overwhelmed by the sheer number of wounded people. The normal rules of triage were impossible to apply. “It was not very professional; we just transported whoever we could to the hospital. It was very difficult. Our teams are very brave.”
Aamin Ambulance ferried at least 250 injured people to nearby hospitals, which were also overwhelmed. “They don’t have the capacity to deal with so many casualties,” said Farah. The organisation also transported dozens of bodies, many of which are so badly burned or disfigured that they are unidentifiable.
For most Somalis, Aamin Ambulance’s heroics come as no surprise. “They’re one of the few first responders in Mogadishu and they are always quick to rush to scenes even before security officials. In doing so, they have attracted huge praise from all quarters of the Somali public,” said Ahmed Mohamed, a community organiser based in Eastleigh, a Nairobi suburb that is home to a large Somali population.
The organisation was established a decade ago to fill the vacuum left by Somalia’s crumbling public health system. Although some private hospitals have ambulances, these are prohibitively expensive. For most sick or injured Mogadishu residents, Aamin Ambulance is the only way to get to hospital.
“Aamin Ambulance is the only existing public ambulance service in Mogadishu,” said Farah. “This has been established by Somali intellectuals and doctors. The main idea is to share to the world, and to Somali people, that, even though there are people trying to kill, there are also people trying to save lives. It is also to show that there are people working to save the future of Somalia.”
Abdi Aynte, a former foreign minister, is working to raise funds for the group online: “Aamin Ambulance Group are the unsung heroes of Somalia. As a volunteer group, they work 24 hours a day to respond to emergencies, which in Mogadishu is almost a permanent state.”
A crowdfunding page has been set up on GoFundMe. It seeks to raise about $12 319 (R164 000) to sponsor better equipment for Aamin Ambulance, including new radios, stretchers, sterile medical supplies and repairs to ambulances.
Nadifa Mohamed, a Somali-British novelist based in London, helped to set up the crowdfunding page. She told the M&G: “I wanted to respond in a more productive way than sitting at home grieving and worrying and feeling hopeless … London has become targeted by similar terrorist attacks for quite a while now, but you know when something happens, everything goes on lockdown and the response is quite incredible. Whatever happens to you [in London], you have the best treatment available.”
But despite the situation in Mogadishu being worse than in London, victims don’t have access to the same level of support, she said. “It’s family members running to retrieve bodies from the rubble, or burning cars; it’s all about personal heroism. But the ambulances are trying to bring some professionalism to it. They are the heroes of the situation.”
Laetitia Bader, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, praised the efforts of Aamin Ambulance in providing healthcare in Mogadishu.
“Given the magnitude of this horrific attack but also the still so limited capacity and investment in health infrastructure in Mogadishu, the role of Aamin Ambulance and other private individuals seeking to fill the vacuum is incredibly important and brave,” she said.