Somali ambulances in line of fire

Little downtime for drivers in city torn by 20 years of insurgent activity

Local people help load an injured person into the back of a van that serves as an ambulance in Mogadishu, where violence between militants and pro-government forces has raged for almost 20 years. The ambulances are poorly supplied, and neither drivers nor their assistants have medical training. (Associated Press)Local people help load an injured person into the back of a van that serves as an ambulance in Mogadishu, where violence between militants and pro-government forces has raged for almost 20 years. The ambulances are poorly supplied, and neither drivers nor their assistants have medical training. (Associated Press)
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MOGADISHU, Somalia | A lull during fierce fighting gave Hassan Mohamud Mohamed time to hire a boy to wash the blood from his vehicle.

The break didn’t last long. Mr. Mohamed is an ambulance driver in a city filled with war, and as the boy scrubbed the hatchback of the green-and-yellow checkered minivan, a call came for help.

“Stop!” Mr. Mohamed yelled at the boy, who hadn’t quite finished cleaning. Mr. Mohamed jumped in the driver’s seat. “I’ll be back.”

Ambulance drivers risk their lives to try to save people hit by the mortar fire, artillery shells and random gunfire that have been ricocheting around this crumbling seaside city for almost 20 years. In 2009, two drivers were killed — one when a mortar round landed on an ambulance and a second when another ambulance was hit by tank fire.

The city lurches between quiet periods, when shoppers fill markets, and heavy warfare, during which no place is entirely safe. Since Oct. 2, at least 23 people have been killed and almost 90 wounded, Mr. Mohamed’s ambulance service said.

A boy hired to wash blood from an ambulance in Mogadishu, Somalia, won't be able to finish the job before its driver races off again to answer a call for help. (Associated Press)

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A boy hired to wash blood from an ambulance in Mogadishu, Somalia, ... more >

Mogadishu’s Lifeline Africa Ambulance Service has seven vehicles and 11 staffers who are each paid $100 a month. The ambulances are austere, carrying only stretchers, bandages and blood-clotting medicine. The staff is made up of drivers and their assistants, none with any formal medical training.

On a recent Saturday — not a particularly busy day by Mogadishu standards — an Associated Press writer and photographer accompanied Mr. Mohamed on his run.

As the ambulance approached a government checkpoint, the lone soldier on guard pointed the barrel of his gun at the vehicle.

“Is this a real ambulance or the suicide bombers’ one?” the alert and suspicious soldier asked Mr. Mohamed. For nearly 10 minutes, he prevented Mr. Mohamed from moving before deciding it was a real ambulance.

Twenty minutes later, Mr. Mohamed pulled up to a woman screaming outside a five-room bungalow made of cheap bricks.

“My son is dead!” she cried out as she held her hands on her head. She berated Mr. Mohamed, saying he arrived too late.

A mortar shell had landed on the house, and the woman’s 10-year-old son was killed. No one else was hurt, another woman standing on the road said. Mr. Mohamed drove away.

Sometimes drivers like Mr. Mohamed head into scenes of sheer chaos and panic. They try to pick up only the wounded who can be saved, but crowds of relatives and neighbors often shove dead bodies into the ambulance alongside the living. Sometimes six people are crammed into a space meant for one or two.

“People are in hysterical situations,” ambulance driver Mohamed Hussein said. “So everyone wants to save his loved one before others. Sometimes it is hard to distinguish the dead from the wounded.”

The service began two years ago and is funded by Nation Link — a Somali telecommunications company — as well as donations from local and expatriate Somalis. Before then, many of Mogadishu’s war victims died where they fell or while being carried to the hospital, often bleeding to death.

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