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  • Writer's pictureChester B Simpson

"Playground built in a corner of Hell"

Updated: Apr 17, 2022

My experience in Bardera, Somalia, March 18th, 1993.

“Band-Aid! Band-Aid! exclaims an 8-year-old Somalian boy, attracting the attention of the U.S. Marine based here. The boy points to his hurt toe, and the Marine searches his pockets. Bending over, the Marine takes the foot in his hand, brushes sand off the toe, and applies the small bandage.

A gleaming smile from the little boy thanks to the Marine. All hurt and pain seem to vanish, just with that bandage.

Too bad the world’s problems can’t be so easily solved, I thought to myself as I surveyed the refugee huts situated in this barren wasteland these people call home.

I am here briefly as a photographer for a United Service Organization tour. What strikes me here again is the caring and even love that can spring up between these children and the soldiers who are here to help them.

Many of the soldiers have mentioned how they would like to adopt the children, but the Somali culture and religion are opposed to non-Muslim adoptions.

In the capital city, Mogadishu, a country that has descended into anarchy, city children often run in bands and harass the soldiers on their patrols. There, the provocations often appear organized, many children, for example, turning up with realistic-appearing toy guns which they point and taunt soldiers with.

Here in Bardera, with the sun constantly beating down on you and your sweat-soaked clothes dry from the constant blowing sand, the relationship is otherwise. It is simpler and more profound.

I’m led into a large hut by Col. Robert Agro who heads the security detail for the USO tour - bringing entertainer Clint Black on his trip of discovery and care. Inside the hut, we are confronted with our worst nightmare, something the Americans serving here have gotten used to.

Starving children, staring holes through us - the horror, the horror of it all, is well-expressed in these faces that have witnessed their parents murdered, brothers and sisters dying from starvation, their villages sacked and burned.

Left with nothing, only the will to survive, they somehow find their way through this inferno of a desert to a refugee camp protected by U.S. Marines. Their first meals in months are served by members of CARE and the International Red Cross. The trip this group took, Agro said, was about 50 miles.

He asked little Mohammed age 10 years, how he found his way. By following the stars at night, comes back the answer through the Somali interpreter. The colonial bent over, placing his arm around Mohammed, and explained how the three wise men who came to Bethlehem bearing gifts were from Somalia.

With my camera to my face, a protective reaction to a mother squatting, holding the hand of her malnourished child, I press the button which freezes this moment.

I’m gladly distracted by the outside sounds of children playing. Laughter fills the air, and I am drawn to the sight of children in a playground. With them are Marines, who built this playground out of captured military equipment, busy in their jobs of pushing the children higher in their swings.

The play continues. The soldiers exchange smiles with the youngsters and give much-needed hugs to these children they have befriended. It is different here in Bardera where the natural empathy of the Americans is not distorted by the civil war.

Looking out past the playground, the war and the famine it causes are evident in the countless unmarked graves that line the horizon.

As the laughter gets louder, I’m reminded of America’s mission to restore hope. Hope is all these children have left.

The wind blows some sand in my eyes and makes them water again.

Check out my photographs from this story: Somalia 1993 Gallery

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