By Janet Deutsch
Rarely do Foreign Service officers (FSOs) have the opportunity to experience the launching of a new diplomatic presence in a host nation. In November 2018, eight FSOs had that distinct privilege at the U.S. Mission to Somalia when they became the first Foreign Service officers assigned to Mogadishu and re-established a permanent facility after the embassy closed its doors in 1991. This success was built on the foundations created by U.S. Mission Somalia predecessors who served the Department of State from Nairobi, Kenya, with frequent travel to Mogadishu. It was through Mission Somalia predecessors’ foresight and dedication, as well as that of the Bureau of African Affairs (AF), Embassy Nairobi, Diplomatic Security and the Under Secretary for Management’s (M’s) bureaus and offices, that the Department was able to announce the opening of the new facility.
One of the Department’s senior-most career diplomats, Ambassador Donald Y. Yamamoto, was selected to lead Mission Somalia, and his arrival at post coincided with the facility’s opening. Since Yamamoto’s arrival, the Department has announced its first USAID Mission Director for Somalia since the 1990s, a combined $964 million in development and humanitarian support to Somalia and other successes for U.S. bilateral relations with Somalia.
While FSOs in Mogadishu have stated that the opening of a new facility was rewarding, it was also a great deal of work. Management Officer Marialice Burford de Castillo can attest to the incalculable hours spent ensuring that the chancery met Overseas Building Operations (OBO) fire code and other standards. At the same time, the few staff had to guarantee access to services such as potable water, meals, a relatively dust-free and air-conditioned facility, office furniture and an internet connection. The Mission Regional Security Office team of Joshua Bauer, Phil Davidson and Kurt Parker soared over security hurdles faced by other missions around the world but also overcame additional concerns of establishing new systems and assets in a conflict zone where indirect fire and terrorism are real, everyday threats to the Mission Somalia staff and facility. Shortly after the facility opened, al-Shabaab terrorists fired seven 81 mm mortar shells that landed 300 meters (330 yards) from the facility, hitting parts of a neighboring UN compound.
Understandably, every step toward opening the doors in Mogadishu faced intense scrutiny in Washington. Deputy Chief of Mission Marty Dale participated in semi-weekly calls with Acting Under Secretary for Management William Todd and led the team through visits by M, Assistant Secretary for Diplomatic Security Michael Evanoff, AF leadership, OBO, congressional delegations, staff delegations and other colleagues concerned with the safe, secure establishment of a facility in the dangerous Mogadishu environment.
Staff at Mission Somalia took a moment to celebrate the success of a historic opening day in late 2018. Like sister Priority Staffing Posts and many other high-threat missions, Mogadishu’s team members worked six- or seven-day weeks to ensure that they leave behind some semblance of normalcy for the new team that will transfer to post in the summer of 2019. Staff members continue to try to fine-tune reporting schedules, a separate International Cooperative Administrative Support Services system, SharePoint systems, ClassNet and OpenNet as well as attempting to establish Foreign Service National positions, temporary duty procedures and everything else the facility needs, such as a steady supply of coffee and determining off-limits venues for staff.
While they are working hard at establishing this new facility, Mogadishu staff lives and works in one windowless concrete building surrounded by layers of security walls and access control points, as approved by Diplomatic Security and OBO. Each staff member has their own bedroom and bathroom, and the team has a shared open-air balcony and recreation area where they hold movie nights, holiday gatherings and yoga sessions. The U.S. Mission facility is mostly surrounded by containerized housing for Italian soldiers who are on the ground to provide training to Somali security forces as part of an EU training mission. It is likely because of the presence of the Italian soldiers that an espresso machine and baristas-in-training came to the dining facility that Mission staff shares with approximately 300 individuals representing militaries, policy advisors and security companies from around the world.
Mission staff is confined to Mogadishu International Airport, a roughly 6 square-mile compound, mostly accessed by armored vehicle with a security detail. They have incredible entree to most levels of the Somali government, with even highest-level contacts willing to engage with them on WhatsApp—an app that uses an internet connection to send messages and make calls—by phone and in-person at the airport. The team in Mogadishu does have some freedom of movement within the more secure area of the airport compound, which includes a stretch of beach along the beautiful, deep turquoise Indian Ocean. Looking past trash-strewn patches of snarly coral, they can enjoy one of the few mental getaways from the rigors of the Mogadishu assignment. Mission members have enjoyed running, walking, sea glass hunting, tidal pool exploration, yoga, bird watching and other escapes on this little piece of paradise in perdition.
As the first set officers assigned to Mogadishu now wind down their tours, they are cognizant of the work still to be done and the substantial amount of progress that still needs to be made to further normalize operations at the U.S. Mission to Somalia. The Mission’s first Mogadishu-based team has put their hearts and souls into their work so that future staff members will have the best possible foundations for their assignments. Despite the obstacles they faced in relaunching an entire Mission in one of the world’s most challenging environments, this initial team of FSOs has left behind an admirable legacy, paved a clear path for those who will follow in their footsteps and worked to enhance U.S.-Somalia relations for years to come.
Janet Deutsch is a public affairs officer at the U.S. Mission in Somalia.