Somalia region leader ‘with 9 lives like a cat’

By: AGGREY MUTAMBO

On the day US President Barack Obama was addressing Kenyans at Nairobi’s Kasarani Stadium Indoor Arena to mark the end of a historic visit to his father’s homeland, Somali government official Ali Khalif Galaydh was in Jazeera Palace Hotel in Mogadishu.

Suddenly, the peace and quiet of the hotel near the airport that is popular with foreign diplomats, Somali government officials and sundry businessmen was shattered by a huge explosion that killed at least 13 people and injured many others.

Dr Galaydh, a Somali regional administrator, survived the attack by Al-Shabaab terrorists and lived to tell his story.

He relived a similar script on September 21, 2013, when he escaped a terror attack at Nairobi’s Westgate Mall that left at least 67 people dead.

The former Somali Prime Minister attributes his two miraculous escapes to “luck from God” and survival instincts of a cat.

“I am an extremely lucky man. I think I have nine lives and I have the benefit of surviving until the ninth,” he told the Nation by telephone from Mogadishu on Friday.

Dr Galaydh, 74, who is also a former MP of the Federal Parliament of Somalia and currently heads the administration of the northern Somali region of Khatumo that some consider autonomous, had been staying at the hotel for the past one month and was due to leave.

In the hotel attack, Kenya’s ambassador to Somalia, Mr Lucas Tumbo, who was appointed in March, and a number of his staff, survived.

A Chinese diplomat was killed.

MEETING WITH FRIENDS

On the fateful day, Dr Galaydh was scheduled to meet friends at the hotel lobby. The meeting did not happen.

“All of a sudden there was this massive explosion from the rooms overlooking the road and the airport. I fell on the ground.

“Then I realised one of the boulders had hit my leg and landed on my chest,” he said.

He stayed still for about five minutes. “I was bleeding on my right elbow and my left arm.

“I knew it was nothing serious because I didn’t have any broken bone,” he said.

The former premier realised the magnitude of the attack when he went down to the reception.

A small refrigerator where he had kept his medicine had been split into pieces and some of the hotel rooms had collapsed.

“It was a close call but I thank God. Many people in the hotel survived with injuries.

“The greatest casualties were those passing by in the streets,” he said.

The hotel explosion brought back memories of the Westgate siege… and puzzling similarities.

In 2013, Dr Galaydh, who had just returned after serving in the US as an academic, had been living for a month at an apartment in Nairobi’s Westlands. He had left to meet two friends at Artcaffé in Westgate at 10am.

One of the friends was a Somali politician.

The other was a Burundian diplomat attached to the African Union Mission (Amisom).

They were to meet from 10 in the morning.

“We were having a late breakfast but, moments later, perhaps a few minutes to noon, I heard an explosion.

“I think some grenades were being thrown at people. I had my back to the wall and my two colleagues had been sitting on the other side of the table.

“Then I realised everyone was gone and I could only see their phones on the table,” he says.

UNDER THE TABLE

Amid the chaos and realising he was the only one sitting, he hid under the table.

With gunshots and explosions all over the building, he ran to a washroom where he found many other people hiding.

Amid the confusion, he saw an exit which he took.

He would later learn that his Somali colleague was slightly injured and the Burundian was rescued from the mall nine hours later.

The two attacks seem to have influenced his thinking about how to handle the Somali militants.

“I don’t agree with what Al-Shabaab are doing — killing people indiscriminately.

“But for the Somali government and others in the region, it is one thing to fight to eliminate Al-Shabaab. But it may also be good to engage with them. Some of them may be willing to talk,” he said.

He believes there should be no rigid position as long as the route being pursued brings peace and stability to Somalia and the region.