Stuck in Somalia! (and getting kicked out of Ethiopia for refusing to pay a bribe)

Somalia Tank Somaliland Hargeisa 2008

Stuck in Somalia! (and getting kicked out of Ethiopia for refusing to pay a bribe)

The first surprise, prior to visiting Somalia in 2008, was when I collected my tourist visa from the Somaliland consulate in Addis Ababa. You know you are going a bit off the beaten tourist track when your visa number is less than 25!

After spending an amazing night in Harar, Ethiopia I made the long journey to Jijiga and onwards towards the Somali border. After being stamped out of Ethiopia you walk across a dry riverbed which serves as the border between the two countries. I won’t lie, it’s a bit nerve-racking walking into Somalia.  However, once across the border, I was immediately welcomed by some of the nicest border guards during my overland trip through Africa. They stamped me into Somalia and helped me find a beat-up yellowish share taxi towards Hargeisa, even going the extra step of making sure I knew the correct price to pay.

Crossing into Somalia from Ethiopia
Crossing into Somalia from Ethiopia

On arrival at my hotel in central Hargeisa, I met many people who were fascinated to find me traveling through Somalia.  They were all men visiting for business from various Middle Eastern countries: Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, etc.  They showed me around the city that night and then took me out to dinner.
I learned that charity and helping travelers is a pillar of the Koran. Little did I know, but this was my family for the next week. Every night they would wait up for me to return to the hotel. They were always worried for my safety, eager to hear about my explorations, and excited to invite me with them to dinner.

The next day I had three simple priorities:  1) Exchange money, 2) Explore Hargeisa, and 3) Secure my return visa to Ethiopia. One of these tasks would lead me on a life-changing journey.

1) Exchange money

There are no ATMS in Somalia. Thankfully, exchanging money is easy. Exploring the markets, you will find many places; look for massive stacks of money. While exchanging money I was offered a chance to buy an AK-47 or a Somali passport. I briefly pondered whether he was joking, and which would be more useful. You can buy anything in the markets of Somalia. Interestingly, there were stalls selling AK-47s, grenades, and DIY passports. Alcohol is forbidden, however. No alcohol in Somalia.

2) Explore Hargeisa

The sights of Hargeisa are not plentiful: interesting markets, some mosques, and a plane monument which looms over a roundabout bearing June 26th , but no year. On the back it has the year the monument was created.  Apparently, this is Independence Day, 1960.  A man very high on khat (a local narcotic which comes from a bush they chew) asked me to take his picture in front of the monument while proudly holding up his khat like it was a flag or knife. The plane on the monument has a Somali flag on it, and the memorial bears the current Somaliland flag.

3) Secure my return visa into Ethiopia (where things get interesting!!)

Gathering my return visa should not have been an interesting part of my day. The foreign ministry in Addis had guaranteed that I would get one easily at the consulate, or as it was officially known, the “Ethiopian Trade Mission to Somaliland”. One word. Corruption.

I entered the “trade mission” / consulate and after waiting briefly was escorted into a dark office where I sat across the desk from the ambassador, a large man wearing a suit doubling as a uniform of sorts.  He asked why I was there. I told him I needed a return visa for Ethiopia, and showed him the papers I had from the foreign ministry in Addis. He seemed offended at the official papers and brushed them off, barking that the visa would be $340.   It was supposed to be a simple re-entry permit. If any costs were involved then a regular Ethiopian tourist visa for an American was $20.  I asked where the extra $320 came from. He said, “That’s how much I charge, so that’s how much you have to pay.”  I again kindly showed him the papers from the foreign ministry, but this time he was definitely offended and roared, “Addis doesn’t tell you how much to pay in Somaliland. I do. If you don’t pay now then the price will go up.”  I was being demanded to pay a bribe.  One of my goals on my journey from South Africa to Jordan was that I would never pay a bribe. In Africa you are asked to pay bribes constantly. I never paid one on the entire journey north, and I wasn’t going to pay one on my return south, either.

There was a poster on the wall of his office, clearly listing the visa fees. I pointed to the price on this poster detailing the correct price. He started yelling, called the police, and kicked me out of the consulate. A year later suicide bombers destroyed it in October 2009.

The police officer brought in to kick me out of the embassy was actually very kind. He apologized for having to kick me out, and was offended and upset at the Ethiopian consul, saying, “Somaliland is a new country that is not recognized by many. Some people think they can do whatever they want and make up rules. They disrespect our country’s legitimacy.” Turns out, his father was a minister so we hopped in a Range Rover to the ministry. I explained my situation to the minister over some tea and cakes, and before I knew it, we were off in another Land Rover to the Somaliland Foreign Ministry.

Airplane Monument Somaliland Independance Day
Airplane Monument Somaliland Independance Day

Somaliland Foreign Ministry to the rescue!  (well sort of)

I sat in the foreign minister’s office, enjoyed more tea and cakes, and explained what happened to the foreign minister. He was very interested in my journey through Africa; he was also very upset at the treatment I had received from the Ethiopian “consulate.”  He called the Ethiopians immediately.  After a bit of yelling, he slammed down the phone. The Ethiopian ambassador was now evoking some obscure outdated Ethiopian law allowing him to charge whatever fee he deems necessary. The minister was disappointed and said there was nothing he could do. I was out of luck. The Ethiopian ambassador refused to give me a visa. The Minister then had an idea and put me in touch with an aid organization named Care International.

After speaking with them on the phone, he drove me himself to their offices across town. I explained my situation to Care International. Their solution?  They would sneak me back into Ethiopia. I was not sure this was the best idea but didn’t exactly have a plethora of options. I was stuck in Somalia, but at least now I had a plan. Off to Berbera!

Berbera, Somalia
Berbera, Somalia

Off to the the beach in Somalia. Berbera!

I spent the next few days hanging out in the coastal town of Berbera and exploring Hargeisa.   Once a thriving port city, it is now in ruins.  Berbera is easy to get to, just take a share taxi a couple hours from Hargeisa.  I swam in the harbor, which is surrounded by crumbling buildings. The port is scattered with dozens of sunken ships. It’s a surreal place.  After my swim I enjoyed a bbq with some locals I had met that day. The conversation we had was one of my favorite memories of Somalia. It was about marriage and dating customs in our different countries. They explained the logistics of how they meet a wife and the complexities and logistics of the three-wife scenario.  I explained how dating in USA worked, or didn’t. They felt we were limited being allowed only one wife, but agreed it was cheaper than three. We discussed random things such as how you find a wife when you already have one and whether the different wives get along. Completely hilarious.

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Stuck! (and getting out)

On my last day in Hargeisa I bid everyone at the hotel farewell and boarded a taxi for the Ethiopian border. The grand plan didn’t work. I was not very good at sneaking across borders; being the only white person crossing the border didn’t exactly allow for blending in. I was booted out of Ethiopia back into Somalia.

The Somalian border guards were kind as per usual and let me back into Somalia with no questions. I was disheartened and boarded a taxi back to Hargeisa completely unsure what to do next. On arriving in Hargeisa we passed an Ethiopian Airlines office. Drop me off here!  I caught them just in time, and explained my situation. I had no money left, there were no ATMs or banks, and the ambassador was demanding a bribe. Was there a flight today?  There was one in 1.5 hours!  The manager would reserve me a seat and I could pay on landing in Addis Ababa where I would receive a proper visa on arrival at the airport.  I rushed outside and flagged down a white UN Land Rover. They drove me to the airport where I barely made my flight. I have never felt such an exhilarating sense of accomplishment and relief in my life. Looking back, surprisingly I never felt unsafe in Somalia, well in Somaliland. Their government was responsive and staffed with people tht genuinely wanted to make a difference in their new nation. There were schools, markets, universities, police, military.Mostly I will remember the extraordinary kindness everyone showed me.

2 Comment

  1. Babak B. says: Reply

    Quite impressive. Kudos for grabbing a flight out. I have not been to Somalia/Somaliland, but travel in North Africa and it’s always surprising to me what the world hears of these places, and the first-hand experiences of hospitality/helpfullness you get when talking to locals.

  2. Heather says: Reply

    Amazing story.

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