I had barely been in London for two years, seeking asylum, when I suddenly came across the British national newspaper, The Guardian of 19 January 1997, carrying on its front page a story about the decommissioning of the Royal Yacht Britannia. This incident rekindled in my memory tumultuous events I had experienced 11 years before, in which the Royal vessel had played a remarkable role. It all started in that fateful winter of 1986 in the famous Arabian sea-port city of Aden, capital of South Yemen, officially then known by its lengthy name, The People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. Unlike the grandeur of its scenic beauty, the pleasantness of its admirably mild winter climate, and the captivating allurement it had aroused in Tom Hickinbottom, the British Governor of that colony in the fifties, so passionately described in his book “Winter in Aden”, that year’s season in Aden is remembered for its unbridled bellicosity, bloody confrontations, immeasurable destruction and the deep misery it wrought on the people of that country. Indeed, it was a winter of discontent.
Ominously, on the 13th of January 1986 the feud first sparked within the ranks of the ruling Yemeni Socialist Party, which a few months earlier had fallen apart into two factions and instantaneously spread to all other sectors of the nascent state, most pronouncedly amongst the armed forces in all their various designations. So, the people of that hitherto peaceful city found themselves caught up in this diabolical civil strife.
Rationality has given up to the reign of armed insanity, and even the influential Soviet’s mediation in an attempt to put an immediate end to the unleashed violence proved futile. Soon the wild roar of the guns had its reverberation spread to the far corners of the world. But as the country had been, due to its political orientation, closed to foreign press since its independence in 1967, it was difficult to follow the course of the current developments, let alone surmise what the outcome would be. All foreign diplomats accredited to that country as well as the people of other nationalities were taken unaware by this sudden and hardly calculated events. Many of them were panic-stricken.
The British Embassy building, situated in the township of Khormakser, was hit by a stray bullet and its staff frantically sought cover under the office tables. In the face of this common adversity, the representatives of WARSO and NATO countries in Aden had momentarily foregone their irreconcilable ideological antagonism and worked together to save their souls. Most diplomats took refuge at the Soviet Embassy which constituted the safest and most prodigious building in the area.
Incidentally, it happened to be while these dramatic events were taking place that the Royal Yacht Britannia was cruising the waters of the Gulf of Aden bound for New Zealand to bring home members of the Royal family spending their holidays in the beautiful coral shores of that remote island in the pacific ocean. Orders were soon given to the crew of the Britannia to change course, divert to Aden and take up the new mission of relaying information on what was happening in that troubled spot of the Arabian peninsula. Equipped with the most sophisticated means of telecommunication, it became easy for The Britannia to coordinate its tasks not only with the British embassy, but also to enjoy the tacit cooperation of the soviets themselves.
In compliance with its new assignment, the Britannia came as closely as it could to the sea shore at Khormakser, and young Britons alighted by boats. That was the seventh day of the battle over Aden. My residence was in the vicinity, not far from the Soviet embassy where the foreign diplomats were inconveniently crammed for safety. So, that same day at dusk while taking a careful and much needed stroll along the sea-shore with friends of mine, we most surprisingly encountered these young Britons whose ancestors had last paid farewell to these warm waters two decades earlier. After a brief communication in English, and after identifying ourselves as Somalis, the ten of us were the first to be taken on board the Britannia and given comfortable and cozy lodging in some of those rooms reserved for the Royal family members or their entourage.
That same evening of January 20, 1986 and early the following morning, more than six hundred people of many different nationalities were safely ferried to the deck of the vessel. Signs of the physical fatigue and mental preoccupation those people had suffered through the past relentless week were apparently palpable. Finally, on the 21st day of January, the Britannia set sail for Djibouti, and as soon as its multi-racial inmates had found themselves miles beyond the bullet-ridden city of Aden, they felt a deep sense of security and started to freely exchange the personal ordeals they experienced.
Momentarily, these strange collection of people looked like members of the same family who had been caught up by the same calamity. Vivid in my memory are several diplomats, prone by force of habit to maintain the affected personal front, now looking unshaven, ill-clad and absolutely indistinguishable from the rest of the commoners on board the heaven-sent craft. They chatted together with such striking liberality that one sensed they behaved at least for once in their lives as being true to themselves, and not mere representatives of the enslaving official policies of their respective governments.
The Romanian Ambassador, supposedly the representative of Ceausescu, that self-styled demigod of his country, had gone out of his way as to leave his brand new Mercedes car at the beach in his flight for safety knowing too well that it would in a matter of hours be swallowed up by the rising tide of the sea. On another plane, two East German journalists who had come to Aden a year before to teach journalism in that country were among the throng on the Britannia. Later on I have learned that back at home they were sent to Rehabilitation Centres by the German authorities for no other reason than the ‘unpardonable crime’ of boarding the British imperialist vessel to save their lives.
In our voyage to Djibouti, and given our agitated state of minds, no wonder we were entirely oblivious to the majestic beauty of the surrounding environs at the time. But unforgettable though was that extremely singular spectacle of beholding the Britannia plying peacefully with spectacular self-assuredness, amidst the numerous and grotesque looking Soviet war-ships, towards its destination which it duly reached several hours later.
However, contrary to our expectations, our plight as Somalis did not end upon arrival at Djibouti. It seemed that there had been another equally disturbing episode awaiting us there, for our arrival coincided with President Hassan Guled of Djibouti hosting the IGAD Conference in which General Siad Barre of Somalia and Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam of Ethiopia had been among the high ranking dignitaries attending the conference. So it happened that, with the exception of our Somali group, ten of us belonging to the Somali organizations then fighting the dictatorship of General Barre in Somalia, all other inmates on the Britannia had happily somebody turn up for them; and to wear out their anxieties, they were immediately taken to the town, given adequate accommodation and had their earliest flights homeward arranged.
With us, the case was much different. We could not run the risk of getting ashore. We were apprehensive of the dismal prospect of being extradited to Somalia, at the request of the visiting General Barre, by the Djiboutian authorities known then for its implicit support of the Somali regime against the Somali opposition organizations based in Ethiopia and to which we belonged. We therefore stayed with the crew of the vessel for an extra six long hours after all the rest had left. It was only when a reliable official from the Djibouti immigration department well acquainted to us had come and given us assurances that we finally conceded to alight. The crew of the Britannia were also equally pleased to be relieved of our cumbersome heavy burden. But before alighting, though still entertaining a certain degree of insecurity, we had to fulfill one pressing moral obligation: We solemnly lined up before the captain of the Britannia and his aides and expressed our deep-felt gratitude to her Britannic Majesty the Queen and her staff- the crew of the vessel- for their hospitality and cordial treatment in those extremely trying hard times.
Ironically, in our merriment a couple of days ago, on being the first group to be taken on board and given comfortable accommodation on the Royal Yacht, it had absolutely never crossed our minds that we would also, filled this time with some forebodings, be the last to disembark.
After landing in Djibouti port, we were immediately taken to a near-by police station in the wharf, and with it began for us yet another exciting adventure that awaits to be related in due time.
Said Jama Hussein
The author is the vice chairman of Somali Pen and a writer who is based in London, UK.
Mr. Said J. Hussein has also published the following articles @ WardheerNews:
* REMINISCENCES OF MY TADJOURA DAYS
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