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Monday, 3 June, 2002, 10:47 GMT 11:47 UK
Flying in Mogadishu's daily fix
Locals gather round as soon as the khat planes land
The Somali market for the mild narcotic is very lucrative

Flight arrivals from the Kenyan capital Nairobi are always a busy and dangerous time of the day at the airstrips serving Mogadishu, the capital of war-torn Somalia.

Every day it is the same ballet of small planes, five or six of them, landing by mid-morning within minutes of each other.

Heavily-armed gunmen were posted along the tarmac

"This plane could carry 1,400 kilos of freight", explained "Sofi" - the manager of one of the many light aircraft companies based at Nairobi's Wilson airport - as we were leaving.

"It could have been 1,400 kilos of 'khat', if it wasn't for you and your colleagues", he added.

These flights are the fastest and cheapest way for visitors to travel in and out of Mogadishu.

So we took off with 1,000 kilogrammes of precious "khat" - a mild narcotic plant very popular among Somalis - for the three-hour trip.

No chaos here

The plant was the only reason for the excitement shown by the dozens of people surrounding us when we landed at Deynile, one of five Mogadishu airstrips.
Bags full of khat are unloaded
Daily consumption is estimated to cost Somalis $300,000

Seconds after the planes came to a standstill, an army of people set to work in what looked like a very well-rehearsed routine, despite the chaos that seems to have overtaken most activities in the country.

The mechanics, so-called "airport officials" and others - for the most part porters - had about one hour to unload dozens of 50-kg bags of khat and refuel the planes for the journey back to Nairobi.

Heavily-armed gunmen were also posted along the tarmac and standing by four-wheel drive vehicles as fighting sometimes breaks out for control of the valuable freight.

Fresh green leaves

All over the tarmac, there were children bending to pick up any dropped seed.

The leaves were still fresh and green from being cut the previous day in the lush hills surrounding Mount Kenya, the main production area.

Khat chewer
The mild narcotic plant is very popular with Somalis
Khat leaves only remain potent for a few days after picking.

It is estimated that millions of Somali chewers spend a total of $300,000 a day on khat consumption.

It can take hours of chewing the leaves before one can start feeling any effect.

The mild narcotic keeps people going in their harsh lives, when looking after their cattle, working in the fields, or it is enjoyed simply as a recreational drug.

For many years, the daily transport of khat has been a major business between the two East African countries.

Khat for the captain?

On the way back to Nairobi, we were carrying cargo of very different kind, which would look much more acceptable in countries (such as the US, Canada, Norway or Sweden) where khat is banned.

It was a full load of mattresses and pillows produced in the United Arab Emirates and bought by a Somali trader in the Kenyan capital.

Khat facts
Green-leaved shrub
Bitter-tasting leaves potent for only a few days after picking
Leaves can be used to make tea or chewable paste
Banned in US, Canada, Norway and Sweden
Side-effects include appetite suppression, insomnia and anxiety
The mechanic in his blue overall fell asleep within minutes of taking off from Deynile.

It was too cold at this altitude for me to do the same, so after a couple of hours I decided to go to the cabin and have a chat with the pilot.

To my bewilderment, he too was dozing off.

The plane was on automatic pilot with nobody scanning the horizon.

After a quick look just to check that there were no other 'unattended' planes around that could have been flying directly towards us, I coughed nervously and loudly enough to wake up the man in the golden epaulettes.

I never asked for his name.

I just wondered whether I should have bought him a couple of branches of khat to help him fulfil his duty to keep me alive at 12,500 feet.


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