Excerpt from “A Special Relationship”

About an hour after I met Tony Hobbs, he saved my life.I know that sounds just a little melodramatic, but it’s the truth. Or, at least, as true as anything a journalist will tell you. I was in Somalia—a country I had never visited until I got a call in Cairo and suddenly found myself dispatched there. It was a Friday afternoon—the Muslim Holy Day. Like most foreign correspondents in the Egyptian capital, I was using the official day of rest to do just that. I was sunning myself beside the pool of the Gezira Club—the former haunt of British officers during the reign of King Farouk, but now the domain of the Cairene beau monde and assorted foreigners who’d been posted to the Egyptian capital. Even though the sun is a constant commodity in Egypt, it is something that most correspondents based there rarely get to see. Especially if, like me, they are bargain basement oneperson operations, covering the entire Middle East and all of eastern Africa. Which is why I got that call on that Friday afternoon.

“Is this Sally Goodchild?” asked an American voice I hadn’t heard before.

“That’s right,” I said, sitting upright and holding the cell phone tightly to my ear in an attempt to block out a quartet of babbling Egyptian matrons sitting beside me. “Who’s this?”

“Dick Leonard from the paper.”

I stood up, grabbing a pad and a pen from my bag. Then I walked to a quiet corner of the veranda. “The paper” was my employer. Also known as the Boston Post. And if they were calling me on my cell phone, something was definitely up.

“I’m new on the foreign desk,” Leonard said, “and deputizing today for Charlie Geiken. I’m sure you’ve heard about the flood in Somalia?”

Rule one of journalism: never admit you’ve been even five minutes out of contact with the world at large. So all I said was, “How many dead?”

“No definitive body count so far, according to CNN. And from all reports, it’s making the ’97 deluge look like a drizzle.”

“Where exactly in Somalia?”

“The Juba River Valley. At least four villages have been submerged. The editor wants somebody there. Can you leave straightaway?”

So that’s how I found myself on a flight to Mogadishu, just four hours after receiving the call from Boston. Getting there meant dealing with the eccentricities of Ethiopian Airlines, and changing planes in Addis Ababa, before landing in Mogadishu just after midnight. I stepped out into the humid African night, and tried to find a cab into town. Eventually, a taxi showed up, but the driver drove like a kamikaze pilot, and also took a back road into the city center—a road that was unpaved and also largely deserted. When I asked him why he had chosen to take us off the beaten track, he just laughed. So I pulled out my cell phone and dialed some numbers, and told the desk clerk at the Central Hotel in Mogadishu that he should call the police immediately and inform them that I was being kidnapped by a taxi driver, car license number . . .(and, yes, I did note the cab’s license plate before getting into it). Immediately the driver turned all apologetic, veering back to the main road, imploring me not to get him into trouble, and saying, “Really, it was just a shortcut.”

“In the middle of the night, when there’s no traffic? You really expect
me to believe that?”

“Will the police be waiting for me at the hotel?”

“If you get me there, I’ll call them off.”

He veered back to the main road, and I made it intact to the Central Hotel in Mogadishu—the cab driver still apologizing as I left his car. After four hours’ sleep, I managed to make contact with the International Red Cross in Somalia, and talked my way onto one of their helicopters that was heading to the flood zone.