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Ambulance offers hope in war-torn Somalia

  • Story Highlights
  • Volunteer ambulance service ferries wounded civilians and fighters to the hospital
  • Drivers face problems from both sides of the conflict in the capital, Mogadishu
  • Ambulance drivers earn $200 a month; national average annual salary is $130
  • U.N.-backed transitional government forces are fighting Islamist insurgents
By Nima Elbagir
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MOGADISHU, Somalia (CNN) -- Chaos and death on the streets of Mogadishu: unfortunately, it's nothing new in the Somali capital.

Life Line Africa wants to increase its drivers in Mogadishu from 10 to 14.

Casualties are taken into Mogadishu's hospital on stretchers.

Government forces are fighting against insurgents on this day in September in a bloody battle that leaves 30 dead. Dozens of wounded Somalis are taken out of the danger zone, some of them in the back of insurgents' pick-up trucks.

One of the trucks races through the streets, zig-zagging to the echoing booms of the ongoing shelling. The truck comes to an abrupt halt, stopping at a rare sight in the Somali capital -- an ambulance, waiting at the heart of the chaos to ferry the dead and the injured to the hospital.

The wounded are transferred onto the ambulance. People shout and run as the mortar attacks continue. One woman screams over and over for her son.

The ambulance is one of seven medical vehicles paid for with donated funds from local and expatriate Somalis. Residents can simply call for the ambulances without charge, and the vehicles will be dispatched to the scene.

"It is amazing," said Rufai Salad, one of the founders of the ambulance service in the Somali capital. "We have this toll-free number, 777, that you dial. Someone is giving you a free call and then coming and giving you free help.

"People here find it hard to believe it is real."

Life Line Africa, a local Somali charity, started its ambulance service in Mogadishu in December, bringing a small amount of order to the lawless country that is in the midst of a brutal Islamist insurgency.

Apart from the short-lived rule of the Islamic Courts Union in 2006, there has been no genuine central authority in Somalia since the collapse of Mohamed Siad Barre's repressive regime in 1991.

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Now, the United States and other Western powers are propping the U.N.-backed transitional government forces in their attempt to fend off the insurgency, particularly Al-Shabaab -- a Somali militant group that has ties to al Qaeda. Video Watch Nima Elbagir's report on the humanitarian crisis in Somalia »

Basic amenities in Somalia, like electricity, water and sanitation - and even luxuries such as wireless Internet facilities -- are provided by enterprising businessman, which is partly how the ambulance service came to life.

In the Somali equivalent of a public-private partnership, clan elders and local businessman donated the money to fund the ambulance service, helping fulfill a crucial need.

The ambulance drivers are well compensated, earning about U.S. $200 a month in a country where the average yearly income is $130, according to the United Nations.

Life Line Africa's monthly budget for its Mogadishu ambulance service is $3,200, including fuel, running costs and the salaries of the 10 drivers. They hope to increase their driving staff to 14.

Salad, 24, is an information technology officer for the Somali president's office, but volunteers his time to help keep Life Line Africa running.

His enthusiasm about the ambulance service obscures the very real danger he and his drivers face. Part of the problem, he explains, is trying to stay neutral in a war zone.

"We did have one driver killed by Al-Shabaab," he admits. "They told us that it was because we were carrying government soldiers to hospital. But I said to them that this is what we do - we are working for all of you."

And it's not just the insurgents that Salad and his drivers fear.

"We had to take the body of a Syrian ship captain who had been killed by pirates to the airport," he said. "The government and African Union soldiers opened fire on the ambulance. We were later told they'd received information that the insurgency was planning on using an ambulance to stage a suicide attack."

"But what can you do?" he asks. "Our driver ran away and then later was allowed to come back for his ambulance."

Salad says the relatively high pay is not the real reason his drivers are willing to take the risks they do.


"If you go to the area of the fighting then the combatants [from both sides] say 'You must carry us to the hospital or we will kill you,'" he says.

"It is so dangerous but when we see the problems of the people, we're trying to find a way somehow, to keep on working."

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