Our Man in Mogadishu

by Gerry Lynch last modified 12 Feb, 2015 12:54 PM

Wilton churchwarden plays key role in EU stabilisation mission in Somalia.

It’s a long way from Julian Lyne-Pirkis’ comfortable Wilton home to his workplace digs: a converted shipping container in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu.

One of Julian’s roles is as churchwarden at St Nicholas’ Church in the historic Wiltshire town. The other is as an advisor to the Somali Ministry of Defence.

Over a 36 year career as an artillery officer, Julian worked in senior positions at NATO, in Gibraltar and as Defence Attaché in Damascus during the mid 2000s when, he says, “Syria had a stable, but autocratic government”.

After leaving the Army, he worked for a time as Assistant Receiver General and Head of Event Management at Westminster Abbey under Sir Stephen Lamport. “A real privilege there was to help manage the Royal Wedding of Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge”, says Julian.

Much as he loved the Abbey, he missed the intellectual and practical intensity of a military career, and completed an MSc in International Defence and Security Studies at Cranfield, which enabled him to go on the list of consultants to the government’s Stabilisation Unit, a tri-departmental agency supporting government efforts to tackle instability overseas. It involves elements of the Foreign Office, Ministry of Defence and Department for International Development.

“I’m part of the ‘Conflict Stabilisation Cadre’, which means I’m a consultant entitled to apply for specific posts when they come up. I’ve recently started a nine month posting in Mogadishu, as part of the EU’s Training Mission to the Somali government.”

The EU mission has a mandate from the UN to help Somalis rebuild their country after decades of civil war. Initially, it was based at a camp in Uganda, and specifically aimed at training the Somali army, during a period when the country was wracked by conflict with the Islamist al-Shabab militia. Now the mission also provides advice and monitoring.

Julian’s day-to-day role is acting as an advisor to the Somali Ministry of Defence. “They are seeking to transform into a government department fit for a 21st Century democracy”, he continues, “There are real challenges here – one that might surprise people is Somalia’s history as a Soviet ally during the Cold War. Many senior people were trained during that era and that’s still visible, for example, in attitudes to civilian control of the military.

“Some other aspects of Somali military life are surprisingly progressive; one of our Lieutenant Colonels in logistics is a woman aged under 30.

Mogadishu K-4 roundabout.jpg“Al-Shabab still controls fair chunks of the countryside, and even parts of Mogadishu, which are ‘no go areas’. Clan differences can also be really problematic.

“Things are, however, considerably more stable than a few years ago, and life for ordinary Somalis has improved. Business life has recovered dramatically. Yet with so much destroyed during years of civil war and anarchy, some Somalis are desperately poor and hunger and preventable diseases are real problems.”

How does faith come into this complex and challenging career?

“The Church has just always been part of my life”, Julian explains, “I grew up in Surrey, where my father was a GP and sidesman in a village church near where we lived – St Mary the Virgin in Shackleford. We went to Church regularly and were taught to say our prayers kneeling by our bedside every night. I can’t remember a time where I didn’t believe.

“I then went to Westminster, where our school chapel was the Abbey, which had a profound effect. When I had to think about things more seriously during Confirmation classes, I knew I was a Christian.

“Charismatic priests and preachers helped root my faith. Lancelot Fleming, a delightful man, was the Visiting Bishop when I was at school, and he became a very good friend. He married my wife Sarah and I, and then christened our child.

“But perhaps my faith meant most when I was commanding a battery in the field during the First Gulf War, and we really didn’t know whether or not each day was going to be our last. One entry from diary during that time reads ‘I’ve never felt closer to God’. I have a lot of time for the Royal Army Chaplain’s Department, having seen their vital work while on operation.

“Even apart from that, though, I’ve always been C of E and I’ve always loved it. I love the rhythm, liturgy and music of the Church’s life – I’ve always loved singing. I also treasure the deep friendships I’ve made through the Church.

“We moved to Wilton shortly before I left the Army in 2010. We got involved in the parish church, then the PCC and I was asked to become Churchwarden last Easter. Ironically, I was posted out to Somalia by January! I offered to resign, but the Vicar wouldn’t accept, and took my ‘detached duty’ in East Africa as an interesting challenge.”

Wilton’s Rector, the Revd Mark Wood asked churchpeople to support Julian, both in the practical tasks that need to done, and by ongoing prayers for his safety and the success of the mission.

“It will be good for us to know what is happening so we can pray about the reality of life in Somalia”, said Mark, “In recognising the work that Julian will be doing, I hope that we will all gain a better understanding of specific issues and people outside our own community and nation and that our confidence in the unfailing love of God may be renewed and strengthened.”

Reflecting on his temporary home, Julian concluded, “Living conditions are a bit robust here – but I’m used to that from the Army! We ex-pats are still very restricted in where we can travel within the city, and that’s especially difficult as our Somali colleagues now move quite freely.

“There are real compensations though; I live right beside the Indian Ocean. Going for a walk on the beach at the end of a hard day and watching the breakers roll in is magical.”

Lower photo: A view of the K-4 roundabout outside of the Bangladesh Army compound in Mogadishu. Somalis work around and within the compound in exchange for food in a work-for-food program set up by the Bangladeshis.

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