Mogadishu Redux

Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, is the focus of the country’s downward spiral. The constant threat from all sides means that travel around the city is always to run a gauntlet, everyone’s senses heightened from the fear and adrenaline as one watches for ambushes or Iraq-style IEDs. Very few journalists have visited Somalia in recent months on account of the security, and traveling down the road from the airport into town, one begins to question one’s motives for coming.

I sit in the backseat of the car with Philip and next to our fixer. We ride with two TFG soldiers – one in front, one in the back – who are ideally just there as a deterrent; to travel without security is to invite problems. Our experience at a checkpoint amidst angry government soldiers demanding money is enough to make us appreciate their presence, even if the speed at which they surrender their weapons was a little worrying.

The unpredictable and volatile security climate means that they are with us whenever we leave the hotel, keeping an appropriate distance but closing in when large numbers of people crowd around us.
Roads around town are filled with holes – the limited reach and budget of the central government forces them to prioritise security policy over development – and often bear the scars of previous roadside bombs targeting government troops.

As a failing state, Somalia has begun to show increased signs of fragmentation. Numerous military forces operate throughout the country. From Ethiopian troops to local Somali militias, none answer to a central authority.
The conflict in Somalia now is between former Islamic Courts members or those opportunistically allied to them and the Somali and Ethiopian government forces based here since December 2006 when the Union of Islamic Courts were toppled.

Al-Shabab, once the military wing of the Islamic Courts and literally meaning ‘the youth’, now operate as an autonomous group associated more with enforcement of ‘Islamic Shari’a customs’ and tactics imported from the global jihadi movement like beheadings, roadside bombs and the practice of filming their attacks.
The various government militias – many of whom are loyal to the government only in name – have not been paid for month and their loyalties lie with clan affiliates or whoever pays them.

Numerous people tell us of the problems between those loyal to the President (from the Majerteen branch of the Darood clan) and those loyal to the Prime Minister (from the Abgal branch of the Hawiyye clan).
The Hawiyye-Darood dynamic is played out from the senior government level down to the soldiers manning checkpoints and patrolling in ‘technicals’ – the battlewagons made famous during the 1990s during inter-clan fighting in Mogadishu – on the ground.

The Prime Minister himself has little control over the Darood militias loyal to the President that dominate the government forces in Mogadishu. The President brought these with him from his native Puntland (an area in north-east Somalia that has declared itself independent, but with no formal international recognition so far) when the Somali transitional government started operating in Somalia.
The government itself is peculiar in that many of its senior-level members are often not to be found in Mogadishu itself, but rather to the east in Baidoa. Prior to the Ethiopian invasion in late 2006 that forced the Union of the Islamic Courts out of power, government members were based in Baidoa, and until recently these politicians were forced to be continually on the move out of fear of assassination.

Nowadays there is a relatively secure enclave in the south of Mogadishu where government officials and senior security staff live, but it is still subject to periodic attack. Most government officials we spoke to had survived numerous assassination attempts since 2006.

We went on a tour of Shingani district in southern Mogadishu, a ruined wasteland of rubble and concrete stumps and shells of buildings, with its district commissioner, Ibrahim Mohammad Mokhtar. Walking for kilometers through destroyed houses, banks and hotels I was distinctly reminded of images of Kabul during its own civil war of the 1990s, or Beirut from the 1980s.

The once well-known five-star Europa Hotel is just a structure, each floor shot to bits and containing only rubble from dividing walls. The empty swimming pool looks out forlornly onto the seaport, a memory of better days before the fall of the Siyyad Barre regime at the beginning of the 1990s.
Even in this relatively safe neighbourhood – where there was almost nothing left to fight over – the district commissioner insisted on taking an escort of five soldiers in addition to our own two guards.

He had himself survived three assassination attempts – including once when insurgents broke into his house in the middle of the night and he was forced to climb out the back window and flee.
It is scarcely believable that there are still people living amongst these ruins – enough time has passed since its destruction in the clan feuding of late 1992 that laid ruin to this area for plants to have taken root and in some cases small saplings and bushes in what must have been peoples’ living rooms. Goats wander freely around through the area, as if an extension of the desert sands surrounding the city.

We see some women working in the rubble making an effort – where do you start? – to clean up the area. They wear fluorescent yellow tops identifying themselves as workers for a local Somali NGO and coyly smile as we pass by. Promised food in return for their labours, many of these women come from the internal-refugee camps several miles away from the centre of town. Often, however, they don’t receive any food and are forced to register at the camps’ administrations to receive food aid there.

There are only two newly constructed buildings in the area – one a pink government administrative centre and the other a huge arch in the middle of a proposed government leisure park for residents that remains unused.

A massive monument has somehow survived all the fighting – a 40-metre high obelisk erected by Siyyad Barre and still bearing a single Somali star at its base as an ironic gesture towards the country’s unity – but is pocked with bullet holes and the few people walking around in this part of town barely glance up as they pass it by.

There is a government checkpoint near the obelisk manned by forces loyal to the Mayor of Mogadishu and one side of the road is cordoned off with a wooden barrier and a hut of soldiers on guard against suicide bombers and opportunistic attacks.
To our surprise, we find a boy on guard on the square. He says he is 17, but in reality he’s closer to 12 or 13. Half my height, he looks too young to be doing what he does, but he’s been working there for over a year. Paid 1.5 million Somali shillings every month (around $50), he said he joined just to get a job to support his mother, father and three other brothers.

He agrees that the work is dangerous (“of course”) and jokes in an aside that “everyone who does this work dies.”
I asked him what he thought he saw himself doing in five years time. He didn’t understand the question, replying simply that he’d been in so many battles that he fully expected to die at any time in the near future.
A few days later we meet others in Shingani district who have been living in their houses throughout the past 18 years’ conflict. Hassan Ali Noor, 28, lives in the basement of an old Italian colonial seaside building complex. A huge pile of sand, rubble and refuse lie in one corner of the dark room that is dimly lit from the jagged holes overlooking the sea.

When asked what had changed for him over the years that he had been living there, he said that things were more or less the same. Previously his family had owned a gold shop and a shoe shop in the affluent district that was full of banks, hotels and foreigners’ custom, but he lost these in the war.

Hassan now works as a fisherman and supports the 9 people living in the small basement room. The fish he brings back barely provides for his family (“we are living only for today”). He ignored my question about what needs to change in Somalia for him to have a better life, asking instead for a new fishing boat and a motor – to hope for anything else was inconceivable.

There are no schools in the area, so his children run around on the streets, sometimes playing football, other times finding amusement in the dark buildings or diving off rotting wooden port structures into the sea. They will probably join him on the fishing boat when they are older, although he says there aren’t so many fish as before.

“Previously we used to catch a lot of fish, but now there are international trawlers overfishing the waters and even on a good day I’d be lucky to catch 10 or 15 fish,” he said. Alongside the seaside and on the roof of the uninhabited Italian lighthouse, fishermen returned from a morning’s fishing chew qat, the leafy drug imported from Kenya and Ethiopia, and that sometimes functions as an alternative currency in Somalia. Travelling in some areas outside Mogadishu itself, we’d pick up an extra guard or two for a particularly dicey stretch of road and then pay them with a couple of bunches of qat for their troubles.

There is, again surprisingly, a flourishing fish market nearby the lighthouse where hundreds gather in the afternoon to trade and dice up fish caught earlier that morning. From large to small, crab to lobster, numbered stalls are red with the guts and juice of dismembered fish. The feeling of insecurity is far away in this part of town, and at least here people are happy to be doing business uninterrupted by men with guns.

Having gained an impression of daily life for those lucky enough to be living in the relatively calm south of the city, we set up interviews with members of al-Shabab, the most militant insurgent group operating in town, in order to discover what is behind their actions – such that led the US to list them as a “foreign terrorist organisation” in late February this year. There are two other groups, but al-Shabab inspire the most fear in residents and they have a more active campaign against anyone who opposes them or for the purposes of implementing “Islamic shari’a rule,” as they’re swift to mention.

We were due to meet with al-Shabab members and leaders in their Bakara market stronghold when one of their leaders and a major motivating force behind their evolution as an organisation was killed in a US airstrike several hundred miles north of Mogadishu. We were forced to cancel the interview as al-Shabab members immediately started calling for revenge against foreigners in the country. Travelling around town from that day onwards we were more aware of this threat, although Islamic Courts members we spoke to at various points over the phone all said that they didn’t intend to target foreign journalists.

Al-Shabab spokesman Abdul Qadir agreed to talk on the phone towards the end of our stay, and at the beginning of the interview we exchanged a brief conversation in Arabic – as if to prove his Islamist credentials – but which swiftly broke down after asking after my health as his Arabic conversational skills ran out. “So how are you?” he asked in English after a few commonplace greetings.
Al-Shabab, he said, were both fighting for Somali unity and for the Somali people as well as for their own agenda of implementing Islamic shari’a law. In their strong Saudi-inspired sense of the role of Islam in the country, they are at odds with most of the Somali people, who follow a historically more benign Sufi-inspired Islamic creed.

The more militant and legalistic Islam that al-Shabab seek to implement was not – and is not – in the spirit of that advocated by the Union of Islamic Courts when they held sway prior to the Ethiopian invasion at the end of 2006. Much as the Taliban rule over Afghanistan from 1994 onwards was often left loosely up to individuals in charge of specific areas, individuals in Somalia paint a picture of a haphazard policy that was more legislative in nature than Islamist in the popular conception of the word.

Al-Shabab nowadays seeks to implement more than just security in the areas under its control. Many of their senior members – including Aden Hashi ‘Ayrow who was assassinated in a US airstrike that killed at least 10 others north of Mogadishu – were assigned as bodyguards to foreign al-Qaeda operatives in Somalia during the 1990s. Many analysts believe that this experience was singularly most responsible for their current radical views and aspirations to the ‘global jihad.’
After a couple of days of negotiations, we managed to get a rare phone interview with the Islamic Courts’ senior spokesman Sheikh Mohammad Sheikh Ibrahim.

As with the al-Shabab spokesman, he is keen to promote his Islamic credentials and greets us in Arabic, beginning his interview with the traditional Bismillah (‘in the name of God…’). Before we start the interview, however, he spends several minutes questioning my intentions.
In the past, he says, journalists have often been biased and have misrepresented the truth about the Islamic Courts. He strongly calls on me to be impartial in my reporting and asks when my article will be published so he can read it online to check what I write.

It is a feature of reporting from Somalia that some days (only one during the week we were there) the atmosphere outside the hotel is too volatile for us to venture out so we invite people to visit us and we interview them there. An odd hub of businessmen, Somali visitors from their refuge abroad, and the occasional journalist like myself, our hotel is an island of security in southern Mogadishu.

Nevertheless, most evenings we hear gunfire outside, and when we wake in the morning Somali journalist colleagues living just kilometers away tell of how they ran to the hotel that morning because of an ongoing clash between insurgents and government or Ethiopian forces sandbagged down in their bases.
One morning we hear an explosion, rush up to the roof to see a black smoke rising nearby. We jump into the car and race to the airport road where there has just been an IED attack on a three-vehicle convoy of African Union troops passing by.

A small crater is the only sign of the attack, which caused no casualties. Women on the side of the road selling food grudgingly tell us the details of the attack, as if it was too commonplace an occurrence to warrant our inquiries. Children in a side street continue kicking around a football, also seemingly oblivious. It doesn’t escape our thoughts that we had driven up and down the same road several times.

On the first afternoon in Mogadishu, we drive south to the camps for internally displaced people and arrived at Hawe ‘Abdi camp, named after the woman who has managed and tended to those resident in the area and who still runs a hospital and various projects there. It’s difficult to get a sense of the scale of the camps from just one glance because there’s a lot of trees and green bushes growing on the side of the road, but these collections of makeshift huts and shelters made out of twigs and cardboard boxes – most approaching some level of collapse – are everywhere for on both sides of the road for 15 miles as you approach Afgoye.

Food and water is hard to come by for the residents who are forced to rely on food handouts from international relief organisations in the absence of a strong government or any serious employment opportunities. The few Somalis who manage to secure jobs working with these foreign aid organisations are fiercely protective of their jobs; they are paid regularly, and in US dollars which aren’t subject to the massive devaluing inflation that the Somali shilling currently suffers.

Walking around the camp, there were many who had been living there for 9 months when Mogadishu was engulfed by heavy fighting on a daily basis. Ahmed Osman and his wife Khadija Yusuf were completely rebuilding their small shelter with branches they had gathered nearby. “It was almost collapsed anyway, and it will rain soon so we’re trying to rebuild our house even though we can’t afford any plastic sheeting to go on the outside,” Ahmed said. Khadija works under the hot sun – Somalia is currently in its hottest season and even in shade means to sweat copious amounts – with her child strapped to her back.

She didn’t think they would return to their home in northern Mogadishu any time soon.
Despite the desperate situation many of the camp residents find themselves in, the administration is quite strong. Each area has someone assigned to monitor new arrivals and to ensure for the provision for those under his control. When people arrive newly from Mogadishu – as they were doing when we visited – they often initially stay with relatives or friends in their shelters while a space is assigned to them.

We walked through a large patch of desert with one or two of the green and prickly Qara’a trees so common in this area of Somalia under each of which a family was sat. This area, the area commissioner explained, had been allocated for new arrivals but they hadn’t finalized exactly who would be placed where yet so the families hadn’t begun to construct their makeshift houses yet.
Throughout the camp, women and children wearing brightly colourful clothes in counterpoint to the bleak desert landscape marked with green bushes and trees all around walked in the small lanes and paths in between the huts.

We had heard lots about the two Red Cross-funded hospitals in Mogadishu and wanted to visit both – one in the north, one in the south – but only managed to get to Medina hospital, near our hotel and in the relative safety of the south, on account of security concerns.
A large complex with armed guards manning the entrance – our own guards hand over their weapons upon entry – the hospital is a community-based facility that serves residents from all over the city.

Fighting near to the north-south divide in Mogadishu means that those injured or caught up in battles are often brought here rather than the more distant Kaysani hospital in the north.
Figures for the wounded treated at these two hospitals tell a tale of civilians caught up in the conflict. In 2007, they received over four thousand weapon-wounded. In 2008 so far they have treated 1112 weapon wounded. Of these, one-third are women and children (under 15 years old).

When we visited Medina hospital, we found that most of the patients had been accidentally caught up in the conflict in this way. Dark unventilated wards were languidly hot in the afternoon sun. Operating under capacity on account of a lull in the fighting, those recovering under the tending care of family members had almost all been caught up in Mogadishu’s haphazard violence. The hospital is relatively well stocked and provided for by international aid money, although still lacks some basic scanning and diagnostic equipment.
There are separate buildings for the different hospital functions – Intensive Care, x-ray scans etc – and surgeons are among the most qualified in the world, some of whom have over 15 years of combat surgery experience and have pioneered new techniques – borne out of a lack of supplies – that have gone on to be adopted by international military surgeons.

Ahmed Dalal, the uncle and guardian of 6 children currently recovering at the hospital, told how two mortar shells hit their house, injured all the children and killed their mother on 20th April. Ethiopian forces have become known for returning fire after an attack by shelling the area – often densely residential – from where the attack originated. Most of those killed recently who died – dozens killed and hundreds injured – on a recent weekend (19th-20th April) died in such a bombardment.
In the intensive care unit there are 8-10 patients per room, most of whom have a crowd of relatives sitting alongside. In two of the four wards, most of those receiving treatment were injured in a bus accident cum insurgent ambush.

13km south of Mogadishu, a bus was returning on the road from Afgoye towards Mogadishu when the car behind them – an African Union armoured vehicle – was ambushed. At the same time, the minibus crashed into an oncoming car while trying to overtake the charcoal lorry in front.
Abdul Wahab Daghawe, the minibus driver, said that these kinds of attacks and ambushes were common on the road. He sits near the window on his hospital bed, both feet exposed in front. His right foot is heavily bandaged and was shot through with a bullet in the attack, while his left foot is smeared with white cream to ease the risk of infection from injuries sustained when his bus crashed.

We talk to at least 6 other passengers who were on the bus who have sustained injuries ranging from bullet wounds to less severe crash traumas.
Most of those in the intensive care wing are indeed there because of gunshot wounds of some sort or another. Abdullahi Serdayi, a tall and clearly strong fit man, lies back weakly in his bed recovering from two gunshot wounds to his chest that he suffered three days previously when an attack in K4 area (in the south, and near to our hotel) materialized about him while he was sitting on the pavement. Caught in the crossfire, he only realized he was injured when he stood up and saw his blood on the ground.

Previously a refugee in Sweden, he had recently returned to Somalia on the request of his father, but he said he was hoping to leave again soon after this incident.
On our last day we visit a feeding centre funded by international relief organisations but administered by the local NGO Saa’id (‘Help’). We arrive a little before they start work and walk through a bombed-out structure where thousands of Somalis from the surrounding areas squat on the floor waiting to be allowed their turn to collect cooked food from the huge industrial-size vats of hot cooked Sorghum and tomato sauce with floating green peppers.

Some 8000 people are fed every day at this station, and as there is no registration implemented by the administrators, there are lots of people who come even from the IDP camps far away. When they started little over 5 months ago there were only 5000 who came each day, but as word leaked out that cooked food was being offered here the numbers continue to increase each day. This has had an impact on how much food they can give each recipient.

At the beginning, four heaped scoops/ladles of Sorghum was the standard amount, but now they have reduced that to two, and the expect soon they will have to switch to just one on account of the increased demand.
Once they have started, NGO staff wielding long flexible twigs administer the flow and move people along. Scuffles break out among the women – from the very young to the very old – over half-wedges of lime that they are handing out. Those collecting the food – in all manner of pots, pans, jugs and receptacles (even plastic bags and old cement sacks) – are mostly women and children.

I am told this is because the men consider it shameful to do this themselves, but throughout the week we are in Mogadishu we see women often taking the brunt of the workload. When we ask them where their husbands are, they chuckle and say that the men ‘do nothing’.
Ali Mohammad Dabani, the district commissioner in the area and one of the board members of Saa’id, arrives a short while after we do and tells us he is there to make sure of our safety. He brings his own uniformed armed guards who loiter around and even get involved in a fight during the feeding. Crowds gathering at the exit ‘gate’ (a gap in a flimsy wooden fence) are occasionally beaten back by NGO staff.

On the day we leave, Mogadishu is awash with demonstrators protesting the massive inflation of the Somali national currency and against the near worthlessness of Somali bank notes. This is a clear symbol of the government’s powerlessness and inability to implement change on a meaningful level for its people. Businessmen have started to refuse old 1000 Shilling notes (the only note currently in use on account of the massive inflation is the 1000 Shilling denomination) and demonstrators were livid with anger, vowing to continue demonstrating until the old notes were accepted again. Until they are, many people are effectively bankrupt.
Burning tyres on all the intersections and the incensed protestors mean we have to take back roads to the airport in a fast-paced adrenaline-fuelled trip.

On the final stretch of the airport road and in a clear sign of the way insurgents are taking advantage of the security vacuum in the country to operate, we see newly dug holes in the road covered with fresh sand where al-Shabab members have taken the opportunity of the massive civil disturbance to plant new IEDs in the ground with which to target convoys or individuals in the future.

[I had been planning to publish this somewhere, but it’s been a while since my trip, and as my mind is focused on other things now there’s little point sitting on it in the hope of something coming along. Apologies for the image quality, but I can’t upload higher-resolution photos.]