Iman (fashion), Warsan Shire (poetry), Mohammed Farrah (Athletics) and K’naan (rap music) are famous Somalis or those of Somali origin who have become global household names. However, that is not what makes the Horn of Africa country well-known. Civil war, piracy and Islamic extremism have been tormenting the country for more than two decades now. Still the country is striving to get back on its feet, writes Neamin Ashenafi.
“The men controlling the heavy ropes that bound the airman’s wrists, stretching his arms high above his head, rolled the body back and forth in the hammering white light of a Mogadishu morning. The dead man danced with his tormentors like a broken marionette.
I tried to focus on reality one step removed – the image in the frame – struggling to make sure that in the seconds I had, I got proof that the military couldn’t deny. No room for error. So in the chaos, when a normal person would be thinking about how to save himself, which way to run, I was worried that maybe I’d loaded the film wrong, or the shutter speed was too slow, or whether I should risk using a flash to brighten the shadows cast by the pounding sun.
Did I put those fresh batteries in?
The corpse is limp: Could he have been dead long?
Those bullet wounds on his legs: Did they shoot him in the street or at the crash site?
Maybe he’s only unconscious: Could he still be alive?
You poor man: Who are you?”
The above quotation is from the book Where War Lives: A Journey Into the Heart of War written by Canadian photojournalist Paul Watson.
Watson, who was born with his right hand missing, is a war journalist, traveling to the most dangerous places on earth. Back in 1993, as one of the last remaining journalists in Somalia, he heard that a Black Hawk helicopter has been shot down over Mogadishu, and that a mob is dragging the body of US Staff Sergeant William David Clevelandthrough the streets. Watson went to the site and took snapshots which eventually garnered him a Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography in 1994.
The story of the “dragged soldier” has been told and retold by many. Now 23 years have passed and just like two decades ago the streets of Mogadishu remain unsafe not just for civilians but also for men in uniform.
Construction is everywhere in Mogadishu, the capital city of Somalia. The coastal city is busy rebuilding itself, though the scars of the two-decade plus civil war are vividly seen in every corner of the city.
Security at the new terminal of Aden Abdulle International Airport, which was built by Kozuva, a private Turkish construction firm, is tight. According to passengers who talked to The Reporter, after an Al-Shabaab suicide bomber detonated his explosive inside Dallo Airlines on air back in February, security check has tightened.
The airport, the headquarters of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and the United Nations Support Office in Somalia (UNSOS) are situated in close proximity and that part of the city is one of the highly secured areas in Mogadishu as it is under a 24/7 surveillance by Ugandan troops.
Journalists from troop contributing countries (TCC) traveled to the capital two weeks ago to visit various activities that that are being undertaken by AMISOM to restore peace and stability in Somalia. Immediately after journalists landed in Mogadishu and were transferred to the hotel, the first the first thing they received was armor jackets and helmets which weigh 15kgs each. The journalists were instructed to wear the both the armor jackets and helmets at all times during visits to different parts of the city.
“You are in an operational area. The situation in Mogadishu is calm yet volatile. Moving around without escort is prohibited. Do not go out of the Mogadishu International Airport perimeter. Transpiration will be on armed vehicles,” head of AMISOM’s Public Information Unit told visiting journalists.
Though the country is in relative peace following the capture of key areas by AMISOM forces, things could change instantly. So risks should not be taken and armor jackets and helmets were part of the attire.
Though there is construction in different parts of the city, many of the buildings are exposed to bomb attacks by the Islamic extremist group, Al-Shabaab.
Newly-built high-rise constructions like the Safari Buildings give the capital city a new image. Safari Buildings is an apartment complex built to serve residential and office quarters for many organizations. The eye-catching complex is home for Horn Connect—a media organization working as an agent to many international media houses including BBC, Al Jazeera and CCTV among many others. The leftwing of the building is where affluent Somalis—majority of whom are from the diaspora—live.
On the flip side, within walking distance, one can find the rumpled side of Mogadishu. This part of the city illustrates the misery Mogadishu went through in the past.
Apart from witnessing the remnants of destroyed houses and city squares, one can observe that there is construction of roads and buildings—Mogadishu is being rebuilt. Evidently, there is construction boom in Mogadishu and timber and iron bars are the major imports of the country entering via the Port of Mogadishu which is operated by a Turkish company called Albayrak Group.
Nightlife in Mogadishu is quiet with very few people seen on the streets. The city is dormant both day and night. Though the heat makes any movement impossible during daytime residents are indoors starting from the early hours of the evening.
However, this portrayal is unacceptable for Mohammed Dayer, a 32-year-old Bajaj (three wheeler auto) driver and a resident of Abdelaziez district in north Mogadishu.
“We entertain ourselves. The international media depicts Mogadishu negatively. Though bad things happen in Mogadishu, it does not mean that it is the end of life,” Dayer, who earns USD 20 to 25 per day, told The Reporter.
“Though we have a lot of problems, we have life here and we have a remedy to the problems. You can just go to the shores of the Indian Ocean and see the good side of life rather than the bad one,” he says pointing to the attractive beaches of the Indian Ocean.
For Mohamed Mogadishu is rising from the ashes and is geared up to get rid of the scars. He says that the city is coming to life.
The future of Mogadishu and Somalia as a whole is bright; he says and wishes to see Mogadishu become one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
Such sentiments are shared by many Somalis including the officials. However, Somalia has a long way to go before realizing that attainment. And according to commentators, one of the most important elements is stability. In that regard, the legitimacy of the political establishment and the central government should not be questioned by the society, the commentators say. Unless that is established, commentators fear that it would directly hamper the path towards peace and stability.
According to a former correspondent of one of the western media outlets who spoke to The Reporter on conditions of anonymity, the absence of a central government, security apparatus, and other necessary institutions in Somalia in the past two decades has made things complicated.
“There is a young generation that does not know what a government, police, education and other basic institutions are. If someone attacks or harms you what you know is either going to your clan for revenge or taking matters in to your own hands. There was no concept of justice and bringing the perpetrators to court. Therefore, it will take time to instill this idea in each and every Somali youth who do not know what a government and being governed means,” he says.
People in Mogadishu hope that the future will bring peace and stability; however, attacks by Al-Shabaab have made things complicated.
James Fergusson, who is among the few to have witnessed at first hand the realities in Somalia, in his book entitled, The World’s Most Dangerous Place: Inside the outlaw State of Somalia, argues that Al-Shabaab is making a shift in strategy following the loss of its strategic and key positions.
“After all, Al-Shabaab are far from defeated, despite their recent territorial loss, and seem unlikely to disappear as an insurgency. Indeed, they had already begun the tactical switch from conventional war-fighting towards a deadly, Taliban-style guerilla campaign in the summer of 2011,” James writes.
Amid the uncertainties, hotels are being built in different parts of the city and many of the hotels have been subjected to bomb attacks by Al-Shabaab. For instance, last year a suicide attacker drove a vehicle loaded with explosives into the gate of the Jazeera Palace Hotel in Mogadishu killing at least 15 people.
The Al-Shabaab took responsibility for the attack, saying it was targeting Western diplomats. Back then the hotel housed diplomatic missions for several nations, including China. Now it is home for Burundi, Egypt and Qatar missions.
This hotel was attacked three times in the past and after the third attack the Chinese were forced to relocate.
Due to the repetitive attacks three checkpoints were set up with one X-ray screening at the gate of the hotel.
The presence of AMISOM
AMISOM was created by the African Union’s Peace and Security Council on January 19, 2007. It is mandated to support transitional governmental structures, implement a national security plan, train the Somali security forces, and to assist in creating a secure environment for the delivery of humanitarian aid. As part of its duties, AMISOM also supports the Federal Government of Somalia’s forces in their battle against Al-Shabaab militants. However, there are some Somali commentators who are critical of the presence of the AMISOM troops. They argue that since the troops get paid lots of money in foreign currency—when compared to want they earn in their respective countries—they do not want to go to back home. These commentators believe that they [AMISOM troops] do not care whether peace in Somalia is secured or not.
However, this remark is ironic for Ambassador Fransisco Madera who is Special Representative of the Chairperson of the African Union Commission (SPCC) for Somalia and the Head of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).
“The fact on the ground reveals that conflicts are multiplying everywhere and the resources are limited. This is affecting us. We do not have sufficient resources to pay our solders and acquire equipment to protect ourselves against improvised explosive devices” Madera told The Reporter.
On the contrary, there are others like Mohamed Mahmud Ababun, a businessman, who is against the activities of Al-Shabaab. “Those who don’t like the presence of AMISOM and spread information against the mission are sympathizers of Al-Shabaab,” he told The Reporter.
“I am more than happy for the contribution of our African brothers who are helping us stand on our own two feet. They left their countries and risk their lives for our sake. I would like to thank them for the good work and my condolences for those who lost their lives here,” he says.
He added that he wants to see a Somalia that has a stable government and a well-functioning system. “I don’t want to anarchy. Those who are saying that AMISOM is not contributing anything to bring peace to Somalia are those who don’t want to see a government and a system in the country,” he says.
Be it as it may, conditions in Somalia are far from being stable. Over the last several decades, no other country has struggled so profoundly to institute basic structures of governance. Somalia’s profound instability stems in part from conflicts between the state structures imposed during the colonial era and the clan structures that traditionally play a heavy role in the pastoral lives of Somalis.
The 1991 overthrow of President Siad Barre ushered in a new era of conflict and anarchy from which the country has never fully recovered. In the absence of a central government, warlords and armed factions have violently vied for political and economic dominance. Somalia has also frequently served as a proxy battleground for international actors and ideologies, stretching from Cold War American and Soviet realpolitik to current concerns about Islamic extremism.
Somalia has been without an effective central government since 1991. After the clan-based militias overthrew Barre, they descended into infighting and lawlessness, sparking famine and massive refugee flows into neighboring countries. In December 1992, this situation captured international attention and the United States—in cooperation with the United Nations—began implementing programs to protect food aid from being looted. However, this humanitarian mission quickly became entangled in Somalia’s civil conflict. When the US attempted to oust leading warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid in October 1993, Somali militias responded by shooting down two US Black Hawk helicopters over Mogadishu. 18 American servicemen were killed and more than 1,000 Somalis lost their lives in the ensuing battle. By the end of 1993, the US withdrew from Somalia; the UN followed suite in early 1995.
Hope and despair
However, Somalis like Mohammed Dayer have not given up hope. In fact, he calls on all Somali diasporas to contribute to the reconstruction of their country and believes that those who are living in exile are misinformed. “I can say that Mogadishu is changing and a lot people from the diaspora have already returned. If there are Somalis educated in Europe or somewhere else they come and serve their country. This is where they belong and this is their city. These days, bad things are happened in Europe and other part of the world and nobody is safe anywhere. So there it is better to die in one’s own country,” he says.
The African continent’s most impoverished country, Somalia has existed for less than half a century, but has spent much of that time at war or struggling to retain stability. Split between warlords and Islamic militants, the East African nation faces an uncertain future, with little sign that change is on the way.