Mogadishu's Transition To Peace

Photographs & Text by Susan Schulman

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Smartly dressed waiters bustle busily around the attractive grass thatched open air pavilion at the Indian Ocean Star cafe and restaurant, tending to the customers sat at tables decorated with a floral theme, bringing cold drinks and freshly cooked food from the open plan kitchen as a wide screen television played an ongoing football match.

'The Most Dangerous City in the World'... That is how Mogadishu was recently described. Notorious, and notoriously ungoverned, Somalia has been a no man's land since Black Hawk Dawn was downed 20 years ago, on an unremarkable narrow street where the remains of its gear shaft and one surviving rotor blade lie barely visible in the overgrowth of rubbish-strewn cactus, betraying nothing of the seismic impact the deaths of the USA airmen in this incident had on the US and Western policy on foreign intervention for over a decade.

It certainly didn't feel like that at the Indian Ocean Star Cafe and Restaurant, even if the clutch of armed men hanging around, watchful and alert, served as a reminder. Mogadishu is returning to life.

The departure gate at Nairobi airport, where I boarded my African Express flight to Mogadishu, was overflowing. There are flights to Mogadishu four days a week from Nairobi, and they are full. Turkish Airlines has begun a very popular twice-weekly service. I noticed only two Westerners at the departure gate. All the rest were Somali; businessmen returning from Nairobi, women with small children returning from shopping trips to Nairobi and Dubai, and diaspora coming home to visit relatives, or in many cases to survey the progress on their rebuilding projects of homes and businesses alike.

The damage inflicted on this 500-year-old city and its unique blend of Persian, Islamic and Italian architecture over decades of conflict is staggering and dramatic. Ruins, many from the conflicts of the 1990's, are everywhere. The displaced and homeless fashion makeshift shelters in the remains of the former parliament and other once-formidable, important bastions of state. Yet, even with the destruction, it takes little imagination to see how this must have been a truly magnificent city. Curling around the azure Indian Ocean, the city's historic Shaangani district and old seaport, once the haunt of well-to-do restaurant goers, now a series of crumbling Islamic buildings and one intact ancient tower, said to have been the place where slaves were sent to their fate. But it still retains some of its magic.

If the Indian Ocean Star Cafe owners Sharif Abdulqadir and business partner Mohamud Dhagy, and others like them, continue at their current vigorous pace, Mogadishu will soon be on the road once again to being a wonderful city. Dotted amongst the ruins are building sites. Local entrepreneurs and the diaspora are investing in the city. They are repairing villas and developing businesses. The city has effective electricity 24/7 for those who can afford it, largely courtesy of small Somali entrepreneurs who operate generators. Land prices have skyrocketed. It is said that a seaside property worth USD $50,000 six months ago is now worth ten times that.

Sharif Abdulqadir and Mohamud Dhagy have typical stories. Both natives of Mogadishu, they fled the violence of their home city ten years ago and went to the UK. They have since come from their respective London and Bristol homes to invest in their home city, via their business group the 'Indian Ocean Group', based in London’s Shepherds Bush. They began thinking about it only eight months ago. Open now for three months, business is good. “Now Somalia will be at peace”, Mohamud declares, “people are fed up with war.” Indian Star is their first completed venture. Improved security is behind their many other investments underway in the city. Even a hotel is planned.

Yet, security remains precarious. Despite the presence of my armed protection team, it remains unadvisable for those from the West to stay in one place too long. A quick mango juice later, we were given some delicious freshly made Somali bread to take with us as we headed across the street to the Lido beach.

Outside the brightly painted gate sits a cluster of heavily armed men on a street lined with ruins. Ahead, a man with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder turns off between two piles of ruins towards the beach. A builder carrying a weighty bucket of cement follows soon on his heels. He is then followed shortly after by another AK-carrying man, with a bucket of cement in one hand, AK in the other. This is Mogadishu in 2012.

A group of naked children play in the softly breaking waves. A swimsuit-clad man lounges on the sand. Others relax looking out to sea. Three football games are underway. Spectacularly ruined beach villas line the shore as far as the eye can see. Amongst them, one is in the midst of being rebuilt, rising from the ashes like a Phoenix. Half a dozen men are working on it, applying a new cement skin. In a neighbourhood where 99% of the buildings are dramatically and uninhabitably ruined, where squatters find makeshift shelter and cows wander, it is a huge statement of optimism in the future.

There is plenty of evidence of belief in Mogadishu's future. A brick factory churns out hundreds of bricks at a rate double to that of one year earlier, a quarry is busily being worked; building projects are ubiquitous. It is said there are no masons to be found anywhere else in Somalia. They are all here. Land value had risen exponentially. There are jobs, there is work in Mogadishu.

Yet, there is anxiety about the future. In particular, about August… about what will happen when the current Transitional Federal Government (TFG) is scheduled to dissolve. Meetings of elders from clans throughout the region have been convened in Mogadishu, in attempts to arrive at a new representative government by then. But given the turbulent context, it is far from certain that all will go smoothly.

Sharif explains the apparent paradox between anxiety and insecurity in the future, and his ongoing substantial investment: “Everyone has had enough of war, people want peace.”

Ahmed Jama Mohamed is another Mogadishu native transplanted to White City, in London. He began coming back to Mogadishu in 2008, when Al-Shabaab were on every corner. “It was one of the miracles to survive Shabaab,” he explains. “Now, it is different. The community is changing. People are willing things to be better. Six months ago, you couldn't get a property. Now it costs so much. All the diaspora are returning.”

Ahmed's business, The Jazeera Hotel and Restaurant, is nearing completion. It sits on a pristine beach, set adjacent to a small fishing village, over the bluff from salt flats about a 20 minute drive from Mogadishu. It is an idyllic spot. Ahmed explains, “A few months ago, we couldn't even go to Jazeera. But now we can.” Ahmed is referring to the fact that three months earlier, Al-Shabaab had kidnapped someone here. But the African Union Mission In Somalia (AMISOM) has recently established a base not far away, and their nearby presence has changed the security situation on the ground. Ahmed is clearly banking on it, and no doubt, given the right conditions, tourists will surely come. My Somali fixer and minder were madly snapping camera phone pix and posing, as happy tourists in a nearby paradise they had never dreamed existed, never mind visited, a mere stone's throw from the troubled city where they have spent their lives merely trying to survive.

AMISOM has been a game changer in the past year. It is composed exclusively of African troops, with contingents from Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti and Kenya. It has a police component which, when fully formed, will include officers from Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigerian and Uganda. AMISOM is in the middle of having its numbers boosted to 17,000, which, according to Brigadier Paul Lokech, will be enough to secure the major cities but not the countryside.

Al-Shabaab pulled out of Mogadishu in August 2011. AMISOM defeated them militarily, and there was a change of heart of the population, who had turned against Al-Shabaab for their failure to allow them access to much needed humanitarian help and food during last year's devastating drought.

AMISOM itself has sustained heavy losses over its 5 year existence. Their main headquarters adjacent to the airport are container-type temporary buildings containing offices and guest accommodation, sitting amongst bombed out ruins, which the Ugandan troops call home. One of these buildings was destroyed by Al-Shabaab suicide bombers in 2009 in a devastating attack which, amongst others, claimed the life of Major General Juvenal Niyoyunguruza, the deputy commander for AMISOM and the commander of Burundian forces in Somalia at that time. Indeed, the sobering history of failed military interventions is never far away.

The location of another of AMISOM's Mogadishu bases, Uruba provides a concentrated glimpse into Mogadishu history. Once a luxury hotel called the Al-Uruba, its location on the edge of the Indian Ocean is breathtaking. It is now a crumbling wreck, with no remaining walls, and staircases unconvincingly lacking in support, but glimpses betray its grand past. It has a fabulous view out over Mogadishu's old seaport and historic Shangani district. The port was formerly the source of its wealth as an important trade port. Since the departure of Al-Shabaab from the city in August 2011, small fishing boats have begun a tentative return. AMISOM troops occupying the ruined former hotel now sit on plastic chairs looking out over the port, much as the former hotel guests must have done. They sleep in tents erected in the crumbled ruins where guest rooms once were. It is easy to imagine what a wonderful place this must once have been. But where guests would have swum in the below waters, now the watchful eye of AMISOM troops is reinforced by a large gun perched on the beach below and pointing out to sea. Only fishermen who snake into port following a trajectory pre-agreed with AMISOM troops denoting 'friend' status are allowed.

Adjacent to the former hotel on the AMISOM Uruba base is the building that used to be the National Bank. Equally blown to pieces, the graffiti of past occupations remains. Italian paratroopers have scrawled “Barbara mi amore!”, and US Marines have all left their mark. Graffiti for the famous Gold's Gym in Venice Beach, California sits alongside official Marine orders. Looking out over the city from its roof, ruins fill the horizon. The Italian Arco di Trionfo Poplare alone stands unblemished, in front of a park once known as the Love Park. A jagged rectangular shape juts from the remains of the once grand cathedral, next to what were formerly ornate buildings, now housing wild greenery. Yet in the same vista, the evolving Mogadishu is in evidence. Amongst the ruins, men are hard at work, rebuilding a badly damaged villa. A glimpse between buildings of the azure sea at the old seaport reveals men returning from their night’s fishing, pulling boats onto shore and unloading their catch. The cranes of the commercial seaport, now open for business, peek out at the top.

Travelling to an AMISOM base on the frontline on the edge of Mogadishu, signs of rebuilding and life itself fade away to deserted bullet-scarred buildings, military barricades, and dusty roads, dotted with occasional groups of Somali soldiers sheltering from the sun. AMISOM's Maslah base had been someone's modest home, set behind a broken wall. The frontline encircles it at a distance of roughly 200 meters. Most of the Ugandan troops here sleep there on the frontline, dug in under stacked Hesco bastion sand-filled defences, which a bulldozer fills as the line is pushed out bit by bit. A heavy gun is trained at a blue door less than 100 meters away, from where, soldiers explain, they are normally shot at. AMISOM works with the Somali TFG forces, a handful of whom sit in the late afternoon light chewing khat (the ubiquitous locally-used plant stimulant), preparing for the expected night's fighting. At 8pm, bullets fly overhead. There is a loud retort of bombing. It is all finished in 30 minutes. The Ugandans say Al-Shabaab are urban fighters; they are clueless in the bush of this outlying area and, as seemingly confirmed by brief lacklustre fighting, are lacking in strength. The next morning, while the Somali troops are sleeping, the Ugandans point to a broken wall about 100 meters from their line, from where they had received the incoming fire the previous night. Spent shells and bullet casings sit at their feet.

The population remains ambivalent about AMISOM, and indeed the international community's involvement. AMISOM was deplored for its blunt responses to Al-Shabaab attacks, which resulted, as the locals see it, in considerable destruction and civilian casualties. While their success in driving Al-Shabaab out of Mogadishu has greatly improved their reputation, the population remains acutely aware of the dangers of association with foreigners and this includes AMISOM. On a humanitarian level, the international community-supported camps for Mogadishu's roughly 200,000 displaced remain both shamefully below all acceptable standards, and insecure for its residents. By extreme contrast, the vast Turkish-run camp fully meets accepted standards, is completely secure, has a functioning mosque, and even a bakery which supplies residents with fresh bread every morning. Turkey has also built an incinerator for the animal waste of the city, eliminating the health hazard of dozens of camel carcasses which used to be simply piled high in the sun when discarded. The Turkish are also refurbishing schools, and are providing scholarships for many students. Highly visible in reconstruction and humanitarian work, they are beginning to become involved in the political sphere. The contrast with the Western intervention is staggering, and the Turkish are viewed very positively as a result of their visible and excellent work.

The uncertainty of the future is not deterring the diaspora and local businessmen from their current pace of development. Even if the displaced population currently squat within the ruins of once-glorious buildings, and formerly lush bougainvillea-lined streets are long shorn of radiance, the potential for it to be that way again is evident. If the current pace of redevelopment continues, and security continues to improve, it shouldn't be that long in the making.

Yet, amongst the rebuilding, there remain many problems to overcome. Glue sniffing children sit amongst their adult counterparts under an overpass declaring 'Keep Mogadishu Safe and Clean'. Brightly and elaborately painted shop fronts spell out in detail what they are selling to a population whose literacy levels have disappeared over twenty long years of conflict. And of course security is critical. IEDs and suicide bombers remain real threats. The April 5th suicide bombing brought home this point, claiming the lives of ten people, including the presidents of Somalia’s Olympic committee and football federation, at Mogadishu's re-opened National Theatre. An IED claimed a life during my stay, and grenades were thrown into Bakara Market and the Turkish Embassy.

Abdullah Abdirahman Abdullah Alif's peace painting hangs on a market street. Half of the painting depicts a grim landscape of war and destruction. The other half shows peace and prosperity. It seems to sum up the crossroads the city is at. Mogadishu has taken a step towards peace, but the war has not yet quite been left altogether behind.

This feature was shot in April & May 2012.

Full edit of 96 images available on request.