Frontline Mogadishu

Frontline Mogadishu

“Salam Aleikum!”, “Aleikum Salam”. “Peace be with you!” “Peace be upon you.” The airport official picks up the passport, turns the pages with melodramatic deliberation, then inks his stamp and tattoos the document with the words “Federal Republic of Somalia” and again “Peace be with you!” At some latitudes it is not a simple greeting, a routine expression, but an extreme appeal, a one-way ticket to a present that knows no future, because where peace does not exist, it has no meaning. And so it is that, on emerging from the airport, Mogadishu overwhelms you with its violence, its warfare and its hellish present. The wind from the Indian Ocean sets the sands on the seafront dancing and twirls the folds of the women’s hijabs with its gusts as the chanting rises from the minarets. And now, after you pass the first check-point, the images of Somalia’s history arise before you, seeming to freeze the passing of time with its soldiers, gutted houses and pick-ups with machine guns poking over the tailgates. Twenty years of civil war have left a trail of failed leaders and bit players emerging as big names, warlords and jihadists. Tragedy on the stage of reality: Mogadi-show.

In 1991 Somalia crumbled into chaos. Siad Barre’s regime collapsed and the country was carved up between clans and warlords. The two main factions fighting each other were those of the warlords Aidid and Ali Mahdi. The UN and the United States sent contingents in an attempt to restore normality to this part of the Horn of Africa. The mission failed, the international contingents were withdrawn and the mission was remembered for for the shooting down of the Black Hawks and human casualties. Somalia then continued to be a prey to the armed anarchy of militias and a famine that took a further toll of the people. The country’s failure also undermined attempts at reconstruction. The pervasive insecurity and lack of any form of state control led to the rise of the Islamic Courts Union. And with the appearance of the Islamist group, the al-Shabaab jihadist faction became established and imposed its control even on the capital, with its entrenched precepts: obscurantism as dogmatic conduct of life, sharia as the only law, death as the punishment for heresy.


And so Somalia began to know the horror of the men in black, who made inflexible hatred a faith to kill and be killed for, with pleasurable indulgence. There followed the clashes between the guerrillas of the “Holy War” and the international contingent of the African Union. In 2012 the AMISOM (African Union Mission in Somalia) troops forced the Islamists to withdraw from many strongholds, but the war did not come to an end. A country where 500,000 people have been killed, which has one million internal refugees, and another million who have fled abroad, today sees the conflict continuing. Al-Shabaab is now going through structural difficulties and has suffered severe setbacks, but it continues to strike and does so in increasingly targeted ways. In the former Italian colony, insecurity persists fomented by the conflict and the lack of state services. In addition, the government of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has failed in its aim of guiding the nation to the 2016 elections, but has accentuated the problems of corruption and clan divisions.


As you walk through the city, past Via Roma and what remains of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the signs of war are everywhere. The twenty-year conflict has imposed its own stigmata: on the pock-marked buildings, in the tents housing refugees camped amid the rubble and in the lives of those who display their maimed bodies, begging passers-by for pity and a few shillings. Stalls are set out with a sparse display of goods, barefoot boys run between the intersections and the smell of spices and sea spray are wafted over the capital. The checkpoints are ubiquitous. The streets in the centre are guarded by government troops. Police officers and an African Union convoy block the street outside the old National Theatre. A government meeting is being held at Villa Somalia and the troops are on high alert for possible attacks and assassination attempts. Every vehicle and every person passing down the streets near the Parliament building is held in the merciless sights of a Kalashnikov or a machine gun. Psychosis and suspicion are everywhere.


The men guarding the headquarters of Radio Kulmiye, not far from the seat of the government, are drawn up in front of the entrance. They keep their guns trained on the access roads and, without lowering their AK47s, they allow us to enter the offices. We are told to keep away from the windows and walk up the stairs quickly to the top floor and so to the roof. A man is addressing his prayers to Allah. Then, through a door surmounted by the Somali flag, he enters the editorial office. “Somalia is going through an extremely delicate phase. On the one hand, the war goes on, with al-Shabaab continuing to strike at the government troops, reporters and AMISOM soldiers, but on the other hand the civilian population is showing tangible signs of their desire for change. We reporters are in the front line. Both in the efforts towards a cessation of hostilities and because we are victims of the violence of the jihadists, who declare war on anyone who fails to support their cause.”

The speaker is Burhan Dini Farah, deputy director of the radio station. Seated at a desk in his office, he reveals an amputated arm, the sacrifice of a lifetime spent refusing to lose heart and displaying a perseverance that transforms utopia into a pragmatic reason for living. “We keep a close watch on everything that happens in Mogadishu and the rest of the country. We have journalists in the various cities, but our investigative journalism has led us to suffer five attacks.” Since 2012, suicide bombers have blown themselves up at the entrance to the radio station, five journalists have been killed and many others injured. On a banner the faces of the reporters murdered by the Islamist guerrillas are imprinted to their enduring memory. But the staff of the radio station continue to prepare the news, waiting outside the studio for it to be broadcast. Among them, ready to read his story is Nur Mohamed Ali, who lost both legs in an explosion. “We are continually threatened and we realise there could be an ambush or a new attack any day, but we can’t give up. Information is the prime mover for a different future.”

The Somali journalists shun rhetoric. It is out of the question when proclamations and imperatives of conduct are also a death sentence for those who elevate them to a rule of life. Instead, it is a secular surah, recited by those who have embraced the belief that intellectual courage can forge a genuine future of peace.

The same desire for change is expressed by the soldiers in the government army. They are camped 4 km away. Their faces reveal their position as soldiers of the essential. We see few weapons, little ammunition, torn uniforms and hear simplistic explanations of the war. They are all between 20 and 30 years old, volunteers who chose to enlist, indifferent to death. The exegesis of a war that, like a disease, has infected every identity. The first conflict war the soldiers are fighting is against their own history.


They want to decapitate the present, bury the past and wage war to reclaim a history they have never had, prisoners of a conflict that seems to have devoured their faces and hardened their hearts. “We don’t know what peace is. We were born in the war and today we’ve decided to fight to ensure it ends,” in the words of Captain Mohamed Sheick. His men are sitting drinking tea and chewing qat, a stimulant that appeases hunger and creates a state of constant exaltation. “We’re not frightened and we want Somalia to stop being a place of conflict.” The men are indifferent to the shots heard in the distance. In that land where even the air is seeping with hatred, misery and terror, they move without fear and scrutinise every movement with inquiring eyes that seem to pierce the curtain of the future, of which they already feel they are the masters. “We’ll win, in fact we’ve already won. Al-Shabaab has been defeated. All it will take is the final blow.”


But a few days later we hear news of an attack on the Sahafi Hotel. Hours of fighting between al-Shabaab militants and government troops supported by the African Union. The final toll is 15 dead. Again shots and explosions in Mogadishu, yet death is beginning, timidly, to be exorcised from the capital by the people, who venture to improvise plans for their lives. The fault lines in Mogadishu are deep. The city is criss-crossed by red areas, no-go neighbourhoods like Bakaara market, which harbours al-Shabaab spies and collaborators. But the city is also the old port and the waterfront, where fishermen bearing sharks on their shoulders tramp between the pier and the market stalls, families go out walking and boys play football. Inside the tormented city, refugees and armed militiamen alternate with street vendors and students returning from school. Every moment of daily life is whipped by the ever-present wind that blows in from the Indian Ocean, taking the city from behind and billowing the sails of this land on the Horn of Africa, driving it along a route still unknown. Either towards an unimaginable tomorrow or else to drift in the abyss of its interminable drama.