Somalia's deadliest explosion, one year on

Sunday October 14 2018

A monument erected at the Zoppe junction

A monument erected at the Zoppe junction Mogadishu in remembrance of the October 14, 2017 explosion that claimed over 500 lives. ABDULKADIR KHALIF | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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To many people, October 14 will for a long time remain the darkest day in Somalia's recent history. It was the day Mogadishu, the capital of the war-torn Horn of Africa, state suffered its deadliest attack.

Though no group has claimed responsibility for the tragedy that claimed no fewer than 500 lives, the Somali government blamed the jihadist group, the Al-Shabaab, for the huge blast.

Mr Mohamed Shire was in his office at the AFC Building when one of the four windows suddenly swung open. “Before I even realised what happened, I felt a warm air through the open window,” recalled Mr Shire.

“The glasses of several of doors of adjacent offices were also shattered,” he added.

At first, Mr Shire believed it was an attack on the AFC Building and speculated what to do to save his skin. He was acting on the experience that hotels and other premises were often targeted by the Al-Shabaab.

May have died

Within minutes, the local media reported the big explosion that occurred at the Zoppe junction, stating that at least 20 people may have died, with the possibility of the casualty figures increasing.

Indeed, by the next day, the death rose to 100, by far the biggest single loss of lives in a single day in Mogadishu. However, as reports of recovered bodies came in, the death toll shoot up to 300.

The Somali government soon instituted an ad hoc support coordination committee, led by a seasoned civil society actor, Mr Abdullahi Mohamed Shirwa.

As volunteers and emergency staff went through the rubble of the collapsed buildings and vehicles turned into shells, more and more bodies were recovered.

For days, ambulance personnel and firefighters were kept busing the dead and the injured, making the sound of their sirens become familiar.

The state committee continued releasing figures of deaths and the wounded.

Grant easy access

“In the end, we realised that 587 persons died and in total, more than a 1,000 were affected,” reported the committee after a month.

The committee also gave an estimate of the missing persons, presumed dead.

Information gradually emerging indicated that a lorry with deadly explosives came from the direction of Afgoye District, 30km south of Mogadishu. According to records, the lorry passed through a number of checkpoints before causing the big explosion at Zoppe junction. It first stopped at Siinka Dheer, 18km south of Mogadishu, and was allowed to proceed after a surety was granted by known person that the vehicle and its cargo were safe.

The forces manning the Ex-control checkpoint, about 7km from the city centre, allowed the lorry to proceed on the strength of the clearance it had obtained from the Siinka Dheer checkpoint.

However, at Sei-Piano checkpoint, the lorry was parked for several hours, officers refusing to grant easy access to the city.

At one point in the afternoon, the driver who by then grew very nervous, decided to defy all rules and jumped into the cabin. He drove towards Banadir crossroads where other security forces tried to stop it, the seemingly determined driver ignored and drove on until he was very close to the usually busy Zoppe junction.

Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed

Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed Farmajo. FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

A CCTV camera clip released several days after the incident showed security officers chasing after the lorry, trying to prevent the driver from continuing the journey.

The moment, however, came when the explosive-laden lorry crushed against all sorts of vehicles in a traffic snarl-up, with each trying to negotiate its way out.

A T-junction that a moment earlier looked harmless to motorists, passengers, pedestrians and sellers and buyers of goods, suddenly turned into a giant inferno.

Hotels, buildings housing offices and street-side-stalls turned into unrecognisable images, akin to those taken from Japan’s Hiroshima City in the aftermath of the 1945 nuclear bombing.

By far, the biggest number of Somali families lost their loved ones or found them badly injured. The blast affected mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, cousins, friends and other relatives.

The airwaves

Within an hour of the terrible tremor attack, news over the airwaves claimed the dead included Mr Abukar Mohumed Dahiye, the then Somalia's Commerce and Industry Permanent Secretary. He was staying at the badly damaged Safri Hotel. Other horrible tales subsequently emerged.

The blast was so powerful that the scene was cleared of tens of vehicles, as pieces of metal were scattered hundreds of metres away. Even the tricycle taxis, locally known as bajaaj, were found on top of tall structures like Zoppe Building.

“I am wondering about the kind of force that lifted vehicles weighing over a ton to such height,” remarked Hassan Mohamed, a journalist in Mogadishu.

Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo was among the state officials who inspected the site, promising help while countries like Turkey and Qatar rushed to offer medical assistance..

The horror

A Canadian Somali, Mr Mohamed Osman Malin, who is currently visiting Mogadishu said: “On October 14 last year, I was in Toronto’s Dickson Area when I heard about the explosion. But, at first I thought it was like any other.

“A day later, I felt a chill sensation when I realised the extent of the horror,” he added.

Mr Abdullahi Mohmoud Ali Sanbalolshe, the former director of the Somali Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA), said the vehicle that caused the death of hundreds was heading towards a new military academy built by Turkey for the Somali National

Army (SNA) at Jazeera Area, at the southern edge of Mogadishu.

“We received credible information that the truck was assembled by Al-Shabaab and was made so powerful to destroy the new Jazeera Academy,” said Mr Sanbalolshe.