Mogadishu: Desolate but still standing

Saturday December 17 2011

An abandoned house in a city district with squatters all around it

I arrived in Somalia’s capital city in late November 2011. My first view of the city as the plane approached the airport was that of the city’s crystal clear turquoise beaches devoid of human habitation. Upon landing, I saw the remnants of a Russian cargo plane brought down recently by Al Shabaab that sits near the runway like a museum piece. The Amisom camp is near the airport, but I was not headed there. I was booked at the Safari Hotel in the K5 district, which was once a thriving commercial area in pre-war Mogadishu. The gate to the hotel was guarded by armed men. Groups of men sat chatting in the hotel’s relatively sage courtyard while sipping coffee.

Occasionally, I heard gunshots from outside my hotel window, but people told me that I needn’t be afraid – they were probably coming from the weapons market nearby where customers routinely test guns before purchasing them. Mogadishu is now safe, they assured me, since Ugandan and Burundian soldiers from the African Mission in Somalia (Amisom) succeeded in forcing the dreaded Al Shabaab from the city three months earlier.

I was not so sure. There seemed to be too many young men driving and walking around with guns. Some even carried their bullet cases around their necks like long necklaces.

Mogadishu has suffered the worst of the two decade long civil war. Everywhere, there were shells of once magnificent buildings that used to house government offices, museums, cinemas, theatres, mosques, cathedrals and libraries. But there were signs of hope even among the ruins. Small shops – many run by women – had sprung up among the rubble, and in some parts of the city business was booming. Mobile connectivity is widespread in Mogadishu. In fact, it is estimated that Somalis are among the most mobile phone connected people in Eastern Africa.

But other services were clearly lacking. Mohamoud Nur, the Mayor of Mogadishu and Governor of Somalia’s Benadir region, who has been described as “the man with the most dangerous job in the world,” told me that when he was appointed by Transitional Federal Government as mayor in June 2010, the city had no public services, no garbage collection, no street lighting, no functioning sewage system, no firefighting truck, no ambulance and no clean water. People were digging wells to get water, which carried the risk of contamination. There was not a single broom in the municipality to clean the streets with, and no wheelbarrow or equipment. Services were being provided by private companies to people who could afford them.

The city is still largely in this condition but since he became mayor, Nur has successfully lit up many streets in Mogadishu and removed the many piles of garbage around the city.


“I still have a long way to go but I realise that change is not just physical but psychological as well,” Nur told me when I went to visit him at his heavily-guarded home in Mogadishu. “I need to change the mentality of the people. Before, people were self-defeating; they believed that life will never change. I am fighting a battle of minds.”

The mayor is on a mission to restore faith among the city’s desperate inhabitants. “People tell me that the residents of Mogadishu are like people locked in a dark box with no windows, doors or toilets who hear horrible sounds outside the box. They stay in the box waiting for someone to release them. They hold on to their dignity for as long as they can but eventually give up. So their environment becomes filthy and ugly. Psychologically, they begin to accept this as normal. They need to know that they can break the box – they need hope.”

Mogadishu, or Moga, as the locals call it, literally means “The Seat of the Shah.” The city has a long history that dates back to the 10th century when Arab and Persian traders began settling there. Historical documents indicate that the city was an important hub for trade with communities along the Indian Ocean coastline. When the famous Moroccan traveller Ibn Batuta arrived in Mogadishu in 1331, he described it as “an exceedingly large city” where prosperous merchants sold the finest cloth and other luxury items. Later, in the early 20th century and after the First World War, the city was under the control of Italy until Somalia gained independence in 1960.

Mogadishu’s fortunes began to wane with the start of the civil war in 1991, which saw various clans and factions fighting for control of the city. For the next two decades, bloody battles were fought on Mogadishu’s wide boulevards and in its historical buildings. Wars destroy cities, and Mogadishu is no exception.

Abdullahi Mohamud Ahmed, a Somali businessman resident in the United States who was on a short visit to the city, told me that when he was growing up in Mogadishu in the 1960s and ‘70s, the city was a vibrant, multicultural, hospitable place that had a strong sense of solidarity and good neighbourliness. “Today, Mogadishu is naked,” he said, “stripped of all its good qualities.”

Shamis Elmi, the mayor’s wife who recently relocated to Mogadishu from London to join her husband, talked nostalgically of the Italian coffee shops and restaurants which she frequented as young girl. The waterfront where she and her classmates went to hang out is now a sad and desolate place devoid of girly chatter.

Nostalgia for pre-war Somalia is evident not just among Somalis who live in the diaspora, but even among those come as visitors. Abdi Latif Dahir, a Kenyan Somali who lived in Mogadishu at the height of the civil war in 1997, recalled going to school in one of Mogadishu’s bloodiest neighbourhoods where clan fighting and incessant killing was the order of the day. “We were shot at almost daily for the first four years in the school bus and muttered prayers every time a bullet went off,” he told me over a cup of cappuccino at a Nairobi coffee house. Abdi remembers spending a lot of time at home reading because he couldn’t go out. But despite the horrors that he witnessed, he still misses Mogadishu.

What is this crazy love for this city among its old residents? Those who lived there in the 1970s and ‘80s said they loved it for its sophisticated, cosmopolitan urban culture. One old-time resident showed me the lawns of the once-famous Juba Hotel where the mayor and his wife used to go for New Year’s Eve celebrations. The hotel is now gutted and squatters are living in its spacious lawns.

Returning Somalis mourn the “villagisation” of Mogadishu by internally displaced rural people and pastoralists, who now squat – with their animals – in the remnants of once beautiful homes and buildings. Many old-time residents believe that the rural folk and pastoralists have little appreciation of city life, and will never truly become urbanized. Most will not return to their villages either, even when peace returns.

As I passed a group of children sitting on a bullet-ridden porch I wondered what it must be like to have known nothing but war all your life. How would these children adapt when – or if – the city returns to normal? What, if anything, would they miss about the city where they grow up? Which memories would they want to hold on to, and which ones would they want to forget?

Nur believes that the struggle for Mogadishu will eventually be led by the city’s women. Women, he said, hold society together; when men go to war, they become the breadwinners. “Women have always supported the cause of Somalia,” he told me while sipping a glass of camel milk (which he kindly offered to me but which I politely declined). “Unfortunately, women are highly under-represented in the current government. I personally believe that the next president of Somalia should be a woman.”

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