Behind the sandbags, blast barriers, barbed wires and high walls, are impressive modern buildings in Somalia’s capital city. Despite the country struggling with war and drought, there is a strong pride in being Somali.
Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, is reportedly one of the most dangerous places in the world, off limits to most foreigners and a risky place for Somali government officials. Travel advisories don’t mince their words: “Do not travel to Somalia, due to armed conflict, the ongoing very high threat of terrorist attacks and kidnapping, and dangerous levels of violent crime,” they read.
For more than three decades Somalia has battled terrorism, drought, famine and war. A drive through its capital throws up reminders of the past in the form of bullet-ridden buildings and smashed concrete rubble that has been pushed to the side of the streets. In the middle of a main intersection where two truck bombings five years ago killed 587 people and injured 316, a donkey stands chewing on garbage, unfazed by the armed convoys driving past.
Four kilometers from the Green Zone, which is how distance is measured in this war-torn city, the once tarred roads are covered with sand and dust due to years of neglect. Styled on the Baghdad safe zone, the heavily-guarded security zone around Aden Adde airport is controlled by government security forces who man the checkpoints in and out.
It’s dangerous for non-Somalis to move around the capital. Most embassy, United Nations and NGO staff hold their meetings inside the Green Zone. Attacks by the al-Shabaab militant group have increased since the president recently ramped up an offensive against them and the areas of Somalia they control.
If you’re planning a trip to the capital, your first point of call is a security company. During my visit they advised me not to leave the secure compound where I slept and ate, at any time, for anything, without informing them.
Even a trip inside the Green Zone saw me being driven in a heavily-armed vehicle, wearing a bulletproof vest, as part of a convoy with six local contractors armed with AK47, riding in the front.
It wasn’t always like this. For millennia, this ancient port city connected traders across the Indian Ocean. In the 1800s, the country was colonized by Britain and Italy and the faded facades of mostly Italian architecture can be seen on some of the buildings.
While independence came in 1960, decades of civil war followed that virtually destroyed the economy and infrastructure and split Somalia into areas under the rule of various entities. Since the late 2000s, the
US military has supported the government in its counter-terrorism operations as part of the ongoing ‘Global War on Terror’ that followed the September 11 attacks in 2001.
This has translated into more security and soldiers on the roads.
The struggle to survive underlies the friendliness and graciousness of the population. Soft-spoken and extremely polite, the Somalis I meet are those who work in the security compound that is my temporary home, as well as government officials and businessmen in their elaborate offices. It’s strange but behind the sandbags, blast barriers, barbed wires and high walls, are impressive modern buildings.
We arrive at one in a more rural part of the Mogadishu outskirts after passing a man sauntering down the road with an AK47 assault rifle casually slung over his shoulder. The driver confirms he’s alShabaab.
Driving into the complex, two watchguards are fast asleep on dirty mattresses in the garden, using their PK machine guns as pillows. They yawn, eye us, turn over and go back to sleep.
March and April are the hottest seasons and temperatures can soar to 34 degrees with 83% humidity. In a few months, unless something drastic and unforeseen happens, the country will be battling its sixth consecutive drought season. Dotted around the capital are camps for internally-displaced people that date back years but which still see newcomers arriving on a daily basis. The orange tarpaulin stick-framed structures shelter the estimated 1.3 million people who’ve moved here from other parts of the country. Eighty percent are women and children.
My security detail prevents me from leaving the safety of an armed Land Cruiser whenever we are on the roads. The vehicle fights its way through checkpoints, competing with an endless stream of mostly red three-wheeled bajajis (tuk-tuks) careering around – by far the most popular mode of transport in Mogadishu.
Through the bulletproof windows, hand-painted shops and garage signs bring color and vibrancy to the streets. New coffee houses are springing up in an attempt to introduce a sense of normality to the beleaguered capital. Women carry bundles of firewood on their heads as they walk along the pavements in their colorful hijabs while men play boardgames, lounging outside on plastic chairs.
Dromedary camels are in the middle of everything, often resting in the shade of a palm tree. I wish I could see more. I wish I could walk these streets and chat with the vendors who are endlessly curious to see foreigners. The country has a lot to offer. There are a number of historical sites, beaches, waterfalls, mountain ranges and national parks. After dozens of meetings and a brief glimpse into Somali life, it’s the resilience and optimism of the people that touches me the most.
I’m showered with a lot of hospitality and care, and despite the country struggling with war and drought, there is a strong pride in being Somali. Down-to-earth, people here are generally happy with what they have. There might be a lack of development and overwhelming challenges but as more than one Somali told me: “I only have one passport and this is my home, I have no intention of going anywhere else.”