Magical Mogadishu | from Bullets to Ballots

Conflict In Context - Field Notes

MOGADISHU – Mad Max Gone Wrong

FEBRUARY 5-7, 2012

My American travel pal told me back in Nairobi that we’d had a deceptively smooth experience in Mogadishu.

Mogadishu is the sort of place that on the surface may strike you as surprisingly safe and peaceful; residents going about their daily business of selling basics in small dukas in big markets, kids playing soccer, men heading to prayer in mosques and so on. Life looks pretty normal — until all of a sudden it’s not. In most places in the word, when things go wrong, it’s not the end of the world.
Central Mogadishu, 2012

Frayed nerves after (non-Somali) thugs in Eastliegh (an outlaw and predominantly Somalisuburb of Nairobi) stole my phone the day before left me convinced that the theft was a sign that I should not launch myself into a war zone.

But I had too many reasons to go – as a recce, an opportunity to travel to one of the world’s most dangerous places with someone well-connected and knowledgeable, to research a story about Shabab recruits (Somalia’s equivalent of Al Qaeda) and to visit Shabelle Media, a team of print and radio journalists in Mogadishu, who’d lost a fellow investigative journalist to assassins two weeks before. To me, he was a friend and mentor and I had been planning finally to meet him face to face.

We wound up not going under the auspices of AMISOM  – the U.S. approved peace-keeping force operated by African Union – that most journalists use but where you’re restricted to an Armed Personnel Carrier (APC). Our fixer tossed us in the Toyota Carolla with our Darth Vader helmets, ceramic flak jackets and a policeman who he grabbed at last minute. Destination – Lido Beach at the opposite end of the city, far from the safety and comfort zone of  Transitional Federal Government (TFG) controlled area known as K4.

Random unpredictability is what’s most dangerous about Mogadishu — we sped through town so as not to be identified and followed. Our fixer’s friends and family scouted the route ahead of time to make sure we didn’t rush into a road side truck bomb or suicide bomber that AS had planned for someone else. My travel pal tells me that we weren’t so much lucky to travel through Mog without a hitch. “More like we weren’t unlucky.”

The layout of Mogadishu is small and compact, not so surprising given that it’s been a war zone since the early ’90s soon after President Siad Barre‘s regime toppled and the country fell into chaos.

The international community does not recognize Somalia as a sovereign country, since it doesn’t have a central government. I’m told this is mainly due in part to the fractured Hatfield and McCoy clan and sub-clan architecture of Somali society. Though some system – however impenetrable to the outside world – lends structure to the culture’s apparent madness.

Until recently, Shabab and various warlords ran this lawless country. In August 2011, the western-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG) – with much-needed help from AMISOM – had taken control of most of the city away from Shabab. Mini militias who protect the warlords still patrol all streets.

Where are the arms coming from?

Our fixer had wisely suggested that we go for our outing after the daily shipment of qhat or miraa (a naturally grown but addictive stimulant grown in Kenya) had arrived. When residents don’t get their qhat fix, he said, they tend to get jittery and start shooting rounds from their AK’s.

I try to find compassion and understanding for the proud and nationalistic Somalis. I want to know the political, spiritual, religious “mandate” of Al Shabab (AS)- the core sanity, reason and spirit behind or within the chaos. What I am learning is that wealthy members of the Somali diaspora latte class (Osama wannabes) recruit local young, poor and uneducated with few options to succeed at life in a failed state. Easy targets for brain-washing. Islamic versions of David Koresh pay them to murder. Latest word is that AS is losing ground and support in Mogadishu because it no longer has the funds to pay these foot soldiers.

On arriving at The Lido beach we promptly got our little saloon car stuck in the sand.

Our little saloon car got stuck in the sand. Curious truck driver asked if we needed help.

Our biggest asset was a diminutive guard, a 19-year old Somali policeman named Abdi. Friends scrutinized a photo that I posted on Facebook of Abdi standing between my travel buddy and me. They said he looked stoned. Couldn’t be farther from the truth. He was small and skinny, sure, but agile, on point, and never missed a beat. I didn’t even know before putting my life in his hands that he was on guard when, about a year ago, a dozen Al Shabab stormed the airport to kill TFG leaders. Abdi opened fire with his AK and alone shot six of them dead.

Later, en route to AMISOM base —

Pulling inside Radio Mogadishu compound for an interview, a Hilux was trying to nudge its way out. Our fixer stopped it and introduced me to two older men with red-beards and dressed in long white robes, who were sitting in the back seat. Though I had greeted them in Arabic, the man closest to where we stood offered a limp-wristed hand and withdrew it the moment I touched it. I assumed his aloofness was a gender thing. The other gentleman sitting farther away nodded instead of shaking hands. One eye seemed to droop lower than the other.

Hizbul Islam
Indha Adde aka “The Butcher”, prominent warlord and former Hizbul Islam leader and TFG’s former Minister of Defense.

As soon as the metal gates clanged shut, our fixer told us we had just met a famous warlord and former Hizbul Islam leader, Indha Adde aka “The Butcher”. He had wanted to make sure guards and the man we had come to interview witnessed our brief encounter with Adde should an “incident” later occur.

A description of Indha Adde from The Nation as follows – “The notorious Somali paramilitary warlord who goes by the nom de guerre Indha Adde, or White Eyes, walks alongside trenches on the outskirts of Mogadishu’s Bakara Market once occupied by fighters from the Shabab, the Islamic militant group that has pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda. In one of the trenches, the foot of a corpse pokes out from a makeshift grave consisting of some sand dumped loosely over the body. One of Indha Adde’s militiamen says the body is that of a foreigner who fought alongside the Shabab. “We bury their dead, and we also capture them alive,” says Indha Adde in a low, raspy voice. “We take care of them if they are Somali, but if we capture a foreigner we execute them so that others will see we have no mercy.”

Trashed side of the cathedral (Margot Kiser, copyright, 2012)

The day after we left Mogadishu, February 8th, we had learned that Al Shabab had announced that it was merging with Al Qaeda . Desperate and cash-strapped Shabab will now acquiesce to Al Qaeda’s control.

The new marriage may not bode well for neighboring Kenya.

On February 13, TFG asked the UN to lift the arms embargo against Somalia.

Central Mogadishu– Much of this Cathedral from Italian Colonial rule remains miraculously intact, though it’s  one of the first zones that TFG recently liberated. Clearly, someone is loving Mogadishu. (Margot Kiser, copyright, 2012)
A few of the team from Shabelle Media Network, where Hassan “Fantastic” worked as a radio host/investigative journalist before gunmen murdered him late January. (Margot Kiser, copyright, 2012)

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