FEBRUARY 5-7, 2012
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. In most places in the word, when things go wrong, it’s not the end of the world.
Frayed nerves after (non-Somali) thugs in Eastliegh (an outlaw and predominantly Somalisuburb of Nairobi) stole my Iphone 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 the Shabab recruits (Somalia’s equivalent of Al Qaida) 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.
For a host of reasons we ended up not going under auspices of AMISOM – the U.S. approved peace-keeping force operated by African Union – that most journalists use and that provides them APC‘s (armed personnel carriers). Instead, Aden our fixer, tossed us in the Toyota Carola with our Darth Vader helmets and flak jackets and a policeman who grabbed at last minute from the AMISOM compound. Destination – Lido Beach far from the safety and comfort zone of Transitional Federal Government (TFG) controlled area known as K4.
Random unpredictability is what’s dangerous about Mogadishu — we sped through town so as not to be identified and followed, though we could just as easily and unwittingly rushed into a road side truck bomb or suicide bomber that AS had planned for someone else. My friend tells me that we weren’t so much lucky to travel through Mog without a hitch. “More like we weren’t unlucky.”
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 Hatfield and McCoy clan architecture of Somalia society that to the western mind may appear fractured. Though some system – however impenetrable to the outside world – lends structure to the apparent madness.
Until recently, Shabab and various warlords had run this lawless country. The western-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG) – with much-needed help from AMISOM – has taken control of most of the city away from Shabab. Mini militias who protect the warlords still patrol all streets.
Aden suggested that we take the outing after the daily shipment of qhat or miraa (a naturally grown but addictive stimulant grown in Kenya) has arrived. When residents don’t get their qhat fix they get testy and start shooting rounds from their AK’s.
I try to find compassion and understanding for these 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 most of the recruits are local young, poor and uneducated with few options to succeed at life in a failed state. Easy targets for brain-washing. Some are just assholes with big guns. Like assholes anywhere. They murder because they are paid and told to do so. Word is that AS is losing ground and support in Mog because it no longer has the funds to pay them.
On arriving at Lido beach on the north end of the city we promptly got our little saloon car stuck in the sand.
Thankfully, 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. Not in a Muslim culture, anyway. 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 open fire with his AK and alone shot dead six of them.
Pulling inside Radio Mogadishu compound for an interview, a Hilux had been trying to nudge its way out. Our fixer, stopped it and introduced us — me in my capacity as a journalist – to two older men with red-beards and dressed in long white robes 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 of his eyes drooped more than the other.
Of the two men one more notorious than the other. Aden wanted to be sure we were introduced to the Islamist warlords should an incident occur.
Here’s a brief description of Indha Adde —
From The Nation – “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.”